30 November 2004


by Matt Rubinstein at 7:57 pm

Yet another “unfilmable” novel has fallen—this time it’s Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love, from a random selection of the team that brought us Notting Hill. I don’t know what you need to do these days to write an unfilmable book that’s going to stick. If William S Burroughs’s Naked Lunch (bugpowder dust, mugwump jism, sentient assholes), JG Ballard’s Crash (fucking and mangling) and Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho (rats, nailguns, Whitney Houston) aren’t going to do it, I’m not sure what will.

Well, the whole idea of an unfilmable book gets thrown around a lot these days. People said it about Michael Cunningham’s The Hours (various tangents to Virginia Woolf and Mrs Dalloway), Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient (lots of lying around and sand) and Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being (beats me). And look what happened there.

I guess when people call a book “unfilmable” they often just mean that it’s too (i) violent; (ii) weird; or (iii) boring. Or, to sum up, they mean that what really counts about the book—what the whole point of the book is—just can’t be represented visually. And sometimes they’re right (the thing about The English Patient is the language; on celluloid it’s sumptuous as all hell but I’m definitely with Elaine on that one); sometimes they’re wrong (turns out American Psycho was about consumerism and ennui after all, and quite filmable); and sometimes the film people find a way to dodge the question (like Adaptation‘s adaptation of Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief, an extension of David Cronenberg’s trick with Naked Lunch).

Enduring Love was a great book, particularly the set-piece at the beginning, a bit of virtuosity that was widely published before the novel came out. I’m afraid it’s the kind of thing that can be breathtaking and consuming in a novel but kind of run-of-the-mill in cinema, but of course it’s too early to tell.

Anyway, The Guardian has a quiz about film adaptations which includes a question about a book that’s legally unfilmable due to its author’s intransigence, but we’ll see how long that lasts. See how you go! (I didn’t do very well.)

3 Responses to “Adaptations”

  1. Alastair Says:

    At the risk of sounding more literate than I actually am, I nominate Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow as a candidate for really-unfilmable?

    Must finish it one day :)

  2. Matt Rubinstein Says:

    Yes—given that whoever was going to adapt it would probably have to read it (probably more than once), that seems safe enough for now. Finnegans Wake would be another in the same vein.

    Anyway, if Pynchon went to the same school of reclusiveness as Salinger (and he seems to have, apart from that one “appearance” on The Simpsons, which who could blame him?), he’s probably holding on tight to his movie rights too—none of his books have been adapted, and they’re not all as opaque as Gravity’s Rainbow.

  3. Alastair Says:

    Fafblog today:

    “Well I wanna read somethin else,” says me. “Somethin light an easy to get through.”
    “Try Gravity’s Rainbow,” says Giblets. “Giblets hears it’s about rainbows!”

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