Monday, June 10, 2013

The unfilmable…

So the term ‘that book is unfilmable’ isn’t a new one.  In fact, I’ve heard many people spout it over the likes of films as recent as ‘Life of Pi’, and I myself have considered this idea.  Some stories are better told on the printed page, for they spin worlds or ideas or visuals that tend to get botched in the cinematic process. 

There are varying reasons a book or story can be considered unfilmable. 

Hold me; this one worked out!
I remember when ‘Atonement’ was released and many said that the book was unfilmable because of the sweeping time spans.  In this sense, it isn’t that the concept or story is literally able to be filmed, but that the structure can lead to the poetic nature of the story being lost in the construction.  In this case, I personally found the film a beautiful companion piece to the novel, which was outstanding.  Joe Wright isn’t shy about broaching adaptations of sweeping stories that could be considered unfilmable.  Look at what he did with last year’s ‘Anna Karenina’.  Now I personally have not read the gargantuan novel, but as a singular film, it works (although I understand that it nowhere near incorporates the entirely of Tolstoy’s themes).

Sure, we filmed it...but should we have?
In another case we have the 2005 film ‘Mysterious Skin’.  I personally have not read the book (not sure that I want to after seeing the movie) but I remember all over the place any talk of this film centered on two things; Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s performance and the fact that it was an ufilmable book that was, surprisingly, filmed.  For a film like ‘Mysterious Skin’, the unfilmable quality was clearly the subject matter and the constant reference and depiction of pedophilia.  Showing something so atrocious on the big screen is a gamble, and doing it while maintaining the innocence of a young cast is nearly impossible.  According to Gregg Arika, the film’s director, all of the scenes of abuse were filmed in such a way that the children involved had no idea what was going on, and it wasn’t until the film was spliced together that it became evident there was abuse being depicted.  That explains the constant use of the close-up.  Still, the feeling left in the pit of one’s stomach is that of disgust and this uncomfortable film covers every frame of this film.  In one sense, I’d say that it was certainly filmable, but in another sense I don’t think it needed to be filmed; at all.

A little lost...
That brings us to a more recent case; ‘Life of Pi’.  I’ve weighed in on this film as a whole a while back, but for this particular post we’ll stick to the fact that, well, it’s rather obvious to anyone who’s read the book why this was considered unfilmable.  First you have the premise, which can read silly out of context, and you have the visual impact of the story, which could be very hard to capture.  But more than that, there is the spiritual and emotional conveyance that runs through the novel that is hard to capture in a film because that conveyance is done mostly through exploration of Pi’s thought process.  There is very little dialog and so the film was forced to use narration to TELL us what Pi was thinking, and that never works are well as it should.  The visuals are beyond words impressive, and the handling of the animals (while a tad too sugar coated for my taste) was done well, but the essence of what this story really meant was lost entirely.  It reminds me a bit of ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’, another story that was ‘lost in translation’ so-to-speak.  From a purely cinematic standpoint there is no reason to hate either film.  They are beautiful to look at and engrossing from start to finish and yet when you contrast them with the emotional impact of their source material they leave the viewer disappointed.

In that sense, these stories are unfilmable.

I’m currently reading ‘Winter’s Tale’ in anticipation for the film later this year, and all my worries about it pre-reading are becoming more and more valid as I read the book.  I’m only two-hundred pages in and I’m already concerned that this is going to be ‘unfilmable’ in at least two of the aforementioned categories (the sweeping nature of the prose and the visual grandeur of it all) and yet, apparently those ‘Lord of the Rings’ movies worked; right?

You really, really tried!
But this brings me to another area that I was pondering last night.  I was watching the 1963 version of William Golding’s classic ‘Lord of the Flies’ and it had me wondering; could this book truly be unfilmable?  I’ve also seen the 1990 film version, and I know there is another version filmed in the 50’s as well, so it’s not as if it hasn’t been attempted, but there is so much to this great novel that is lost in translation each and every time.  The savagery of the youths themselves, while captured to a degree in each version that I’ve seen, can never come close to that depicted in the novel.  It reminds me a tad of the issue regarding ‘Mysterious Skin’.  These are children and you can only visually depict children doing so much before it becomes a universal turn off.  One can read and mentally see things that one would never want to actually see with their naked eye.  But more than that, I think it is the fact that this story consists of children itself that makes the film unfilmable.  Child actors can be wonderful, but it takes a special child to convey naturalism while acting out the unnatural, and that is evident in the performances captured in these film versions.  While directors can certainly guide a child to wonderful things (look at the brilliance Zeitlin pulled out of Wallis in last years ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’, or what Jonze was able to get out of young Mr. Records in ‘Where the Wild Things Are’) but taking on an entire cast of children with such pivotal roles and important themes is very hard, and the awkward performances by the cast can distract from Golding’s message.

So I ask, what stories do you find unfilmable?  What do you think makes an unfilmable source?  Which attempts at filming these stories do you think have succeeded?  Which ones have failed?


  1. I think The Lovely Bones failed on many levels. Peter Jackson was not the right director for it. I felt like the story lost all of it's meaning. Jackson just focused on the special effects.

    1. I'd totally agree with you there. I wasn't a big fan of the novel either, but Jackson's film was a huge failure compared to what he could have done with that narrative. It's a shame too. Just looking at his earlier works, if he had taken the same approach to this story as he did with 'Heavenly Creatures' he could have created a film that was BETTER than the novel.

  2. I haven't read any of these novels, and I thought the '63 version of Lord of the Flies was a great film. However, it does sound like like they are all, technically, unfilmable.

    When I was a teenager, I loved the Alex Rider books, which follow a teenage British spy. The film of the first book Stormbreaker was a big letdown. It even had Ewan McGregor and Mickey Rourke, but it just couldn't capture the magic of the books.

    I read Paul Auster's City of Glass last year, and that's one I'd call unfilmable. It's a detective story, but the postmodern elements would be hard to pull off on screen.

    1. I've wanted to read City of Glass! I need to put that on my list.