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Wikimedia Commons // Fair Use

11 Famous Books That Have Proven Impossible to Film

Wikimedia Commons // Fair Use
Wikimedia Commons // Fair Use

The Fault in Our Stars. A Long Way Down. The Giver. A Most Wanted Man. Gone Girl. Mockingjay. Wild. If it seems as if just about every film on your must-see movie list is an adaptation of a book, well, that’s because they very well may be. A recent article suggested that, historically, about a third of all Hollywood productions are adaptations of novels, and that over the past three years, at least half of each year’s 10 highest-grossing films have been adapted works. But just because a book reads well doesn’t mean it will film well (see: Dune), which is why history is filled with much-beloved books that have proven impossible to film (though not always from a lack of trying). Here are 11 of them.

1. A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES

Filmmakers have been attempting to turn John Kennedy Toole’s 1980 novel, which traces the exploits of “slob extraordinary” Ignatius J. Reilly and his mom in New Orleans, into a movie nearly since it was published. At various times throughout the past 34 years, a series of big names have been attached to the film—or at least rumored to be attached—including Harold Ramis, John Waters, Steven Soderbergh, John Belushi, John Candy, Chris Farley, John Goodman, and Will Ferrell. The latest attempt has Flight of the Conchords co-creator James Bobin set to direct Zach Galifianakis in the starring role. But Soderbergh isn’t betting on it. “I think it’s cursed,” he told Vulture in early 2013. “I’m not prone to superstition, but that project has got bad mojo on it.”

If an adaptation of the book itself never gets made, maybe some enterprising screenwriter will write about the novel’s unlikely publication; Toole’s mother found a carbon copy of the manuscript following the author’s suicide. After 11 years of championing the book, it was finally published by LSU Press (with the help of The Moviegoer author Walker Percy, whom Toole’s mother pestered endlessly to read it) in 1980. In 1981, it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

2. ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE

It’s not that there aren’t a ton of filmmakers out there who would love the opportunity to turn Gabriel García Márquez’s epic tome of love and loss as seen through seven generations of a family into next year’s Oscar bait. And there are certainly millions of fans of the novel, which has been translated into 37 languages since its 1967 publication, who would happily fork over $10 to see it play out on the big screen. The biggest hurdle with adapting this one is the author himself, who passed away in April. Despite many approaches, he remained steadfast in refusing to sell the book’s movie rights—though he did tell Harvey Weinstein that he’d sell the rights to him and director Giuseppe Tornatore under one condition: “We must film the entire book, but only release one chapter—two minutes long—each year, for 100 years,” according to Weinstein

3. THE CATCHER IN THE RYE

J.D. Salinger’s 1951 coming of age novel is yet another iconic title that had its movie rights carefully guarded by its author, who passed away in 2010. Many believe that Salinger’s reluctance to see it adapted was a result of the disaster that was My Foolish Heart, Mark Robson’s 1949 movie based on Salinger’s Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut. And while the number of filmmakers who have expressed interest in adapting the book reads like the most epic Hollywood dinner party ever assembled—think Billy Wilder, Elia Kazan, Marlon Brando, Steven Spielberg, Jack Nicholson, Terrence Malick, and Leonardo DiCaprio—Salinger was always concerned that the book’s narration wouldn’t translate to film. And he didn’t want to be around to see the potentially disastrous results! However, in a 1957 letter Salinger did say that he’d be open to a posthumous adaptation, noting that: “Firstly, it is possible that one day the rights will be sold. Since there’s an ever-looming possibility that I won’t die rich, I toy very seriously with the idea of leaving the unsold rights to my wife and daughter as a kind of insurance policy. It pleasures me no end, though, I might quickly add, to know that I won’t have to see the results of the transaction.” 

