ByMark Newton, writer at
Movie Pilot Associate Editor. Email: [email protected]
Mark Newton

Books, especially ones on which the copyright has expired, have always a deep well from which the movie industry can draw ideas for their next Oscar season contender, or occasionally Hollywood blockbuster -- I'm looking at you Dan Brown.

Although some books can be easily adapted to the big screen -- I'm still looking at you Dan Brown -- others are simply too complex, too controversial and sometimes too damn dense to be easily turned into a movie. However, it turns out there are some directors (and studio executives) out there who refuse to back down from such bold challenges. Here are 7 book adaptations which were said to be 'unfilmable'.

1. The Lord of the Rings

Tolkien was one of the first to proclaim his magnum opus, The Lord of the Rings, was unfilmable, and in its purest form, it probably was. Let's be honest, if a completely 100% accurate movie adaptation of The Lord of the Rings was made it would be even longer and probably not as fun -- partly thanks to all that damn infernal singing!

However, it seems the main concern was technological based, with few of Tolkien's contemporaries thinking the vast and diverse world of Middle Earth could be rendered on the big screen. Apparently, even the pointy ears of the elves presented an insurmountable obstacle.

The Balrog was probably an issue too.
The Balrog was probably an issue too.

It seems the success of Star Trek (with Spock's elf-like ear prosthetics) changed things however, as in 1969 The Beatles apparently wanted to appear in a Lord of the Rings adaptation with the foursome playing the Hobbits. Stanley Kubrick was apparently on board to direct before even he backed down from the challenge. In the end, the mystical world of Tolkien's creation would be represented in an animated movie.

Luckily, by the time New Line Cinema gained the rights in 1996, technology had advanced enough to at least make The Lord of the Rings possible. Thanks to Peter Jackson's artful cutting and slicing of the original story, he created a trilogy which is now loved the world over.

2. The Watchmen

The Watchmen author, Alan Moore, certainly hopes all his works are unfilmable as he pre-emptively disowns all movie adaptations of his comic-books, including From Hell, V For Vendetta and Watchmen. For example, in the case of the latter graphic novel, Moore reportedly told one-time director Terry Gilliam that Watchmen was indeed unfilmable.

Prior to Zack Snyder's adaptation, studio executives and comic-book lovers alike felt that Watchmen was simply too complex, too long and perhaps even too dark to be accurately recreated as a big screen blockbuster. Furthermore, as this i09 article from prior to Watchmen's release testified, many felt that certain narrative devices used by Watchmen were unique to the paper and ink version.

The jury is still out on whether Snyder proved Moore wrong or not. For one thing, Watchmen is clearly a relatively accurate adaptation, with some scenes directly mirroring the comic-book panels. Others, however, suggest it's bloated and overlong, proving that the original source material can not effectively work in a single movie.

3. The Call of Cthulhu

Although arguably creating a genre unto himself, H.P. Lovecraft's stories have always been difficult to recreate on the big screen.

For example, if we disregard the fairly obvious racist overtones in some of his short stories, we're still left with tales that are often use winding and criss-crossing narratives that spend a lot of time in libraries, university campuses, archeological societies, and occasionally, dream-like worlds.

One of Lovecraft's most famous stories, The Call of Cthulhu is a prime example of this. One the surface the story is told by Francis Wayland Thurston, who learns about the Cthulhu Cult from the papers of his deceased great uncle. The uncle himself, is relaying a story he heard from a New Orleans detective, who himself is relaying a story he learned from a prisoner. Throw in a few more professors, a Norwegian sailor and a nightmare-ridden sculptor and you've got a narrative thread which is almost impossible to accurately show on film - especially when you consider the whole thing is told from the first person and frequently uses newspaper clippings to fill in the gaps.

However, although the major studio's have not been brave enough to tackle Lovecraft's best known story, a group of independent filmmakers were. Back in 2005, Andrew Leman directed a silent-film version of The Call of Cthulhu which was designed to look like a 1920s adaptation of the story. By using this novel method, Leman managed to avoid many of the pitfalls of the story and present something in keeping with Lovecraft's style. According to Paul di Filippo of Science Fiction Weekly, this creative decision makes "it the best HPL adaptation to date". Check out the trailer below:

4. The Silence of the Lambs

Back in the 1980s, studio executives also felt Thomas Harris' cannibal-thriller, The Silence of the Lambs was also impossible to accurately depict on the big screen, most notably due to its graphic portrayal of murder and cannibalism.

Although such topics have long been the preoccupation with slasher horror and 'video nasties', it was felt The Silence of the Lambs might just be too extreme for Mr and Mrs Joe Public.

To get around this issue, director Jonathan Demme, decided not to dwell on these acts, but to rely on the abilities of his cast, notably Anthony Hopkins, to create a macabre character who was capable of the actions he simply described. In this sense, he was able to keep in all the horror of the novel, without having to actually show it. The fact it won all the five major Oscars that year is a testament to how successful his concept was.

5. The Orchid Thief/Adaptation

I'm cheating a bit with this one, but the film is simply too good to pass up. While making Being John Malkovich in 1999, screen-writer Charlie Kaufman was approached to adapt Susan Orleans upcoming non-fiction, The Orchid Thief.

However, upon trying to write the script, Kaufman contracted severe writer's block and was unable to adapt the book into a viable story that would work on big screen. Faced with this, he did something rather crazy. He decided to instead write a movie about himself trying to write an adaptation of The Orchid Thief.

By adding himself (and a fictional twin brother) into the plot, as well as exaggerating other aspects of his life at the time, Kaufman ended up creating one of his best works, whilst simultaneously also telling the story of the original book. He thought it might end his career, instead it earned him, somewhat ironically, a best adapted screenplay Oscar nominations.

6. Life of Pi

One of the great things about literature is that as long as can put a concept into words, it can exist. Want to stick a tiger, a hyena, a zebra and an orangutan on a boat? Easy, go for it. The problem comes when you want to render those concepts on screen.

Yann Martel's Life of Pi presented this issue as soon as its rights were bought in 2001. Because of this, it took 11 years before anyone could work out how to actually film it. Ang Lee was attached from about half-way through this process, and insisted the animals could be recreated with special effects, as could almost all of movie. To do this, however, he needed a budget of $100 million, which studio execs were reluctant to cough up.

Check out the Life of Pi trailer below:

Luckily, they eventually gave in to his demands which allowed Lee to create one of the closest movie adaptations we've seen in a long time. The studio also made their money back, as Life of Pi went to generate over $550 million worldwide.

7. Cloud Atlas

David Mitchell's period-sprawling epic Cloud Atlas also stumped studio executives after the book's release in 2004, primarily because the story jumps from the 19th century South Pacific, to an apocalyptic future and pretty much everywhere in between.

However, this didn't deter the Wachowskis or Tom Tykwer, who teamed up to deliver the screen adaptation of the novel. It did, however, deter investors and the film had some major problems acquiring the large budget it needed to create all the diverse scenes. In the end, they managed to pull together $102 million from mostly private investors, making it most expensive independent movie of all time.

Check out the Cloud Atlas trailer below:

In the end, the directorial gang did manage to recreate the gargantuan and complex story in a single film, primarily through keeping the same actors for each time period. If they did this effectively or not is probably up to who you ask. Cloud Atlas was extremely polarizing and appeared on both Best and Worst Film lists in 2012. For his part, author David Mitchell claimed the film was "magnificent" and praised the teams reworking of his novel to work on the big screen.


Latest from our Creators