Do Some Books Defy Cinema?

Dune is coming. That is, Villeneuve’s Dune – 37 years after the Lynchian adaption few adored, and 56 years after Frank Herbert’s masterpiece was first published. It’s been a long road to another chance, another heroic vault into the face of God, and though that road is lacquered with blood and sweat, it is in truth, slick mostly with tears. Dune’s adaptation for the big screen has had, at the very least, a troubled history, and some still refer to the novel as ‘unfilmable’: a work which, for whatever supposed restrictive qualities, cannot effectively be translated into cinema. But how have we even come to think of novels as unfilmable? What are their foibles that, like Lynch’s grey pompadour, defy cultivation? 

Let’s train our military-grade spotlight onto the usual suspects. The big hitters are almost certainly Dune and Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian; big in that they are the most cited as being so singular that they are almost as infamously unfilmable as they are downright famous. Ulysses, The Sandman, Catch-22, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Cloud Atlas, Infinite Jest, Gravity’s Rainbow – something about these works makes the wider literati populi consider adaptation to be, if not impossible, a vertiginous mountain to climb. And even then, three of these have already been adapted. In fact, flying in the face of popular doubt, Netflix has picked up both Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman and Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, which means that of these seven, only Pynchon and his heir-apparent, Foster Wallace, do not have an adaptation or adaption of their best-known novels. But we must not forget Blood Meridian, of which the literati are particularly dubious.

Tantalisingly, the subject of Blood Meridian’s filmability has been so frequent a point of conversation in literary circles that one interviewer asked the question of McCarthy himself, who, typically, was curt to a fault: “That’s all crap… the issue is it would be very difficult to do and would require someone with a bountiful imagination and a lot of balls. But the payoff could be extraordinary.”

This author hopes to one day have the confidence to say that an adaptation of one his works would require a lot of balls. 

Of all people who’ve planned an adaptation of McCarthy’s 1985 novel, the most notable is none other than Hollywood’s swooning hippy, James Franco. That is, he was planning it until the internet caught wind. Rights negotiations not only fell through, but fell through spectacularly as a direct result of the backlash. According to Deadline, the adaptation was cancelled, “mere moments after details of it first became public.” In the realm of the supposedly unfilmable, fans tend to have firm opinions on those who aren’t up to the task, rather than suggesting anyone who might be.

Image: Blood Meridian’s Judge Holden via Reddit

But how is the infamously unfilmable even a talking point when we have CGI, the mother of all imaginative leverage? As with so much in cinema, the answer is complicated, because the criteria of unfilmable work varies by whomever makes the claim. Today, a novel isn’t held back by visual demands (in other words, penny pinching), but much less earthly limitations of the work itself: a vastness, say, or complex structure; a non-traditional narrative or style of prose, or even perhaps sheer, door-stopping volume. Infinite Jest, for example, is one the longest novels ever published, at well over 500,000 words. To encapsulate all that material in a feature length film, well, I hope your camera has a large hard drive. Blood Meridian will always be a tough egg, yet McCarthy’s prose further boils it past indigestibility. Many cite its opaque, shapeless narrative, which is leavened by the sheer beauty of the author’s sentences. Meanwhile, The Quietus graded Joyce’s Ulysses – that most lauded piece of ‘nothing happens, but that’s the point’ – as “fundamentally unsuited to the aesthetics of cinema.” Ulysses is too involved with the inner thoughts and workings of its characters, the minutiae of moments or observations that span not paragraphs but full pages. Onscreen, such an indulgent work (which is one of the reasons it is so adored) would flap around like a duvet on a washing line. Indeed, when writing triumphs with aesthetics over story, a filmmaker might have to bend new visuals to the task, visuals that were never implicit in the original text; he or she must improvise, and thus muddy the waters of how closely ‘adapted’ the work is.

However, ongoing discussion about supposedly unfilmable works suggests the adjective could be wearing out. In 2019, The Guardian publishedThe Sandman, Catch-22, Cloud Atlas ... is there such thing as an ‘unfilmable’ book?”, which questioned whether unfilmable was simply a byword for unaffordable, hardly a problem for Netflix. Three years earlier, The Verge brazenly asked, “Does 'unfilmable' really mean anything anymore?” 

Perhaps Villeneuve will signal a turning point with his adaptation of Dune, and prove once and for all that unfilmable really is as McCarthy said, “all crap”. Yet already, someone has strode ahead of Villeneuve, one who risked more and gave more promise to a single production than perhaps anyone in Hollywood. Reaching for the mantle of what is frequently referred to as The Greatest Film Never Made, all he has to show for it are sketches and storyboards that never left his feverish grasp.

Prior to 2013, the name Alejandro Jodorowsky was synonymous mostly with his avant-garde surrealist films from the early 70s, El Topo (1970) and The Holy Mountain (1973), but more contemporarily he is known for Jodorowsky’s Dune, a documentary charting his unsuccessful attempt to adapt Herbert’s novel. This is how ingrained Dune’s difficulty has become - we have a whole film dedicated to its failure. The likely reason this claimed so much attention (other than the prospect of Dune finally being realised) was because of Jodorowsky’s planned ensemble,  positively dripping with fame and talent: Orson Welles as Baron Harkonnen, Mick Jagger as Feyd-Rautha, and Salvador Dalí as Emperor Shaddam IV. The surrealist painter asked for $100,000 per hour to star in the movie, and to add a burning giraffe to one scene’s background. What’s more, the then little-known artist H.R. Giger was on board, who after the collapse of the film would go on to design the Xenomorph in Ridley Scott’s “Alien,” the most iconic extra-terrestrial design in cinema. 

Years later, Jodorowsky nervously went to see Lynch’s adaptation and, as he states in the documentary, “it was awful.” If Jodorowsky’s film had been made, it likely would have predated Star Wars, which premiered in 1977, and taking into account that Dune the novel was already a phenomenon, it begs the question: would the cultural significance of Star Wars have been overshadowed if the film had been made? We might forever speculate.

It does appear as though the barriers to unfilmability are gradually being pulled down: budget, the scope of the text, the technical limitations of cinema itself. Gabriel García Márquez insisted for years that One Hundred Years of Solitude must be told in Spanish and would not work as a single feature, and modern filmmakers have the prowess not merely to disregard the author’s personal qualms, but accommodate them, with Netflix greasing palms for a Spanish-language serial. Márquez’s son has defended this. “In the current golden age of series,” he’ affirmed, “with the level of talented writing and directing, the cinematic quality of content, and the acceptance by worldwide audiences of programmes in foreign languages, the time could not be better.”

There will never be a marriage of mediums here; not only impossible but undesirable. The real challenge is whether we adapt a work that espouses and evokes the same feelings and rhythms, which some sticklers will decry no matter who’s behind the camera. However, filmmaking is increasingly closing the gap through technology, the freedom of experimentation, and ever-broadening consumer demand. Unfilmable is no longer just a medal for complex works that push literature to the limit; it is a rallying cry, and one that, as of 2021, has never been taken more seriously.

Find more of Ross’ thoughts on Dune and movies generally on YouTube.

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