4. INFINITE JEST

Set in a futuristic version of America, David Foster Wallace’s complex and occasionally rambling satire touches on a range of difficult themes, including depression, child abuse, and addiction. It’s also more than 1000 pages long, and the product of one of the great postmodernist writers of our time. The story gets even stranger when you learn that actor Curtis Armstrong, best known for playing Booger in the Revenge of the Nerds franchise, actually wrote an adaptation of the book for HBO, which was never produced. But shortly after Wallace tragically committed suicide in 2008, reports began surfacing that the author was working on an adaptation of the book with filmmaker Sam Jones. The irony, of course, is that Infinite Jest is about a movie (called Infinite Jest) that is so all-engrossing that all anyone who has seen it wants to do is watch it again and again and again … until he or she dies. Fun fact: In 2013, an episode of Parks and Recreation came about as close to an adaptation of the book as we’ve yet seen.

5. WHAT MAKES SAMMY RUN?

Inspired by his producer and studio executive dad B.P. Schulberg, Budd Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run?—about an unscrupulous kid (Sammy Glick) who works his way up from copy boy to screenwriter—is a brilliant take on the inner workings of the entertainment industry. And while Hollywood usually loves a good meta story, the only successful adaptations of Schulberg’s 1941 novel (so far) have been a couple of television productions and a long-running Broadway musical that debuted in 1964 and was revived in 2006. While Dreamworks paid $2.6 million for the rights to adapt the book on behalf of Ben Stiller in 2001, so far no start date has been announced. In 2007, two years before his death, Schulberg told The Jewish Daily Forward that “I still think there’s a sense that it’s too anti-industry” and that while “Ben [Stiller] still talks about how he would like to do it … I’m not holding my breath.” 

6. UBIK

Believe it or not, there is a Philip K. Dick novel that has yet to be made into a movie. Which isn’t to say that an adaptation of this 1969 sci-fi tale of telepathy and moon colonization (set in the then-futuristic year of 1992) hasn’t been tried. As early as 1974, filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin commissioned Dick to adapt his own work for filming. Dick finished the script in less than a month; though it was never produced, it was published in 1985 as Ubik: The Screenplay. In 2006, A Scanner Darkly producer Tommy Pallotta announced that he was readying the film for production. In 2011, it was Michel Gondry who was confirmed to be at the helm … until earlier this year, when Gondry told The Playlist that he was no longer working on it. 

7. THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER & CLAY

Considering both his popularity and prolificacy, it’s surprising that more of Michael Chabon’s work has not been given the big-screen treatment (Wonder Boys and The Mysteries of Pittsburgh are the two exceptions). But given the unique mix of history, coming-of-age-ness, and comic books in this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel—about two Jewish cousins who become big deals in the comic book biz—the fact that The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is 14 years old and still not a movie seems even more astounding. Especially because producer Scott Rudin bought the rights to it before the book was even published (he was sold based on a one-and-a-half page pitch). By 2002, Chabon had written six drafts of the script. Sydney Pollack was reportedly in active development on it at one point, and Jude Law, Tobey Maguire, Natalie Portman, Jamie Bell, Ryan Gosling, Jason Schwartzman, and Andrew Garfield were all bandied about as possible stars. In 2004, Oscar-nominated director Stephen Daldry (The Hours) announced his plans to direct the film the following year. In 2013, Daldry was still talking up the project, telling Collider that he thought it would make an amazing HBO miniseries. No word as to whether HBO got the memo. 

8. BLOOD MERIDIAN

Cormac McCarthy’s very specific cadence isn’t the easiest thing to adapt, as many of Hollywood’s most talented directors have discovered (some of whom have had more success with translating his work to film than others). But Blood Meridian, the author’s 1985 anti-Western that follows a teenage runaway known as “the kid,” has proven to be a particular challenge, in large part due to finding a way to incorporate the novel’s excessive violence in an organic and non-exploitative way. But that didn’t stop James Franco from trying. In July, to celebrate the release of his adaptation of McCarthy’s Child of God, the omnipresent actor-writer-director-model-professor-student-etc. shared a 25-minute test he shot of Blood Meridian on VICE. So far, no takers. 

