An abridged history of ‘unfilmable’ book adaptations

No one can quite agree on what makes a book unfilmable. Some books are thought to be too boring, plotless, or introspective; others are too interesting, exciting, imaginative, or complicated. The one thing people agree on, though, is that there are some books that should never, ever, be adapted into TV shows or movies. What makes the idea of unfilmable books fun, however, is that once in a while a project comes along that proves everyone wrong and adapts a difficult book into something new and good in its own right, with artistic value independent from the work it was based on.

Any adaptation from one medium to another is complicated. Turning books into movies involves translating words into images, trading in the explicitness of dialogue and descriptions on the page for the vague complications of actors conveying feelings and emotion. Books don’t have to obey the laws of physics or reality, and movies can capture subtler humanity in one glance or facial expression than many authors can on the page. With all these differences, even the most cinematic books have to undergo changes on the way to the screen, simply because of the different requirements and considerations for each medium — to go from a text-based medium to a visual one requires asking different questions and making new choices. But to do all of this with a work that doesn’t naturally lend itself to the screen — whether that’s because it’s too complicated, too fantastical, or simply too strange — is a truly staggering feat.

The history of these seemingly unfilmable projects is a tough one to track, because there’s no way to truly keep log everything that has been considered unfilmable — and that’s true even when limiting ourselves to mostly popular works in English. Instead, let’s take a journey through some of the biggest examples of books thought to be unfilmable, and some of the movies and TV shows that tried to tackle adapting them.

Catch-22 (1970)

Alan Arkin wearing a uniform and sunglasses in Catch-22 Image: Paramount Pictures/Everett Collection

There were plenty of ambitious adaptations before 1970’s Catch-22, like Joseph Strick’s 1967 version of Ulysses, but where Catch-22 uniquely succeeds is how deeply it recognizes the fundamental difficulties of its story. Joseph Heller’s original Catch-22 novel tells the story of an Air Force pilot in World War II who is trapped into service by circular logic. The novel itself plays out mostly in unconnected and absurd scenes that slowly piece the narrative together by the end of the story.

Mike Nichols’ movie, however, takes a much more direct approach, telling one story that progresses chronologically. The movie follows John Yossarian and his quest to get discharged from the Air Force despite its rules that if he asked for discharge he’d be deemed sane and therefore fit to fly, just like the book. But communicating this complicated idea on screen means it has to be more centrally focused. Instead of playing through multiple plots, like Heller does, Nichols draws stronger connections between Yossarian’s story and the stories of the rest of his squadron. This lets the connections Heller only implied be seen much more clearly, giving us an early thematic understanding of the story that helps highlight the Air Force’s absurdity and the squad’s tragedy. It’s a careful and complicated transposing that keeps all of Heller’s core ideas intact while focusing on the tone of the original book, rather than devotion to every single plot point.

This might, fundamentally, be the starting point for all filmed versions of complex books that followed. What Buck Henry’s screenplay does best is boil Heller’s novel down into its most essential elements, pulling at its thematic chords and strings until something similar (but unique) is revealed. While the methods are certainly different, it’s not entirely unlike Alex Garland’s approach to adapting Jeff VanderMeer’s novel Annihilation. The adaptation shares characteristics and a few primary plot points with the original work, but discards nearly everything else in hopes of translating the book’s lurking evolutionary horror into a visual medium, much like Nichols and Henry’s primary concern for their movie was to capture the maddening absurdity that drives Heller’s story.

Solaris (1972)

Donatas Banionis in a space suit standing at a window in Solaris Image: Mosfilm via Everett Collection

Based on the novel by Stanisław Lem, Solaris follows a group of scientists aboard a space station and their futile attempts to make contact with an extraterrestrial race. Rather than making contact with the aliens, they are instead faced with introspection and realizations about themselves and the human condition. If that all sounds a little too introspective for a clear-cut sci-fi movie, then you’re right. What makes this adaptation so difficult is how deeply reflective it is.

