Lee Wochner: Writer. Director. Writing instructor. Thinker about things.


What’s unfilmable?

Now that Netflix has taken on adapting Neil Gaiman’s Sandman — with Mr. Gaiman on board, thankfully — the internet is once again having the discussion of “what are some unfilmable books?”

Let me settle it:  There are no unfilmable books.

There are also no filmable books. And no bookable films.

These are separate media, and even if you do your best to closely approximate each, it’s impossible.

Last week, I was going on about Dan Simmons’ novel The Terror. The book was excellent. So, in numerous ways, was the miniseries. But there are seemingly subtle differences that dramatically alter the shape of the story, differences of character and motivation — but also necessary plot differences, because of what is lost in a film lacking interior monologue and epistolary exchanges, versus a novel where those literary elements were crucial. (And, also, in a book where we can conjure an image of the devastating monster stalking the explorers, versus the miniseries where the CGI thing just looks silly.)

Samuel Beckett and Nathalie Sarraute, among others, wrote anti-novels. Some form of those could be filmed, but does anyone want to watch a two-hour movie about someone slicing a tomato? (Anyone other than Andy Warhol, who did the same sort of thing with film.)

So the question isn’t what’s an unfilmable book. The question is:  Do we really want to make a film version of this book? Does it add anything, or does it just damage our fond memory of the book?

2 Responses to “What’s unfilmable?”

  1. Dan Says:

    Some books are more filmable than others. Some are eminently filmable. Back in my mis-squandered youth, movies like THE PRISONER OF ZENDA, THIEF OF BAGDAD, CRIME AND PUNISHMENT, and REBECCA prompted me to read and go on reading.

    Interestingly, when I got to THE MALTESE FALCON, the local Public Library didn’t have anything by Dashiell Hammett — a carry-over from the McCarthy Era.

    As for bad movies made from unfilmable books, I think they are more disappointing than discouraging.

  2. Uncle Rich Says:

    David Cronenberg filmed both CRASH and NAKED LUNCH, so anything is possible.

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