9. PARADISE LOST

Though Christian-themed content has found much success at the box office, a true adaptation of John Milton’s epic blank verse poem poses a number of inherent problems, at least from a production perspective. First, there’s the challenge of casting God and Satan and Adam and Eve as main characters. Then there’s that pesky business of nakedness, "which would be a big problem for a big studio movie,” producer Vincent Newman told the New York Times in 2007, when discussing a possible adaptation. A few years later, director Alex Proyas was attempting his own adaptation of the poem—with Bradley Cooper as Lucifer—but that got scrapped in 2012.

10. NOSTROMO

F. Scott Fitzgerald once remarked that “I’d rather have written Conrad’s Nostromo than any other novel.” How’s that for a ringing endorsement? While Joseph Conrad’s 1904 book about revolution and warfare in the fictional South American country of Costaguana was adapted for television in 1996, it has never gotten the big-screen treatment it deserves. Some believe that's out of respect for David Lean, who passed away in 1991, just one month before shooting was scheduled to commence. The film was a lifelong passion project for Lean, which made others reluctant to step in. Though in 2002 the trustees of Lean’s estate announced that Martin Scorsese had agreed to sit in the director’s chair for the project, there’s so far no sign of it coming to a theater near you.

11. HOUSE OF LEAVES

It has been 14 years since Mark Z. Danielewski published his footnote-heavy debut novel. And while it became an immediate bestseller, so far there have been no official takers on turning it into a movie—which may have something to do with the fact that the novel isn’t just difficult to categorize, it’s nearly impossible to summarize (there’s a manuscript written by a blind man about a documentary that doesn’t exist and a house with rather supernatural qualities). Which isn’t to say there hasn’t been interest in the prospect. “We get a lot of inquiries. A lot of offers,” the author told the A.V. Club in 2012. “I was definitely more closed off to it early on. I’m maybe more open to it, but I don’t want to mislead anyone. One of the things that’s sort of shifting me, changing me, is turning House Of Leaves into an e-book. Because as much as it’s the same words, as much as it contains the language that is intimately familiar to me, it is an adaptation. ‘This film has been modified to fit your airline screen,’ you know? In doing that, I realized, ‘OK, maybe it’s the same as a movie in some ways.’”

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Dan Bell
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Design
A Cartographer Is Mapping All of the UK’s National Parks, J.R.R. Tolkien-Style
Peak District National Park
Peak District National Park
Dan Bell

Cartographer Dan Bell makes national parks into fantasy lands. Bell, who lives near Lake District National Park in England, is currently on a mission to draw every national park in the UK in the style of the maps in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Kottke.org reports.

The project began in September 2017, when Bell posted his own hand-drawn version of a Middle Earth map online. He received such a positive response that he decided to apply the fantasy style to real world locations. He has completed 11 out of the UK’s 15 parks so far. Once he finishes, he hopes to tackle the U.S. National Park system, too. (He already has Yellowstone National Park down.)

Bell has done various other maps in the same style, including ones for London and Game of Thrones’s Westeros, and he commissions, in case you have your own special locale that could use the Tolkien treatment. Check out a few of his park maps below.

A close-up of a map for Peak District National Park
Peak District National Park in central England
Dan Bell

A black-and-white illustration of Cairngorms National Park in the style of a 'Lord of the Rings' map.
Cairngorms National Park in Scotland
Dan Bell

A black-and-white illustration of Lake District National Park in the style of a 'Lord of the Rings' map.
Lake District National Park in England
Dan Bell

You can buy prints of the maps here.

[h/t Kottke.org]

All images by Dan Bell

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Internet Archive, Flickr // Public Domain
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History
How a Shoemaker Became America’s Most Controversial Mystic—and Inspired Edgar Allan Poe
Internet Archive, Flickr // Public Domain
Internet Archive, Flickr // Public Domain

Andrew Jackson Davis may not be a prominent figure now, but in the 19th century, he amassed a dedicated following that helped give rise to Spiritualism, a once-popular religion that believed in communicating with the dead. Davis used the teachings of a German doctor named Anton Mesmer to enter trance states that he claimed allowed him to see into space, the afterlife, other worlds, and even the human body. His metaphysical exploits earned him the nickname the “Poughkeepsie Seer,” and while frequently derided by his contemporaries, he inspired at least one well-known American writer: Edgar Allan Poe.