Director Andrei Tarkovsky finds a way around this in his film version, however, by going even deeper into his characters’ psyches and physical experiences in space. Much like Nichols’ Catch-22, Solaris is about adapting the spirit of the work, but where Tarkovsky finds new success is in translating those themes to a visual medium. Tarkovsky pushes Lem’s story further, giving us a brief view of the scientists’ lives on Earth before showing us the dank and cramped interiors of their space station for contrast. This allows Tarkovsky a window into the physical discomforts and uneasiness of space, giving him a visual and physical representation of the kind of psychological stress the characters are under too.

This approach, of giving a cinematic physicality to a deeply interior story, has proven to be a critical part of adapting difficult stories in the years since Tarkovsky’s version of Solaris was released. Mike Flanagan does something very similar in his adaptation of Stephen King’s Gerald’s Game, in which a woman is trapped, handcuffed to a bed, and starts to hallucinate after her husband dies on top of her. While King’s novel mostly zeroes in on the psychological side of her predicament, Flanagan blends that with a very real, and very graphic, physical strain of being handcuffed for dozens of hours, resulting in a successful adaptation — though not a particularly great movie.

A Clockwork Orange

Malcolm McDowell as Alex in A Clockwork Orange stands in a darkened milk bar full of naked female mannequins, with fictional drug names all over the walls Image: Warner Bros.

On paper, almost nothing about A Clockwork Orange seems to lend itself toward adaptation. The novel is full of graphic violence and sex, and written largely in author Anthony Burgess’ unique Nadsat slang — mostly a combination of cockney and Russian jargon. But somehow none of that stopped it from getting a fantastic translation to the screen.

Directed by Stanley Kubrick just a few years after 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange is a remarkably faithful retelling of the novel. The main character, Alex DeLarge, is aged up from 15 to 18 (a luxury Kubrick didn’t have on his slightly less successful and perhaps even more challenging adaptation of Lolita nearly a decade earlier), but otherwise the events of the two versions of the story are nearly identical. Alex is a dangerous, classical-music-obsessed monster who roams around town with his friends committing horrible acts of destruction and violence. And then, after a brief stint in prison for his crimes, Alex is rehabilitated through a horrifying experiment that attempts to make him physically ill at the mere thought of violence or the old Ludwig Van — meaning Beethoven, of course. With all that objectionable content, the film ended up getting an X rating in the U.S. initially, only changing to an R when Kubrick edited some of the movie’s most explicit sexual content.

Much like David Cronenberg’s similarly excellent and off-putting adaptation of Naked Lunch a decade later, or Terry Gilliam’s version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, much of A Clockwork Orange’s success is thanks to the singular style and vision of the filmmaker behind it. Watching some of film’s greatest writers and directors throw themselves at impossible stories is perhaps the most surefire way to get something interesting out of unfilmable books no matter what, whether it’s Paul Thomas Anderson vaguely adapting Upton Sinclair’s Oil! into There Will Be Blood, or Ang Lee carefully recreating The Life of Pi the moment visual effects technology seemed capable of doing so.

The Lord of the Rings

Aragorn (Mortensen) surrounded by men of Rohan. Image: New Line Cinema

The ’80s and ’90s weren’t a total desert of ambitious adaptations, but writers and directors weren’t exactly lining up to take big chances. Then Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy changed movies forever.

Over two decades after Return of the King was released in theaters, it’s almost impossible to imagine how daunting the task of adapting The Lord of the Rings sounded before Jackson actually did it. Generations of filmmakers and creative minds considered taking a swing at it, including the Beatles, but no one actually managed to get a live-action project off the ground, either because of Tolkien’s strong distaste for the idea or because of the inherent logistical challenges that come from turning such a massive story into something a little more succinct, but no less epic. But, after a carefully negotiated three-movie, simultaneous-filming deal was reached between Jackson, New Line Cinema, and Warner Bros., one of the best and most important trilogies in film history was born.

