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Unfilmable: Why Some Books Defy Adaptation

Cloud Atlas finally came out this week and, honestly, it looks like a bit of a hot mess. As fellow Gosu contributor Rob said on twitter:  ”We didn’t know what kind of movie you’d like, so we made all of them.” That plus some racist undertones make it seem like the book is just one of those things that can’t be adapted. Not that that’s ever stopped a director from trying, successfully or not, to film the unfilmable.

Of course, what makes something unfilmable (or just damn hard)? Some criteria:

Clearly, since I used examples, these types of books aren’t UNfilmable, it’s just advised against unless you’re mega-rich and ambitious or you’re a mad genius like Charlie Kauffman. Usually the trick is to find the story (who thought the story of Facebook could be so compelling?) or find what people love about the source. If what people love about a book is its bookishness (Terry Pratchet’s footnotes), it’s best just to let that lie. A built-in audience can be a tempting cash-grab but nothing is worse than a horde of nerds scorned.

The Wachowskis certainly have the clout and ambition to handle the tough subject material, but do they have the restraint to find the core of Cloud Atlas instead of using every effect they have up their sleeves? What they don’t appear to have is the trust in their audience, that they will get a story about recurring lives without using the same actors over and over, even when the character’s race is different each time.

There’s a reason there’s a new Austen or Bronte adaptation every ten weeks: simple, timeless stories with a built-in act structure, minimal casts and the same five locations on a moor. Cut, print, that’s a wrap.

What else should be deemed unfilmable? What gets adapted too much?  What was just a lousy adaptation? Vent in the comments, it’s a safe place.

  • Rebecca Hudecek

    Impressive review!

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