A HUMBLE SHOEMAKER

By all accounts, Davis had a fairly unremarkable childhood. He was born in Blooming Grove, New York, in 1826. His father, a shoemaker, was prone to drink, so Davis and his sister picked up odd jobs to support the family. Most of his schooling came from a then-popular program where teachers taught advanced students, who then taught one another. Ira Armstrong, a shoemaker/merchant he apprenticed under, later recalled that Davis's education “barely amounted to a knowledge of reading, writing and the rudiments of arithmetic.”

In the 1830s, Anton Mesmer’s teachings became popular in America thanks to several impassioned lecturers in New York and New England. Mesmer, who had found fame in Europe in the late 18th century, believed he could use magnets and his own touch to move “magnetic fluids” through the body, healing his patients of everything from the common cold to blindness. Though his theory of animal magnetism, as he called the existence of such fluids, was discredited by the French Academy of Sciences in 1784, medical professionals later became curious about Mesmer’s ability to manipulate his patients into altered mental states. Doctors—conventional or otherwise—studied the phenomenon of mesmerism, traveling across the country to demonstrate their findings.

It’s this mesmerist renaissance that first brought Davis into the public eye. In 1843, a Dr. James Stanley Grimes traveled to Poughkeepsie, New York, advertising his ability to induce trance states. Many Poughkeepsie residents attended the production—including Davis, although he wasn't entranced as advertised. The visit excited the community, especially a tailor and acquaintance of Davis's named William Levingston, who began dabbling in mesmerism himself. One day in early December, Levingston asked if he could mesmerize Davis, and he succeeded where Grimes had failed: Davis, while blindfolded, was able to read a newspaper placed on his forehead, and listed the various diseases of a group of witnesses.

Rumors soon swirled about Davis’s abilities. After that first session, Levingston mesmerized him nearly every day, and hundreds crowded into Levingston’s home to gawk at the spectacle. The sessions followed a pattern: Davis would enter a trance state and diagnose visitors with maladies, and then Levingston would sell remedies. The pair eventually began to travel, taking their show to Connecticut.

Some of Davis’s advice was unorthodox. For deafness, as Davis wrote in his autobiography, The Magic Staff, he once recommended a patient “catch thirty-two weasels ... take off their hind legs at the middle joint, and boil that oil which Nature has deposited in the feet and the parts adjacent thereto.” This preparation, he went on, “must be dropped (one drop at a time) in each ear, twice a day, till the whole is gone—when you will be nearly cured!”

Sketch of Andrew Jackson Davis on a yellow background
Internet Archive, Flickr // Public Domain

However, Davis swore off parlor tricks in 1844 after he claimed to have teleported 40 miles in his sleep. During the episode, he purportedly spoke with the ghosts of the Greek physician Galen and the Swedish scientist and philosopher Emmanuel Swedenborg, who hinted that Davis had a higher purpose. Galen gifted him with a magic staff, although he was not allowed to keep it. The tale mirrored that of Joseph Smith, who around 1827 had claimed a holy messenger guided him to golden plates on which the Book of Mormon was written. The year after the teleportation episode, Davis decided to part ways with Levingston, and moved to New York City in the company of Silas Smith Lyon, a doctor, and two Universalist ministers, William Fishbough and Samuel Byron Britton.

There, Lyon placed Davis into trance states several times a day, during which time he would lecture on science and philosophy while also diagnosing patients. Fishbough, meanwhile, would transcribe Davis’s transmissions, which were published as his first book, The Principles of Nature, Her Divine Revelation, and a Voice to Mankind in 1847. Davis combined Spiritualism with utopianism, describing a heaven-like space where all would be welcomed by a Mother and a Father God. Academics of the time soon noticed Davis’s insights were nearly identical to writings that Swedenborg had published years before: Both Davis and Swedenborg claimed to see a spiritual world beyond our own, where all humans could be welcomed into heaven, regardless of religion.