What makes Jackson’s trilogy so effective is how well it captures Tolkien’s vision and his sense of adventure. Jackson doesn’t make the mistake of over-condensing or overindulging Tolkien’s story, instead pulling out exactly the right moments and set-pieces from the books to put on screen and delicately filling in the blanks where it’s needed. Jackson’s other master stroke is from the production design, taking the gorgeous landscape of New Zealand and working with thousands of craftspeople to provide the most compelling and complete version of a fantasy world that had even been put on screen to that point. From the fields of Minas Tirith to the cliffs Gollum, Sam, and Frodo climb in Mount Doom, every inch of the world feels fantastical and yet somehow real, which goes a long way toward helping us feel transported to Middle-earth ourselves.

The reach and scope of The Lord of the Rings’ impact on Hollywood is nearly incomprehensible. It helped spawn our current blockbuster era of filmmaking, where IP reigns supreme over everything. But this also had the knock-on effect of making the idea of taking moonshot deals appealing. Seemingly impossible projects suddenly seemed doable for better and worse, especially in the realm of fantasy. On the one hand, this made projects like Game of Thrones possible. On the other hand, it gave us such absolute disasters like 2017’s The Dark Tower. The series was so powerful it even had the inverse effect of most of this: turning the imminently filmable Hobbit into a ridiculous, three-part mess.

Adaptation (The Orchid Thief)

Nicolas Cage and Nicolas Cage, in a car together in Adaptation Image: Columbia Pictures/Everett Collection

Easily the most unique approach on this list, Adaptation is also a perfect representative of the topic of difficult translations from book to screen. The movie is a lightly fictionalized version of writer Charlie Kaufman’s attempt to adapt Susan Orlean’s true-crime novel The Orchid Thief into a screenplay. Orlean’s book, while fascinating, isn’t exactly a ready-made blockbuster. It’s slow and has a winding mystery that just doesn’t lend itself to the screen. Which is almost exactly what the Kaufman character, played by Nicolas Cage, comes to discover as he slowly comes apart at the seams trying to adapt this seemingly unadaptable book.

Of course, by writing this movie, Kaufman is, in his own very Charlie Kaufman way, also adapting The Orchid Thief — the difficulty of adapting it becomes the adaptation itself. It’s a roundabout and incredibly creative approach where the difficulty and the execution become one and the same. It’s extraordinarily hard to imagine anyone but Kaufman making a movie like this that so effortlessly breaks the fourth wall, but it’s also extremely tempting to imagine an adaptation of, say, Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves taking on a similar metatextual style that weaves the adaptation itself into the mystery. It doesn’t hurt that it’s also just about the only way to imagine Danielewski’s complicated puzzle of a book making it to the screen.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe

Iron Man, Captain America, Hawkeye, Black Widow, Nebula, Rocket Raccoon, Ant-Man, and War Machine stand in a line in Avengers: Endgame Image: Marvel Studios

This one may come as a surprise, since these comic books weren’t unfilmable in the way we traditionally think, but it still fits closely with the spirit of the topic at hand. After all, who could have expected that the bizarre and fanciful comics of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby would eventually not just be mainstream, but completely dominate the pop culture landscape for a full decade?

What makes these stories so interesting, specifically as adaptations, is the way they built audience expectations, slowly expanding the world over numerous movies in an attempt to match the vast scale of the comics. The story couldn’t possibly have started with Thanos, or the Guardians of the Galaxy. It had to start all the way back in 2008, with Tony Stark building a mech suit with a box of scraps. Then, steadily, year over year, the universe worked itself up to cosmic stakes, outlandish powers, and abstract concepts. It doesn’t hurt to have one of the biggest companies in the world funding the whole venture, pulling in big-time movie stars to help sell some of the ridiculous dialogue inherent to these projects.

