Adaptation: Five Books That Must Never Be Adapted For Film


When David Cronenberg turned William Burroughs’s masterwork Naked Lunch into a somewhat linear, entertaining narrative, literary fans everywhere were pleasantly, if not resentfully surprised.  Cronenberg, in doing so, proved himself not only a master storyteller, but able to do something that few directors could, adapt dense, postmodern classic novels into solid films.  On the other hand, when director Gary Walkow attempted to turn William Burroughs’s seminal novel Queer into a film by combining it with the story of Burroughs’s wife’s murder, along with the completely unrelated murder David Kammerer in 1944 by writer Lucien Carr, the product was 2003’s Beat, perhaps the worst in a long line of attempts to adapt Beat novels into films.  Walkow attempted to use Cronenberg’s trick of combining Burroughs’s tendency toward psychdelic fantasy with his own personal story as an author, but in doing so he obscured the novel’s story entirely.  The result is one of our best examples of what happens when good novels are poorly adapted for the screen.   (Note: Beat doesn’t officially purport to be an adaptation of Queer.)

With the looming release of Walter Salles’s film adaptation of On The Road, lit fans a many are poised to write the most scathing IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes film reviews of their lives, and for good reason. A faithful adaptation of On The Road would probably be most stylistically comparable to Vincent Gallow’s The Brown Bunny and while it might not make for the most entertaining film, at least it wouldn’t be an embarrassing one.  From the looks of the trailer, Salle’s representation of On The Road will feature aside from a cast of skinny and pale young actors looking sexily sickly with sweat constantly lingering at their brow, some attempt at a linear narrative and plenty of classic silver screen bullshit.  Likely, On The Road is just one of those novels that absolutely never should have been made into a film.


Also on the Hollywood docket is supposedly The Coen Brothers’ attempt at re-imagining The Yiddish Policeman’s Union and Baz Luhrman’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby, which, if anything like Romeo and Juliet, could be the most infuriating upcoming adaptation of all.  Finally, there’s the groundbreaking behemoth of a novel by Victor Hugo turned one of Broadway’s greatest, longest running musicals turned Amanda Seyfried comeback vehicle after a slew of poor career decisions, Les Misberables. Les Mis and Gatsby aside, it’s likely that On The Road will be the most offensive of these adaptations.  It’s one thing when a filmmaker attempts to turn a novel into a film and fails to capture its essence as a result of any one of the many problems that occur during the making of a film: bad casting, poor budget, bad editing, etc. It’s another to attempt adapt a book that cries out not to be adapted.   Sure, adaptations of certain classic novels are so inherently brazen that failure is expected, even welcomed (certainly it would be sad for future generations to think of Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary by their film adaptations first and foremost.)  Some, novels however, are simply too postmodern, too dense, or ethereal to become films.  For these, there’s no excuse for even attempting to put them up on screen.

Similarly, just because a novel may be somewhat plot-driven, doesn’t necessarily mean it will work as a movie.  Spare writing, may work for those who’ve a way with it, but it doesn’t translate to the screen, because what we’re left with is a film imagined almost entirely by the director; The Lion King, if you will. Such was the case with Italian director Marco Ferreri’s 1981 adaptation of Charles Bukowski’s “Tales of Ordinary Madness,” starring Ben Gazzara.  Other adaptations should work but don’t. John Fante’s masterwork Ask The Dust for instance, when announced as a forthcoming film, seemed like a great idea. Here we have a book that, while heavy on inner monologue and self-reflection has a enough of a plot, and enough character development that a capable actor could pull it off.  Instead, a non capable actor didn’t.

Sometimes risks pay off.  Occasionally a director’s attempt at turning some dense, layered piece of fiction into a film earns them massive praise.  However, some books are sacrosanct.  As a message to Hollywood execs, producers and aspiring or accomplished screenwriters everywhere, here are five books that should never be made into films.


