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10 Unrealized Book-to-Film Adaptations We’d Like to Have Seen


When Universal announced last year that an epic adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower was in the works, which would include a trilogy of feature films directed by Ron Howard and a two-season television series, it sounded like a massive undertaking — from both a creative and financial perspective. This week, the studio decided it was too massive and pulled the plug on the project, breaking the hearts of fanboys and King readers the world over.

From the beginning, some had wondered if Howard was the right director for the project — now, unless the filmmaker attempts to set the project up elsewhere (unlikely, as both Howard and his Imagine production company have a long history with Uni), we’ll never know. It seems that we can add The Dark Tower to the long list of proposed book-to-film adaptations by famed directors that never saw the light of day. We’ve assembled ten of them after the jump; add yours in the comments.

Heart of Darkness, directed by Orson Welles

When Orson Welles went to Hollywood in 1939 and made a heretofore-unseen dream deal with RKO Pictures (which gave him complete creative control over the films of his new Mercury film unit), he proposed, as his first film, an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which his Mercury Theater on the Air radio program had adapted the previous year (above). Welles, already tinkering with ways to shake up the film form, didn’t want to just to a straight adaptation though: his concept for Heart of Darkness was a film done entirely in the subjective point of view — primarily from that of Captain Marlow, whom Welles planned to play himself (he may have also played Kurtz, since his Marlow would mostly be voice only). The project sounds fascinating, but the innovative shooting technique also pushed the picture’s budget estimates over the cap allowed by his RKO contract; though some make-up tests and other pre-production steps were taken, the picture was ultimately shelved. Welles ended up choosing another project as his film debut: Citizen Kane. (Read more about his Darkness, and read his script, here.)

A Confederacy of Dunces, directed by Harold Ramis (or David Gordon Green)

John Kennedy Toole’s Pulitzer-Prize winning 1981 novel had a difficulty path to publication (the author’s mother discovered it 11 years after his suicide, and it was turned down by several publishers before finally landing at LSU Press), so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that several possible film adaptations have fallen apart as well. The first, shortly after the book’s publication, was penned by Harold Ramis (Caddyshack, Groundhog Day), who planned to direct; he envisioned it as a vehicle for Richard Pryor and his friend John Belushi, but Belushi’s death in 1982 put the kibosh on the project. Other actors and filmmakers circled the book, but the closest call came in the early 2000s, when Steven Soderbergh and Scott Kramer penned an adaptation to be directed by David Gordon Green (then better known for art-house efforts like George Washington and All The Real Girls, now the director of mainstream comedies like Pineapple Express), with Will Ferrell in the leading role of Ignatius J. Reilly. That script even saw a staged reading at the Nantucket Film Festival in 2003, but the film never came to pass, due first to Paramount’s feet-dragging, then to the effect of Hurricane Katrina on the film’s New Orleans locations.

Blood Meridian, directed by Terrence Malick

Since the publication of Cormac McCarthy’s breakthrough novel in 1985, several filmmakers have tried to get it made into a film, but even in the wake of successful McCarthy adaptations like No Country for Old Men, it remains unfilmed. Directors Ridley Scott, Todd Field, and even (wince) James Franco have circled the film, but the most interesting rumor was that Texas visionary Terrence Malick was interested in bringing the story to the screen, with Gene Hackman in the role of Judge Holden. Whether that version ever got past the talking stage is unclear, but any film that is eventually made will surely pale in comparison to our notions of what it could have been.

The Stand, directed by George A. Romero

Novelist Stephen King and horror filmmaker George A. Romero (Night of the Living Dead) had one memorable collaboration: the 1982 horror anthology Creepshow. Even at the time, however, King made it clear that it was merely a warm-up project: “Our idea here is simply to do something original that we can do on a low budget, get it out there and hopefully make a profit,” he said at the time. “It will show people that we’re for real. Then we can go ahead and make a deal with one of the majors for the production money for The Stand.” Yes, King and Romero planned to make an epic film adaptation of his greatest novel. The author struggled to wrestle the story into screenplay form for several years before finally turning the job over to Rospo Pallenberg, the screenwriter responsible for Excalibur. He managed to pack the story into a screenplay that would run about three hours. King approved the script, Romero was ready to direct… and then Warner Brothers backed out, leaving the project to limbo. It was finally adapted into a network television miniseries in the 1990s, hugely compromised, with its most disturbing elements watered down for television — a mediocre representation of the author’s finest work that satisfied no one. (More on the project here.)

Dune, directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky

The film version of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi masterpiece was a notoriously troubled production for screenwriter/director David Lynch, but before his adaptation reached cinemas in 1984, the film had been through a long and torturous development period in the 1970s, coming closest to production with the brilliant, idiosyncratic Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky (El Topo) at the helm. Jodorowsky planned to tell the story as a ten-hour epic, with an eclectic cast including Salvador Dali, Orson Welles, Mick Jagger, Geraldine Chaplin, and David Carradine; Pink Floyd was to compose the score, and H.R. Giger and Dan O’Bannon (both of whom later worked on Alien) were on the effects team. Thousands of storyboards were drawn, costumes were designed, and something like $2 million of the film’s budget was spent on pre-production expenses, but Jodorwosky’s script was out of control (author Herbert, visiting the production offices, said it was “the size of a phonebook”) and the film’s French financing dried up. The picture was abandoned, though the filmmaker wrote a fascinating account of the process later, republished here.

