I walked out of Watchmen. The Rachel Papers, based on the Martin Amis book of the same name, ended up looking like a third-rate version of a John Hughes film. I made up my mind before seeing Baz Luhrmann’s Gatsby that it was going to be a hot mess. I didn’t bother with On the Road because, well, On the Road isn’t really the kind of book I’d read past the age of 16. I walked out of The Beach. I probably only defend the Less Than Zero film because it is such a great piece of 1980s trash (even more so than the book that spawned it) that I think it belongs a museum of great American flops.
The thing is, movie adaptations of books just generally aren’t that good. For every Blade Runner, The Godfather, or The 39 Steps, you get some new take on Alice in Wonderland, Jack Black in Gulliver’s Travels, Johnny Depp going to the Hunter S. Thompson well too many times with The Rum Diaries, and the dozens of other really forgettable films that you forked over money to go see in the theater. Yet the endless remakes of movies from the 1970s and ’80s indicates that Hollywood is running out of ideas. Turning a book into a film means the hard creative work is done beforehand, and studios see it as a solid way to go — even if it usually isn’t.
Amid the many failures and few triumphs, there is also a handful of books that, for various reasons, nobody has been able to translate to film: The Catcher in the Rye (which J.D. Salinger made sure would never be made into a film during his lifetime), for example. And Terry Gilliam’s famous repeated attempts at making Don Quixote (which might actually happen now) are well-documented, proving that making a film out of Cervantes’ masterpiece is truly a quixotic endeavor. But one film has trumped them all.
“I think it’s cursed,” Steven Soderbergh said about the many attempts to make John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. “I’m not prone to superstition, but that project has got bad mojo on it.” Soderbergh was once close to making it happen, as was Harold Ramis, who in 1982 was slated to write and direct an adaptation with John Belushi and Richard Pryor. John Waters wanted to make a film version starring Divine; John Goodman, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John Candy, Chris Farley, Will Ferrell, and Zach Galifianakis have all had their names attached to the role of the book’s protagonist, Ignatius J. Reilly.
Now, with the latest news that playwright Jeffrey Hatcher and producer David Esbjornson are looking to bring the story to Broadway, there are whispers that an adaptation on the stage would be the final clearance for the movie version of the book routinely described as a “cult classic.” But should people be excited about that? Obviously, my reactionary answer would be a clear “No,” but then I think about how the completion of a movie that has become the film-adaptation Holy Grail could be an interesting event. It would be an the type of film that I could imagine being handled thoughtfully, to ensure the finished product pays proper tribute to the book.
And yet, no matter the stars involved or the amount of care taken with the development, it seems inevitable that any Confederacy adaptation would crumble under the weight of all the expectations behind it. Audiences that aren’t familiar with the book might not “get” the delusional slob of a protagonist, and failing to deliver a good version of the film could hurt the book’s legacy; it simply isn’t the type of book that can make the easy crossover from print to screen, and that’s why the battle for who will finally adapt Confederacy of Dunces looks to be more of an exercise in ego than anything.
Of course, ego fuels art, but in this case, there is a reason the movie stays in development hell, and it isn’t the same reasons that Toole’s book took nearly 20 years to see the light of day (including the 13 years after his suicide in 1969). Nobody can figure out how to properly translate the book into a screenplay that can be acted out in a way that befits such a beloved and idiosyncratic work of literature. And if nobody has been able to figure that out after so many attempts, and with the participation of so many great actors and talented filmmakers, isn’t it time to admit that it just isn’t going to happen?