1. Hunger By Knut Hamsun

When I saw the ad for Stephen R McQueen’s Hunger in 2008, I thought “WTF, NO!!!”  No book so great could possibly be a worse film.  Arguably, Hamsun’s style was heavily influential on the Beat writers discussed above, and while watching a guy walking around Norway, trying desperately to find food while doing his best to act as though that is not what he’s doing, may sound like a fun night at the movies, it would certainly be no such thing.  As we’ve learned through many adaptations of yore, the act of writing on film is not exciting, unless the typewriter turns into a jelly monster i.e. Naked Lunch.  Our nameless, protagonist wandering around Christiana in Hunger, aside from writing, does little else.  Sure, there’s the occasional interaction with someone on the street, however, the meat of these interaction take place almost entirely in the protagonist’s head.  If you can imagine a feature length adaptation of The Metamorphosis, and try and guess why that wouldn’t be a solid film, you’ll understand fully why Hunger can’t be either.  Luckily, the McQueen film was not an adaptation of Hamsun’s novel.

Update: Somebody brought it to our attention that there is a 1966 adaptation of Hunger, and that it’s “really good.”  Sorry about that.  Let’s just never make another.

2. Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth

Yes, we know it’s been done once, and that was once too many.  What Roger Ebert called “A true fiasco of a movie” attempts to do what so many movies fail miserably at, to represent fantasy on screen.  If you, voracious readers are looking for an experience to remind you why you read, watch this adaptation of Portnoy, remind yourself what a book can do that a film cannot. Most importantly, books can get into the heads of those neurotic and crazy enough to write them.  While Ebert posits that a proper Portnoy’s Complaint film could only be rated X, lets do one better and say, that only a porn adaptation could do the book any kind of justice.


3.  White Noise By Don Dellilo

While Libra could potentially make for an interesting film, White Noise would, without a doubt be destroyed by a Hollywood studio. The desire to over complicate Dellilo’s brilliantly crafted plot would result in something disastrous beast, if you can imagine Murder By Numbers meets Requiem For a Dream meets Contact, you might be somewhere close.

Note: Apparently Men In Black director Barry Sonnenfeld attmpted at one point to raise funds to shoot an adaptation of Libra which never got off the ground.  This begs the question, is there an actor who could possibly play a more convincing Oswald than Sam Rockwell?


4. God Bless You Mr Rosewater By Kurt Vonnegut

I want to believe deep down in my heart that Mr Rosewater would be impossible to adapt into a film, but the skeptic in me knows that there’s is some self-aggrandizing prick out there that thinks he can do it.


5. The Feast of Snakes By Harry Crews

The Feast of Snakes is a beautiful and trenchant portrait of human sexuality, jealousy and misery in the deep, nasty south.  On screen it would seem like a bunch of gratuitous debauchery, violence and betrayal.  This film, imagined on screen sheds an interesting light on how stories told on screen versus on the page are such disparate creatures.  Joe Lon’s behavir on screen would seem so vile and unforgivable no matter how hard Nick Cage tried to humanize him, you’d have something like a Larry Clark meets Gasper Noe film, minus everything redeeming about those two directors’ work.

Next Week: Five books that should have been adapted for film, but never were.

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  1. Did you intend to ignore the 1966 adaptation of Hunger?  It’s not at all as good as the book, but it’s no disaster.

  2. Nick Cage as Joe Lon during that awful quasi rape scene would be classically bad Cage. Possibly even worse than Tresspass

  3. Barry Sonnenfeld did not attempt to raise funds to shoot an adaptation of Libra.  In 2006 there was plans to make a film adaptation of White Noise.   

  4. Yeah it was White Noise that Sonnenfeld was trying to get off the ground. No cigar.I think an independent minded director like the Coen Brothers or Richard Linklater could do a pretty good adaptation of it. However, most studio would try to make it more plot-driven and that would be the fatal error as it isn’t a plot-driven novel. Also, in order to be truly effective, it would have to be set in the recent past: before the internet, 24 hour news channels and cell phones. Since I first read it back in the early 2000s, I’ve noted how prescient DeLillo was.