So it’s not surprising that such a challenge delights some filmmakers, even if they’re not all successful (looking at you, 1967’s “Ulysses”). Sometimes, it takes multiple attempts. David Lynch, arguably one of our most visionary filmmakers, crashed with his disastrous 1984 “Dune,” so that Denis Villeneuve could soar with his 2021 adaptation that won six Oscars and was nominated for best picture.
“I think it’s very hard to turn many books, if they’re really good books, into a good movie. You can turn them into any sort of TV show or movie, but you may be missing the point of what the original book was about,” Monty Python member turned film director Terry Gilliam says on a call from London. “Really good books are hard to translate into films, because it’s in the writing. And the writing is not about the surface. The writing is about the guts of the idea. And that’s always the problem. It’s about describing layers that are below the surface. The plot is part of the process, but it’s not the central quality of a good book.”
“I’m very simple. I’m stupid, maybe,” Gilliam adds. “Because if a book captures me, I’ve already been victimized into wanting to do it. It’s about belief. And if I love the book and want to tell that story in cinematic terms, I’m off and running.”
That’s exactly what happened when he adapted Hunter S. Thompson’s 1971 gonzo roman à clef “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” into a 1998 movie the same name, a movie that Gilliam says “was very much about my time in America.”
It was “a book I loved dearly,” he says. He had long wanted to adapt it, but the various scripts that floated by his desk were mostly “about two guys on a wild weekend in Las Vegas. That’s not what it’s about at all. It’s about the loss of the belief of the American Dream.” Finally, one popped up with Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro attached to the project. Thrilled with the prospects of working with them, he immediately took the job — and then got to work rewriting the script.
The book presents a chaotic, drug-addled road-trip without much semblance of a traditional plot. Gilliam needed to find some foundation around which to build the film’s basic architecture and found it in a more structured piece of literature: Dante Alighieri’s narrative poem “The Divine Comedy.”
In the poem, “Virgil takes Dante into the many layers of hell. Virgil is a Roman, Dante is a renaissance Catholic. So that’s how we began,” he says. Del Toro’s Dr. Gonzo is a pagan, while Depp’s Raoul Duke (a Thompson stand-in) has a more Christian background. “Once we thought of it that way, it became interesting. We are going into the various levels of hell.”
He also didn’t shy away from voice-overs, something that “a lot of filmmakers think is cheating. Our attitude was that it’s essential to this story. It’s so much in the mind of Hunter Thompson’s character Duke, and the words are so brilliant that Hunter wrote, we wanted to incorporate that.” From there, it became a matter of deciding which scenes from the book to cut without watering down the theme, a far easier task with a structure in place.
“In some ways it’s easier to turn bad books into good movies,” Gilliam says.
Not everyone agrees with this, which is something of a Hollywood maxim. “People have said a bad book, or a pulp book, makes a great film, that it can be transcended into a great movie, whereas a great book can’t really translate into a great movie,” says Australian filmmaker John Hillcoat. “I actually don’t believe it.” He ticks off titles of from the list of classic films made from great books he put together after having this very debate with author and screenwriter Richard Price: “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “The Godfather,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “The Last Picture Show” “A Clockwork Orange,” “The Long Goodbye,” “Psycho,” “The Maltese Falcon” … and so on and so forth.
Which may help explain why he chose to tackle “The Road,” arguably one of Cormac McCarthy’s most personal and “unfilmable” books — ultimately creating a critically lauded and commercial successful movie in 2009. “What you have to do is capture the spirit of the book,” Hillcoat says. “You can never translate the poetry of the language.”
In this case, while the book’s plot is about a father and son traveling through a post-apocalyptic United States, “the essence of the book is a love story between the father and the son.” The father carries a gun with two bullets, which serves a functional purpose: to take their lives should they be captured by cannibals. But it also shows the depth of the father’s love for his son. “This love story was the center of it, so we really focused on that.”
The opportunity came about after McCarthy saw “The Proposition,” Hillcoat’s 2005 Western set in 1880s Australian outback, and became interested in him potentially adapting his upcoming post-apocalyptical novel.
Hillcoat describes the experience as an exercise in “very judicious editing” because “the actual scenes themselves were so visceral and visually, beautifully described.” Perhaps more importantly, he understood that although it’s ultimately a story about hope, it’s not a happy tale. Hillcoat says it was a “huge battle” to keep the movie that way — perhaps the most vital aspect of its success — after the Weinstein brothers, who produced the movie, didn’t understand the ending.
The most popular literary adaptations thus far in the 21st century, of course, aren’t from novels or short stories at all. Instead, they’re from a more static visual medium: comic books, which can run for decades, include vast numbers of characters and storylines and which don’t always need to follow linear narratives. As a result, they present their own series of complexities and challenges. Just ask Allan Heinberg, who helped adapt “Wonder Woman” and, most recently, a graphic novel he (along with many others) didn’t think could be adapted: Neil Gaiman’s “The Sandman.”
