11 Famous Books That Have Proven Impossible to Film
The Fault in Our Stars. Gone Girl. Wild. Hidden Figures. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Many of our most beloved and successful movies are adaptations of similarly beloved books. But just because a book reads well doesn’t mean it will film well (see: Dune), which is why history is filled with much-beloved books that have proven impossible to film—though not always from a lack of trying. Here are 11 of them.
1. A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES
Filmmakers have been attempting to turn John Kennedy Toole’s 1980 novel, which traces the exploits of “slob extraordinary” Ignatius J. Reilly and his mom in New Orleans, into a movie nearly since it was published. At various times throughout the past 34 years, a series of big names have been attached to the film—or at least rumored to be attached—including Harold Ramis, John Waters, Steven Soderbergh, John Belushi, John Candy, Chris Farley, John Goodman, Will Ferrell, and Zach Galifianakis. Soderbergh told Vulture in early 2013 that “I think it’s cursed. I’m not prone to superstition, but that project has got bad mojo on it.”
It seems like an adaptation of the book itself will never get made, but Cary Elwes, Susan Sarandon, and Nick Offerman have signed on for the film adaptation of Butterfly in the Typewriter, Cory MacLauchlin's book about Toole's attempts to get Dunces published. Toole’s mother found a carbon copy of the manuscript following the author’s suicide; 11 years later, it was finally published by LSU Press (with the help of The Moviegoer author Walker Percy, whom Toole’s mother pestered endlessly to read it) in 1980. In 1981, it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
2. ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE
It’s not that there aren’t a ton of filmmakers out there who would love the opportunity to turn Gabriel García Márquez’s epic tome of love and loss as seen through seven generations of a family into next year’s Oscar bait. And there are certainly millions of fans of the novel, which has been translated into 37 languages since its 1967 publication, who would happily fork over $15 to see it play out on the big screen. The biggest hurdle with adapting this one is the author himself, who passed away in April. Despite many approaches, he remained steadfast in refusing to sell the book’s movie rights—though he did tell Harvey Weinstein that he’d sell the rights to him and director Giuseppe Tornatore under one condition: “We must film the entire book, but only release one chapter—two minutes long—each year, for 100 years,” according to Weinstein.
3. THE CATCHER IN THE RYE
J.D. Salinger’s 1951 coming of age novel is yet another iconic title that had its movie rights carefully guarded by its author, who passed away in 2010. Many believe that Salinger’s reluctance to see it adapted was a result of the disaster that was My Foolish Heart, Mark Robson’s 1949 movie based on Salinger’s Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut. And while the number of filmmakers who have expressed interest in adapting the book reads like the most epic Hollywood dinner party ever assembled—think Billy Wilder, Elia Kazan, Marlon Brando, Steven Spielberg, Jack Nicholson, Terrence Malick, and Leonardo DiCaprio—Salinger was always concerned that the book’s narration wouldn’t translate to film. And he didn’t want to be around to see the potentially disastrous results. However, in a 1957 letter Salinger did say that he’d be open to a posthumous adaptation, noting that: “Firstly, it is possible that one day the rights will be sold. Since there’s an ever-looming possibility that I won’t die rich, I toy very seriously with the idea of leaving the unsold rights to my wife and daughter as a kind of insurance policy. It pleasures me no end, though, I might quickly add, to know that I won’t have to see the results of the transaction.”
4. INFINITE JEST
Set in a futuristic version of America, David Foster Wallace’s complex and occasionally rambling satire touches on a range of difficult themes, including depression, child abuse, and addiction. It’s also more than 1000 pages long, and the product of one of the great postmodernist writers of our time. The story gets even stranger when you learn that actor Curtis Armstrong, best known for playing Booger in the Revenge of the Nerds franchise, actually wrote an adaptation of the book for HBO, which was never produced. But shortly after Wallace tragically died by suicide in 2008, reports began surfacing that the author was working on an adaptation of the book with filmmaker Sam Jones. The irony, of course, is that Infinite Jest is about a movie (called Infinite Jest) that is so all-engrossing that all anyone who has seen it wants to do is watch it again and again and again … until he or she dies. Fun fact: In 2013, an episode of Parks and Recreation came about as close to an adaptation of the book as we’ve yet seen.
5. WHAT MAKES SAMMY RUN?
Inspired by his producer and studio executive dad B.P. Schulberg, Budd Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run?—about an unscrupulous kid (Sammy Glick) who works his way up from copy boy to screenwriter—is a brilliant take on the inner workings of the entertainment industry. And while Hollywood usually loves a good meta story, the only successful adaptations of Schulberg’s 1941 novel (so far) have been a couple of television productions and a long-running Broadway musical that debuted in 1964 and was revived in 2006. While Dreamworks paid $2.6 million for the rights to adapt the book on behalf of Ben Stiller in 2001, no start date has been announced. In 2007, two years before his death, Schulberg told The Jewish Daily Forward that “I still think there’s a sense that it’s too anti-industry” and that while “Ben [Stiller] still talks about how he would like to do it … I’m not holding my breath.”