Don Quixote, directed by Terry Gilliam

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, director Terry Gilliam’s merging of Cervantes’s classic novel and modern satire, is one of the most trouble-plagued productions of recent years — and it’s all on film. When production commenced in fall of 2000, Gilliam had filmmakers Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe shooting on-set for the inevitable DVD supplements; instead they captured the film falling apart. Shooting troubles, weather issues, and an injured leading man put the skids on the project less than a week into the $32 million shoot. Fulton and Pepe used their footage to create the fascinating 2002 documentary Lost in La Mancha (above); Gilliam, meanwhile, spent the decade trying to revitalize the project, which was ultimately recast with Robert Duvall and Ewan McGregor in the leading roles, but a month and a half before that version was set to go before cameras, Gilliam lost his funding again. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote continues to languish, which is a shame; the tiny snippets see in Lost in La Mancha showed some real promise.

The Secret History, directed by Alan J. Pakula

Donna Tartt’s 1992 bestseller was targeted for a possible film adaptation almost immediately following its release. In the decade that followed, several potential directors were cast about: Scott Hicks (Shine), Christopher Hampton (writer of Dangerous Liasons), and Jake Paltrow, with sister Gwyneth producing (and possibly starring). But the most intriguing potential director was Alan J. Pakula, the brilliant director of such 1970s classics as Klute, All The President’s Men, and The Parallax View. Though his 1980s and 1990s films seldom reached those heights, the witty, smart, sex-and-drugs-soaked Secret History might have been a solid comeback vehicle. Alas, the filmmaker died in 1998, not longer after the release of his final film, the Brad Pitt-Harrison Ford vehicle The Devil’s Own.

Sitting Pretty, directed by Bill Cosby

Bill Cosby’s directorial experience was somewhat limited — namely, a handful of episodes of his underrated late-’60s series The Bill Cosby Show — but we’d love to see what he would have done with the film adaptation of Sitting Pretty, his proposed adaptation of the 1976 novel by poet, novelist, and essayist Al Young. Young did the screenplay himself, with Cosby set to not only direct and star, but also produce and write the score. First Artists was excited enough about the project to run an ad promoting the upcoming project in Variety. But for reasons unknown, the project never came to pass; Young was instead engaged to do uncredited rewrites on the Cosby/Sidney Poitier vehicle A Piece of the Action, and Cosby’s sole feature directorial credit is his 1983 concert film Bill Cosby: Himself. Cosby struggled throughout his career to find a film project that would do justice to his considerable talent — we can only wonder what he might’ve come up with on a film that promised the kind of artistic control he would’ve had here.

Fletch Won, directed by Kevin Smith

The version of Fletch that hit American theaters in 1985, with Chevy Chase in the leading role of investigative reporter Irwin Fletcher, is a thoroughly enjoyable 1980s action/comedy, albeit one somewhat removed from the brilliance of Gregory McDonald’s original novels, which were less about wacky disguises and more about ingenious mystery plots and clever, character-based humor. The less-beloved 1989 sequel, Fletch Lives, didn’t even bother to adapt a book, even though there were (at that time) a good half-dozen to choose from; that film was a box-office disappointment, and the series withered on the vine. Several years later, the franchise rights came up for grabs, and Miramax snatched them up — offering the series to ‘max favorite Kevin Smith, who was then riding high off the success of Chasing Amy. Smith eagerly agreed; he loved the books and claimed to have learned how to write dialogue by reading them. The question was whether Smith’s Fletch would maintain continuity with the original series by engaging Chase — a question complicated by an initial meeting with the star that didn’t exactly go smoothly (Smith details their encounters here). The answer was provided by Smith’s ultimate decision to adapt Fletch Won — McDonald’s 1985 “origin story” that detailed how the young Fletch first became an investigative reporter — leaving the door open for a possible Chase cameo. Smith wrote a screenplay that was reportedly fast and funny, much in the style of Scott Frank’s script for Out of Sight, but came to a stalemate with Miramax head Harvey Weinstein over casting; Smith wanted Jason Lee for the role, but Weinstein insisted he wasn’t a big enough name for the film, which Miramax hoped would start a franchise. Other names were bandied about, including Ben Affleck, Brad Pitt, Will Smith, and Chris Rock, who had appeared in Smith’s Dogma and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, reportedly campaigned hard for the role. But Smith couldn’t seen anyone but Lee as Fletch, and the film never came to pass; Smith moved on, and the rights reverted back to Warner Brothers, who were claiming as recently as last summer that a new Fletch film is still in our future.

The Catcher in the Rye, directed by Jerry Lewis

In the years since J.D. Salinger’s iconic 1951 novel was published, countless filmmakers have attempted to bring Holden Caulfield to the screen — but every effort was rebuffed by Salinger, who steadfastly refused to allow film adaptations of his work after the negative experience of My Foolish Heart, a widely panned adaptation of his short story “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut.” Producers Sam Goldwyn and Harvey Weinstein, directors Billy Wilder, Elia Kazan, and Terrence Malick, and actors Jack Nicholson, Marlon Brando, and Leonardo DiCaprio were all rumored to have eyes for the book, but Salinger’s reticence may well have been for the best; reading the novel is such a personal experience that a film version would have risked altering our internalized perception of it. No, the only Catcher in the Rye movie we wish we could see was the most woefully misguided: Jerry Lewis’s. According to writer Joyce Maynard, Salinger himself claimed that not only did Lewis want to direct a Catcher film, but he “tried for years to get his hands on the part of Holden,” — even though these attempts were made in the 1970s, when Lewis was creeping towards 50 years old. Make no mistake, the Lewis Catcher would have been a terrible movie. But, like any slow-motion train wreck, we’d have watched it. Wouldn’t you?