But in the end, the MCU succeeded in much the same way a TV show does. By the time Disney made it to Avengers: Infinity War, people were hanging out with characters they were deeply invested in and had watched for dozens of hours collectively. It’s your friends going on a mission and getting defeated, not just a collection of recognizable costumes and character names — which is a little bit more how it feels now.

It was the kind of successful, once-in-a-generation universe-building that’s both so effective, so lucky, and so challenging that it caused a decade of misguided studios to fail at it in the MCU’s wake. Even more surprising is the fact that Marvel itself can’t even replicate that alchemy with its second big saga.

Game of Thrones

Pedro Pascal as Oberyn Martell and Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones Photo: Macall B. Polay/HBO

HBO’s Game of Thrones is an undeniably towering achievement. Despite its ending, it spent years turning one of the most complicated and dense fantasy series around into the most popular TV show on the planet. And as the later seasons grew in popularity, so too did the show’s budget, eventually turning into one of the most expensive shows on TV. And for all its incredible strengths as an adaptation, that will probably be the most lasting legacy of HBO’s Game of Thrones: a symbol to writers and networks that TV is the perfect place to adapt a big, complicated book series into a blockbuster show that can take over the world.

Game of Thrones’ success was like a dozen perfect storms hitting at once. So much of the show came down to casting and production design, capturing the charm and venom of George R.R. Martin’s characters and the grandeur and grime of his series’ fantasy world. But for the first five or so seasons, when creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss actually had books from which to adapt, their talent was generally in their ability to cull scenes and narratives and understand which elements of the book were imperative to keep, and which ones could be condensed or cut entirely. It may sound simple, but to do that over a series that contains thousands of dense pages is no small feat. And of course, in the end they cut or condensed one or two too many plotlines, doing themselves in by the finale. But for a while there, Game of Thrones was a successful adaptation with a scope no one had ever really dreamed of.

The combination of budget, screen time, and popularity of Thrones opened up a whole new world to creators that wanted to take massive swings on projects that spent years scaring writers off. Amazon’s Wheel of Time, an attempt to adapt a story that played out over 14 novels, and Apple’s far-reaching sci-fi epic Foundation, which sort of adapts Isaac Asimov’s complex series of the same name, are just a few of the series that have started in the wake of Thrones after years of seeming impossible to put on screen.

Inherent Vice

Joaquin Phoenix as Doc Sportello in Inherent Vice wearing a green army jacket and sunglasses and holding up a peace sign Image: Warner Bros/Everett Collection

While most of the 21st century’s best examples of unfilmable books being made into movies have been sci-fi and fantasy blockbusters, Paul Thomas Anderson is still out there fighting the good fight, trying to adapt Thomas Pynchon novels for the screen. Anderson’s 2014 slacker masterpiece Inherent Vice works far better on screen than most people would have ever expected. Inherent Vice may be among Pynchon’s most filmable books, but it’s still an impossible labyrinth of plots, schemes, drugs, and buffoons. But Anderson makes all of this legible by condensing the story significantly and boiling it down to its essential elements — not unlike Henry’s approach to Catch-22 back in 1970.

The challenge of Inherent Vice comes from its sleepy, dreamy, drug-fueled haze. The book’s main character, Doc Sportello, an aging hippie stoner doing his best not to see the fun and ease of 1960s America give way to the corporatization of the early 1970s, floats through scenes, stumbling onto vast conspiracies without even noticing. This is the kind of tone Pynchon is a master of, and translating that to the screen has long seemed like a daunting task. But Anderson found the secret alchemy to make it work. Between the bumbling slapstick performance of Joaquin Phoenix as Doc, the brilliantly ethereal narration from Katherine Waterston, or the fading way Anderson cuts together the narrative like scenes you notice at the edge of your dreams as you slip into and out of sleep, the whole thing comes together wonderfully and improbably pulls off the exact tone of Pynchon’s novel.

