4 “Unadaptable” Books and the Filmmakers Who Should Try

This week, Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice received a wide release. Pynchon’s work is largely considered unadaptable, but the combination of Anderson’s similar affinity for sprawling, heavily populated stories, and Inherent Vice‘s relative accessibility, has resulted in what I consider to be a perfect film. It’s a special thing when both a book and film version of a story can make a case for their individual existence, especially when the source material is considered untouchable. Inherent Vice is the result of a perfect marriage of filmmaker and material.

I got to thinking about the world of unadaptable novels, and as I perused lists of candidates, I began to wonder which filmmakers could pull each one off. Here are four I’d like to see.


The Source:

Maus – Art Spiegelman

Why it can’t be filmed:

Despite being perfect fodder for human drama, not every Holocaust story can be made into a film, especially one that uses anthropomorphic animals instead of humans. Also, it’s a graphic novel, which provides hurdles of its own.

Who should try: Bill Plympton

Since it would be offensive to the sensibilities of most audiences to have humans dressed as animals (who wasn’t horrified by Zoobilee Zoo?), it would make much more sense to make this an animated film. Though Plympton’s style is a little more sexually charged and humorous than Spiegelman’s, his ability to personify non-human objects (see his I Married A Strange Person! for an onslaught of examples), and his clinically gruesome design would elevate a film version from being merely a frame-by-frame recreation of the comic.


The Source:

The Dark Tower Series – Stephen King

Why it can’t be filmed:

This is an enormous story. Written over decades and incorporating more genres than I could list, The Dark Tower is King’s most sprawling work. Hell, King himself is a character at one point. Therein lies the issue. Being such a personal story for King, and filled with references and connections to his own work, it’s the ultimate ‘inside baseball’ experiment.

Who should try: Zack Snyder

Snyder has a wonderful history with difficult adaptations. Say what you will about him, haters, but he took two sacred properties – Watchmen and Dawn of the Dead – and made two excellent films. Snyder’s ability to take these stories and distill them to their most usable elements could serve to reduce The Dark Tower series to something more cinematically effective, and deliver impressive visuals in the process. Stylistically, Zack Snyder avoids restraint, which is precisely what is required to adapt King’s most unrestrained story. Granted, it would take multiple films to do it right, but if Marvel Studios or Warner Bros are any indication, audiences are ready to digest cinema episodically, much like how they digest television.


The Source:

Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace

Why it Can’t Be Filmed:

Footnotes on footnotes on footnotes on footnotes. Reading this book requires up to 4 bookmarks if you want to do it right. As a meditation on America’s desire to entertain itself to death, the book mocks the reader by forcing them to struggle through it. It is overstuffed with characters, narrators, and writing styles. To pick any one character to center a film around would be a disgrace to the scope of it, and to make it a film at all kind of defeats the purpose.

Who should try: Paul Thomas Anderson

Yeah, yeah, I’m loving on this guy right now but nobody does epic, character based stories like PTA. Both Magnolia and Boogie Nights are fantastic evidence of Anderson’s ability to tell a story through the eyes of multiple characters, as well as his knack for making melodrama funny. Infinite Jest bounces from heartbreaking to absurd to water-out-the-nose hilarious, often within the context of a single paragraph. The style Anderson uses to illustrate the three “Coincidence Parables” at the outset Magnolia would work wonders for footnote cutaways, and his ability to capture a place and time (Inherent Vice, The Master, There Will Be Blood) will make the all-too-farcical future society of Infinite Jest feel lived-in and genuine.


The Source: 

Where’s Waldo? – Martin Handford

Why it Can’t Be Filmed:

Because it’s not a story. It’s an activity book. That being said, a Where’s Waldo? movie has been in talks since the time of the book’s publication. Any successful children’s property is always pushed towards a film production. That’s business. Regardless, it appears we’re at a time where the intended audience (see: children) doesn’t give a rat’s canoodle about something as dated as Where’s Waldo?, so the idea is probably dead in the water.

Who Should Try: Edgar Wright

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World proved that Wright is capable of building a hugely kinetic world, filled with bells and whistles, that doesn’t subtract from the main narrative. Think about it. Waldo is only one tiny part of each page. The rest of each splash picture is just random stuff, meant to draw your eye from Waldo. Wright could make a film that focuses on the titular character without betraying the manic, cartoony quality of the books. Also, what is Where’s Waldo? really about anyway? The short-lived animated series had him as a universe-hopping time traveler who is routinely dispatched on a variety of adventures. Perfect! Wright’s style has always consisted of a mash-up of genres and pop-culture references that would be perfect for a tongue-in-cheek version of Waldo that’s aimed towards the original audience, who are all now adults.

Are there any adaptations you would like to see? By whom? Hit up the comments!!

Author: Dan Scully

Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.

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