“Having spent most of my adult life wanting to be the guy to adapt it, when the opportunity finally came, I went back and read it,” Heinberg says. “And the first thing I said was, ‘I don’t think we can do this. I don’t know how to do this. This would require so much change to the source material, I don’t think fans are going to get behind it.’”
The book’s story is enormously complex, told over millions of years in various different realms and universes. To pack it all into a show would be literally impossible. To try to pack it all into a show would be a mess.
So, Heinberg, Gaiman and David S. Goyer decided to transform “The Sandman” into “the dramatic story of one character,” named Dream, for the 2022 Netflix series they created. “That allowed us to narrow our focus, and it allowed us to look at the disparate piece of the comic book through that lens and incorporate everything we could, as long as it helped tell Dream’s story,” Heinberg says.
Sometimes that meant, with Gaiman’s blessing, changing part of the narrative. Notably, the character of John Dee, a malicious supervillain in the comics, is presented here as empathetic if ultimately misguided. “It was so much more interesting for all of us, and more emotional, that John’s mission was to save the world rather than destroy it,” Heinberg says, noting how important it was to have the series’ original author available to weigh in on such decisions.
Though the logistics can be difficult, in some ways, adapting tough material might actually be easy. As Heinberg says, “successful adaptations are successful because the love the writer feels for the source material is successfully communicated.” Consider one of the more unusual contemporary adaptations: When “Parks and Recreation” and “The Good Place” showrunner and creator Michael Schur adapted (part of) David Foster Wallace’s modern epic “Infinite Jest” as a music video for the Decemberists’ “Calamity Song” in 2011.
Colin Meloy, the band’s frontman, had been reading “Infinite Jest” while working on the band’s 2011 album “The King is Dead.” He was particularly struck by a chapter in which the students at the fictional Enfield Tennis Academy play Eschaton, a fictional geopolitical game dreamed up by the author that simulates global thermonuclear warfare and is played across four tennis courts with, well, tennis balls and rackets. The game is absurdly complex (the intermediate value theorem comes up at one point in its description), but the scene is also side-splittingly funny.
“It’s so great. After you’ve been reading this very cerebral slog for a while, to suddenly get this kind of breezy, super funny, super smart chapter, it’s really kind of breathtaking,” says Meloy. “And I thought, ‘That should be the music video for “Calamity Song.”’ But when they pitched the idea, they received “radio silence.”
“Finally my manager had to say to me, ‘Nobody is going to make that. You’ll never find a director who gets it enough to pull it off,’” he adds.
Enter Schur, who had purchased “Infinite Jest” the day it came out in 1996 as a Harvard junior, and — after petitioning the English department to allow him to focus on such a recent novel — made it the subject of his thesis along with Thomas Pynchon’s “V.” While working on his beloved sitcoms, Schur had also acquired the rights to film the book — and even written a few episodes for a potential HBO series based on it.
When he eventually got the call asking if he was interested, Schur says, he responded, “You’re asking me if I’m interested in directing a music video of the new single of one of my favorite bands based on my favorite novel?”
Schur was particularly excited to shoot this part of the novel since Eschaton “is the most cinematic sequence of the book, the part everyone remembers the most. The only thing I worried about is I had to get this right.”
So he asked the “Parks and Recreation” production team to help, noting that there wasn’t much money involved. They were game and they headed to Portland to shoot the video — spending the entire budget on permits for tennis courts and costumes. The result was a nearly perfect visual rendition of the passage. “Everywhere we could, we put what amounted to an Easter egg into the visuals,” Schur says.
He still hopes to one day turn the book into something. HBO was willing to pay him to write three episodes of the show, he says, but Wallace’s widow Karen Green didn’t feel comfortable with her late husband’s revered book being adapted — so Schur walked away from the project.
Though he hopes she someday changes her mind, adapting it presents challenges that don’t accompany all books, even many of the “unfilmable” ones. Dealing with the complex narrative would simply be a writing and filmmaking problem, albeit not an easy one to solve. Translating DFW’s unique omniscient narrator’s voice — simultaneously colloquial and academic, which Schur describes as “writing in the way we think and talk” — presents a tougher challenge but it’s probably not undoable.
No, the biggest challenge is one that comes up with many canonical books, particularly science fiction, that — at the time of publication — looked to a future that, by now, has actually arrived. “It’s futurist. It came out in ’96, but he was roughly looking at the years 2000 to 2008 or so, or 2002 to 2010, depending on different theories. And he was predicting a lot of stuff about the future, like video chatting, basically FaceTime and Zoom. He was predicting the merging of computer and television, which happened,” Schur says. “So part of the unfilmability of that book, if you want to call it that, is that to make it now you would have to project forward five to 15 years in the same way he was doing when he wrote it and invent new things that are as good and interesting as the things he predicted, which is not easy to do.”
Can anything be adapted for the screen? Probably. Should anything be filmed? That’s a debate that’s long raged in Hollywood. Though many adaptations turn out wonderfully, “There’s a reason there are different ways of telling stories: writing songs, writing books, making films, making video games,” Meloy says. “I don’t think that’s a bug. I think it’s a feature of storytelling that each of these different modes have things that can’t be replicated anywhere else.”