While Anderson has made it clear that he’s a massive fan of Pynchon’s, and the secretive American writer seems to like the director too, Inherent Vice is still the only adaptation he’s managed so far. But rumors suggest Anderson’s new movie is secretly an adaptation of Pynchon’s Vineland. And of course, there’s still the dream that one day Anderson will tackle Pynchon’s masterpiece Gravity’s Rainbow, long thought of as one of the last great unfilmable American novels, with its ridiculous characters, sweeping narrative, and intense reliance on internal monologue, character thoughts, and specific language.

Dune (2021/2024)

Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides holding up a dagger in a desert valley in Dune Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

Among the best recent additions to the ranks of a seemingly unfilmable work turning into a massive success is director Denis Villeneuve’s two-part adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune. The book’s complex mix of themes, psychedelic visions of the future, and sweeping visuals had already proven messy on film more than once, in both David Lynch’s ill-fated and much interfered-with 1984 version and Alejandro Jodorowsky’s attempt (which is most famous for the documentary about how it didn’t happen), but that didn’t stop Villeneuve from realizing a much more successful version of the story on screen.

Much of the new adaptation’s success relies heavily on Villeneuve’s talent for massive visuals and how fully realized his world feels. Much like Herbert’s novel, Villeneuve’s vision of Arrakis feels like it has taken into account every ounce of daily life for the Fremen, the Harkonnens, the Atreides, and every other bizarre and unique faction in the story. This all leads to a cohesiveness that helps the world feel lived in and gives the story personal stakes that even Herbert’s novel sometimes lacks.

Villeneuve is no stranger to difficult adaptations, though. His 2016 film Arrival was based on Ted Chiang’s short story “Story of Your Life,” which was long considered unfilmable as well, thanks to its complex relationship with time and linguistics and the fact that the entire thing is told through nonlinear narration to an unborn fetus that will eventually be a child who dies tragically at a young age. Villeneuve’s version of the story avoids this problem by building out the larger story around the extraterrestrial events of the story and letting the child part play like an epilogue, rather than the main thrust of the narrative.

3 Body Problem

Yang Hewen as Bai Mulin talking to Zine Tseng as Young Ye Wenjie in a still from 3 Body Problem Image: Netflix

The latest addition to this group is Netflix’s 3 Body Problem. While it isn’t a wholly successful adaptation, this project from Game of Thrones creators Benioff and Weiss is a surprisingly successful retelling of Cixin Liu’s A Remembrance of Earth’s Past series, a complicated sci-fi series about Earth’s first contact with extraterrestrial life.

Cixin Liu’s book series spreads out over the course of three novels, each with different protagonists and largely different casts — though some appear in all three books. This means that some of the most important elements of the trilogy don’t get introduced until the third book. Benioff and Weiss, however, take a very different approach in their adaptation, introducing all of the series’ major characters immediately in the first episode and making them a group of friends. This gives their series an entirely different timeline from that of the books, as the first season of the show takes on plotlines from the first, second, and third books concurrently.

It’s a bold and complicated strategy, and a fairly inspired way to take on material that spans more than 400 years. But it’s also a way of exorcising some of the duller, denser parts of the novels. For instance, when the first book introduces the virtual reality game The Three-Body Problem, it spends pages and pages describing detailed scientific explanations for how to solve the mathematical problem the game is named after. The Netflix version of the story condenses these down to brief snippets of on-screen time, instead making room for more plot from future novels. This is just one example — the books are filled with many such explanations of scientific processes that go on at great length.

None of this is to say that the series is tremendously effective. One of the things notably lacking from Liu’s novels is interiority for his characters, something Benioff and Weiss do their best to invent but never quite succeed at. More than that, the story struggles as an adaptation because of how much it condenses Liu’s stories, never quite giving any one narrative, like his flashbacks to Cultural Revolution China, the time or space it needs to achieve thematic resonance. However, it remains an admirable attempt at adapting a series of books that by their very form and focus seem impossible to translate to the screen — though it’s worth noting that the hardest parts of the series are yet to come.