10 ‘Unfilmable’ Books That Made It to the Big Screen


Some books, critics say, are simply unfilmable. And it’s true — until, of course, they get filmed. This year, we feel like we can’t turn around without running into a new film adaptation of a book that has, until now, been generally agreed to be too stylistically complex, too structurally strange, too epic in proportion for the big screen. While we’re still waiting on Pale Fire and 100 Years of Solitude, we’re getting two in the next two weeks alone: Cloud Atlas and Midnight’s Children. Inspired by this turn of events, we’ve put together a list of a few supposedly unfilmable books that have been adapted into films against all odds — some with great success, and others with, well, less success. Read our list after the jump, and add your own unfilmable favorites in the comments!

Cloud Atlas

“As I was writing Cloud Atlas,” David Mitchell told The New Yorker , “I thought, ‘It’s a shame this is unfilmable.'” And he’s not just being modest. Indeed, the book seems a tough sell for adaptation — as you probably know by now, even if you haven’t read it, the structure is like that of a mirrored pyramid or a circle: the six storylines build chronologically towards the pinnacle of the furthest future, then march back down the other side, the book ending with the second half of the story the reader began some 500 pages before. But the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer, with some small (okay, enormous) tweaks in structure, managed to make it work — and the result is pretty astounding.

Midnight’s Children

Salman Rushdie’s expansive novel has long been considered unfilmable, what with its panoramic scope and complex mix of historical events and magical realism. In the 1990s, Rushdie wrote a five-part television series based on the book, but the project died when the Sri Lankan government refused to let him shoot it. Now, director Deepa Mehta has done the impossible, spending two years turning the 650-page book into a 130 page script. We have our doubts, but we’ll have to wait until November 2nd to see how it turns out.


All books with as rabid a fan base as Watchmen‘s should be adapted with great care, but this book presented particular challenges due to its enormous scope. As Terry Gilliam said, “The problem with Watchmen is that it requires about five hours to tell the story properly, and by reducing it to a two or two-and-a-half hour film, it seemed to me to take away the essence of what Watchmen is about. I was happy when I didn’t get the money to make it because I would have been embarrassed if we’d done it.” But where Gilliam failed, Zack Snyder succeeded — sort of. From most accounts, the movie was nearly incomprehensible if you hadn’t already read the book. Fun for fans, but not likely to garner any new ones.

The Sound and the Fury

As far as we’re concerned, Faulkner’s convoluted, multi-stream of consciousness, temporally irregular masterpiece is still unfilmable, despite its 1959 adaptation. The book borrowed its title from Macbeth’s soliloquy on the meaninglessness of life: “it is a tale told by an idiot,” he gripes, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” As the New York Times pointed out, that’s an accurate description for the film as well. Some things are better left alone.

Naked Lunch

William S. Burroughs’s most famous novel is nothing less than insane — filled with jargon, jibberish and semi-lucid passages that whip you around until you’re not sure where you’re looking but have a feeling you might be sick. In a good way, of course. But does anything actually happen? We’re still not sure. David Cronenberg’s adaptation succeeded in part because he had the idea to mix Burroughs’s actual biography with the book (something implied anyway), creating an unforgettable, if equally disturbing, meta collage of absurd fact and even more absurd phenomena.


Here’s another new adaptation of a book we’d previously considered completely unfilmable — considering the fact that it takes place almost completely in a limousine stuck in a Kafkaesque traffic jam, a impotent cockpit from which 28-year-old millionaire watches his fall from grace over the course of a single day. But as we’ve learned, David Cronenberg knows all about filming the unfilmable, and the director has done a pretty good job — if not a mind-boggling one — translating it onto the big screen. We’re gunning for White Noise next.

On the Road

Though we’ll have to wait until the holiday season to see this long-awaited adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s American classic, we have our doubts. After all, the source material is a meandering, disjointed, stream-of-consciousness narrative with few of the plot points that characterize a typical three-act feature film. In order to get to the core of the book, director Walter Salles went back to the original scroll, in which he said “The search for the father leitmotif was so much more present… than in the 1957 edition, that we immediately altered the beginning of the screenplay and Jose Rivera, our writer, started to use the scroll as the text he was adapting.” Again, we’ll withhold judgement. We hope it’s good.


The whole marketing strategy of Kubrick’s now-classic film was based on the idea that the book was unfilmable: “How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?” was the movie’s tagline, for goodness sake. Unlike many of the other films on this list, the problem wasn’t the scope or structure of the source material, but the rather difficult subject matter. In fact, we’re surprised that the project was completed only seven years after the book was published. There had to be quite a few changes, however, which led Nabokov, who wrote the original screenplay, to complain to The Paris Review , “Although there are just enough borrowings from it in his version to justify my legal position as author of the script, the film is only a blurred skimpy glimpse of the marvelous picture I imagined and set down scene by scene during the six months I worked in a Los Angeles villa. I do not wish to imply that Kubrick’s film is mediocre; in its own right, it is first-rate, but it is not what I wrote. A tinge of poshlost is often given by the cinema to the novel it distorts and coarsens in its crooked glass. Kubrick, I think, avoided this fault in his version, but I shall never understand why he did not follow my directions and dreams.”

Brief Interviews With Hideous Men

Pretty much anything by David Foster Wallace is unfilmable, as far as we’re concerned — his works are too layered, too complex, too full of footnotes. And this particular book is not even a novel, but rather a collection of stories and anecdotes, linked with the titular interviews, which consist only of answers, a blank ‘Q’ marking the questions. We appreciated John Krasinski’s effort, but that frame narrative — and frame interviewer — he slapped on the thing crumbled away in his hands.

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

Laurence Sterne’s incredibly long, by some accounts barely readable 18th-century novel has been called “the greatest shaggy dog story ever.” Sounds like a fascinating film, right? Well, it is. Michael Winterbottom’s Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story is a riot, a film within a film that adapts the classic novel while poking fun at the ludicrous and hubristic idea of adapting the classic novel. Steve Coogan in a giant womb does not hurt.