Believe it or not, there is a Philip K. Dick novel that has yet to be made into a movie—which isn’t to say that no one has tried to adapt Ubik, a 1969 sci-fi tale of telepathy and moon colonization (set in the then-futuristic year of 1992). As early as 1974, filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin commissioned Dick to adapt his own work for filming. Dick finished the script in less than a month; though it was never produced, it was published in 1985 as Ubik: The Screenplay. In 2006, A Scanner Darkly producer Tommy Pallotta announced that he was readying the film for production. In 2011, it was Michel Gondry who was confirmed to be at the helm … until 2014, when Gondry told The Playlist that he was no longer working on it.
7. THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER & CLAY
Considering both his popularity and prolificacy, it’s surprising that more of Michael Chabon’s work has not been given the big-screen treatment (Wonder Boys and The Mysteries of Pittsburgh are the two exceptions). But given the unique mix of history, coming-of-age-ness, and comic books in this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel—about two Jewish cousins who become big deals in the comic book biz—the fact that The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is 18 years old and still not a movie seems even more astounding. Especially because producer Scott Rudin bought the rights to it before the book was even published (he was sold based on a one-and-a-half page pitch). By 2002, Chabon had written six drafts of the script. Sydney Pollack was reportedly in active development on it at one point, and Jude Law, Tobey Maguire, Natalie Portman, Jamie Bell, Ryan Gosling, Jason Schwartzman, and Andrew Garfield were all bandied about as possible stars. In 2004, Oscar-nominated director Stephen Daldry (The Hours) announced his plans to direct the film the following year. In 2013, Daldry was still talking up the project, telling Collider that he thought it would make an amazing HBO miniseries. No word as to whether HBO got the memo.
8. BLOOD MERIDIAN
Cormac McCarthy’s very specific cadence isn’t the easiest thing to adapt, as many of Hollywood’s most talented directors have discovered (some of whom have had more success with translating his work to film than others). But Blood Meridian, the author’s 1985 anti-Western that follows a teenage runaway known as “the kid,” has proven to be a particular challenge, in large part due to finding a way to incorporate the novel’s excessive violence in an organic and non-exploitative way. But that didn’t stop James Franco from trying. In July, to celebrate the release of his adaptation of McCarthy’s Child of God, the omnipresent actor-writer-director-model-professor-student-etc. shared a 25-minute test he shot of Blood Meridian on VICE. So far, no takers.
9. PARADISE LOST
Though Christian-themed content has found much success at the box office, a true adaptation of John Milton’s epic blank verse poem poses a number of inherent problems, at least from a production perspective. First, there’s the challenge of casting God and Satan and Adam and Eve as main characters. Then there’s that pesky business of nakedness, "which would be a big problem for a big studio movie,” producer Vincent Newman told The New York Times in 2007, when discussing a possible adaptation. A few years later, director Alex Proyas was attempting his own adaptation of the poem—with Bradley Cooper as Lucifer—but that got scrapped in 2012.
F. Scott Fitzgerald once remarked that “I’d rather have written Conrad’s Nostromo than any other novel.” How’s that for a ringing endorsement? While Joseph Conrad’s 1904 book about revolution and warfare in the fictional South American country of Costaguana was adapted for television in 1996, it has never gotten the big-screen treatment it deserves. Some believe that's out of respect for David Lean, who passed away in 1991, just one month before shooting was scheduled to commence. The film was a lifelong passion project for Lean, which made others reluctant to step in. Though in 2002 the trustees of Lean’s estate announced that Martin Scorsese had agreed to sit in the director’s chair for the project, there’s so far no sign of it coming to a theater near you.
11. HOUSE OF LEAVES
It has been 18 years since Mark Z. Danielewski published his footnote-heavy debut novel. And while it became an immediate bestseller, so far there have been no official takers on turning House of Leaves into a movie—which may have something to do with the fact that the novel isn’t just difficult to categorize, it’s nearly impossible to summarize (there’s a manuscript written by a blind man about a documentary that doesn’t exist and a house with rather supernatural qualities). Which isn’t to say there hasn’t been interest in the prospect. “We get a lot of inquiries. A lot of offers,” the author told the A.V. Club in 2012. “I was definitely more closed off to it early on. I’m maybe more open to it, but I don’t want to mislead anyone. One of the things that’s sort of shifting me, changing me, is turning House Of Leaves into an e-book. Because as much as it’s the same words, as much as it contains the language that is intimately familiar to me, it is an adaptation. ‘This film has been modified to fit your airline screen,’ you know? In doing that, I realized, ‘OK, maybe it’s the same as a movie in some ways.’”
This piece first ran in 2016.