Christian leaders called Davis’s text heretical, while newspapers referred to the book as “ridiculous” and “incomprehensible.” One professor of Greek and Latin at the University of New York said the book was “a work of the devil,” and displayed an “absurd and ridiculous attempt at reasoning.” Joseph McCabe, in his 1920 book Spiritualism: A Popular History from 1847, declared that there was “no need to examine the book seriously” since it contained so many scientific errors. Notably, The Church of New Jerusalem, founded on Swedenborgian ideas, never publicly endorsed Davis’s theories.

Despite this criticism, Davis attracted passionate defenders. George Bush, a Swedenborgian scholar and distant relative of George W. Bush, was among his champions. He insisted that a simple youth like Davis had no access to Swedenborg’s texts and must have been communing with spirits. In 1846, when the French mathematician Urbain-Jean-Joseph Le Verrier postulated the existence of the planet Neptune, supporters were quick to write the New York Tribune claiming Davis had already discovered the eighth planet. “As to the asserted fact that this announcement by Mr. Davis was made in March last,” Bush declared, “I can testify that I heard it read at the time; and numerous gentlemen in this city are ready to bear witness that I informed them of the circumstance several months before the intelligence reached us of Le Verrier’s discovery.”

Detractors were just as vocal. When Fishbough admitted to extensively editing Davis's words, a reviewer at the London Athenaeum couldn’t contain his derision: “That a seer ‘commercing’ with the Mysteries of Nature should have needed an editor in this technical sense is remarkable enough," he wrote. "It might have been supposed that the Revelations which brought to an uneducated man the secrets of Science might have brought him grammar, too, to express them in.” Fishbough countered that it would have simply been too much work for Davis to pay attention to such tiny details.

"MARTIN VAN BUREN MAVIS"

Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

One of the more prominent people occasionally making fun of Davis was Edgar Allan Poe. In the satirical “Mellonta Tauta,” Poe wrote in a preface that “Martin Van Buren Mavis (sometimes called the ‘Toughkeepsie Seer’)” had translated the story—thus poking fun at Davis and his acolytes. Poe also included Davis in his “50 Suggestions,” brief witticisms published in 1849 that took aim at popular beliefs and theorists of the time: “There surely cannot be ‘more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of’ (oh, Andrew Jackson Davis!) ‘in your philosophy,’” Poe wrote.

Yet Davis’s The Principles of Nature may also have inspired the prose poem “Eureka,” in which Poe proposed his theory of the universe. The work has puzzled critics since its inception: Poe’s use of humorous nicknames in the text (he refers to Aristotle as “Aries Tottle”) point to “Eureka” being a satire, but historians have pointed out that several of Poe’s intuitive concepts actually anticipated the study of scientific phenomenon like black holes and the expanding universe.

Several historians have also remarked on the way Davis’s demonstrations in New York influenced Poe’s short story “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” which follows a mesmerist who puts an old man into a trance on his deathbed and watches his body float between life and death. Davis had claimed his trances put him in a state near death, freeing his mind to travel to spiritual realms. In his book Occult America, writer Mitch Horowitz notes that Poe completed the story in New York the year he met Davis. Dawn B. Sova also mentions in Edgar Allan Poe A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Work that Poe used his observations of Davis’s trance sessions to complete the story.

For his part, Davis himself seemed somewhat taken with Poe. Of meeting him in 1846, he wrote in Memoranda of Persons, Places and Events, “My sympathies are strangely excited. There are conflicting breathings of commanding power in his mind. But … I saw a perfect shadow of himself in the air in front of him, as though the sun was constantly shining behind and casting shadows before him, causing the singular appearance of one walking into a dark fog produced by himself.”

Charlatan or not, it was an eerie observation to make of a writer who would meet his end three years later.

Davis himself would live a long and rich life. He continued to lecture and write books until the 1880s, doing away with his scribe for later publications. He then earned a traditional medical license and moved to Boston, serving as a physician until his death in 1910. Though he sought to distance himself from the spectacle of spiritualism later on in life, Davis’s humble background and curious rise to fame made the “Poughkeepsie Seer” one of the movement’s most notable figures—and one who still maintains a strange resonance today.

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