10 'unfilmable' books that were turned into movies

  • 10 'unfilmable' books that were turned into movies

Looking at novels, books and comics is a quick and easy way for Hollywood film studios to come up with ideas without having to do any of their own creative thinking.

Sometimes, the stretch from page to screen isn't too much of a jump, but sometimes it would seem that the job of getting it onto film is impossible.

And here are ten books that were regarded as 'unfilmable' that were managed to be turned into big screen films, with varying levels of success...

Cloud Atlas

While author David Mitchell was writing the generation-sprawling sci-fi epic - as he explained to The New Yorker - he thought to himself "It’s a shame this is unfilmable."

The 500-page novel tells six stories in various time periods spread out over thousands of years, which build chronologically to a far-distant post-apocalyptic society, only to then conclude each tale in reverse chronological order.

The Wachowskis and Run Lola Run director Tom Tykwer set about proving Mitchell wrong by working it into a film, keeping the six storylines relatively in tact, and casting the likes of Halle Berry, Tom Hanks, Hugh Grant and Hugo Weaving to play a different character in each story.

Did it work?
Probably not - while Tykwer and The Wachowskis should be commended for their vision and attempts to build something on the scale and depth of Mitchell's novel, it left critics divided and barely scrabbled back its budget, going some way to prove the book's author correct in his assumptions.

American Psycho

Bret Easton Ellis' satire of 1980s yuppie culture, starring investment banker Patrick Bateman who is obsessed with his appearance, and possibly a serial killer, was criticised by many for its graphic and violent nature.

Rookie director Mary Harron took over directing duties after David Cronenberg dropped out, and set about adapting Ellis' stream of conscious chapters and extended graphic sex and murder scenes into a coherent film that wouldn't be banned by censors.

The film did fall afoul of the censors until the famous threesome scene was trimmed down, but Harron's work was otherwise kept in tact.

Did it work?
Very much so - while the book's goriest moments were been tamed or show off screen, the darkly comedic film, and Christian Bale's magnetic performance as the unhinged image-obsessed Bateman have become movie icons.


Don DeLillo's 2003 novel, sees young multi-billionaire Eric Packer spend the entirety of the story in his stretch limo driving across a very congested and nightmarish Manhattan in an attempt to get a haircut, all while losing vast amounts of money betting against the yen.

The Fly director David Cronenberg took on the project of adapting it to film in 2012, casting Robert Pattinson as the asset manager who spends the entire film in the confines of his limb while his world is torn apart by an array of characters.

Did it work?
Partially - Cronenberg's film was praised by reviewers, especially for its take on current social unrest regarding 'the 1%', however, it was a flop at the box office, making back $6m of its $20m budget.


Alan Moore's seminal 12-part Watchmen comic book is full of multiple subplots, nonlinear narrative, vast back stories and a satire on comic books themselves - all of which fans agree make it impossible to put on screen.

Director Terry Gilliam, took a shot at adapting it, but failed in his goal, explaining: “The problem with Watchmen is that it requires about five hours to tell the story properly, and by reducing it to a two or two-and-a-half hour film, it seemed to me to take away the essence of what Watchmen is about. I was happy when I didn’t get the money to make it because I would have been embarrassed if we’d done it.”

But in 2009, Zack Snyder managed to do what Gilliam couldn't, getting Watchmen to the big screen.

Did it work?
Depends on who you ask - the opinion is almost split down the middle on this one, many praised it (and Snyder) for the scale, storytelling, effects and dedication to faithfully adapting the comic, while some criticised it for being overly-long and preachy. Some fans declared that it is a pale imitation of the revered comic book, while those unfamiliar with the comic had no idea what was going on.

On the Road

Jack Kerouac's much-loved story of his travels with his friends across America is heralded as a Beat and Counterculture movement and regarded as one of the most important and significant novels of all time.

An attempt to turn the source material had been going on since the '70s, with Francis Ford Coppola buying the rights in 1979 and putting together a draft of the script, only to give up on the idea until 1995 when he tried again, and failed again.

After a few more failed attempts at getting off the ground, Coppola saw director Walter Salles' adaptation of Che Guevara's memoir The Motorcycle Diaries and hired the director to make On The Road, with Garrett Hedlund as Dean Moriarty and Sam Riley as Sal Paradise.

Did it work?
Unfortunately not - a lot about the film was received well, including the visuals and Hedlund's performance, but unfortunately, it didn't manage to capture the infectious spirit of Sal and Dean's enthusiasm for adventure.

Life of Pi

The majority of Yann Martel's 2001 novel takes place on a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean after a shipwreck, and sees a young Indian boy named Piscine Patel stranded on the boat with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.

As if that wasn't enough of a challenge for director Ang Lee to commit to film, the book also heavily deals with themes of faith, philosophy and existentialism.

Lee, who had been passionate about adapting the book for years, was forced to wait for technology to catch up to create a completely CGI tiger and wowed audiences by using 3D to emphasise the more fantastical moments from the book.

Did it work?
Stunningly - not only the stunning 
visuals, but Lee's knack for capturing the essence of human emotions brought the sentiment and thoughts of the book to the screens. It was nominated for 11 Oscars - the most of the year, and brought home four, including Best Director, Best Cinematography and Best Visual Effects.

Where the Wild Things Are

Maurice Sendak's award-winning 1963 picture book sees Max sail away to an island filled with dangerous beasts known as the 'Wild Things', who Max then intimates and is heralded as the king of the Wild Things.

Comprising of ten sentences and 338 words was going to be tricky enough to turn into a feature film, and Pixar founder John Lasseter tried and failed to adapt it back in the 1980s, leaving it dormant for adaptation until 2003.

Enter offbeat Being John Malkovich director Spike Jonze, who worked for three years to develop a suitable screenplay, and, using newly-developed VFX to realise the Wild Things, the film eventually took another three years to make it to the screen.

Did it work?
Without a doubt - Jonze surprised virtually everyone with the well-told and simply brilliant in its execution, and as Jonze swatted away fears of suitability for children, it has gone on to become a must-watch tale for children and adults alike.

Naked Lunch

David Cronenberg, who seems to make a habit of directing 'unfilmable' books, tackled adapting William S. Burroughs’s most famous novel, about an exterminator, who becomes addicted to insecticide and accidentally murders his wife and gets involved in a secret government plot being orchestrated by giant bugs in North Africa.

Sounds mental right? Well, the novel is filled with jargon, gibberish and drug-induced passages that barely make sense to anyone.

In order to make the story more coherent, Cronenberg adapted other works of Burroughs including his autobiography to into Naked Lunch.

Did it work?
We'd say so - Cronenberg (dubbed 'The King of Venereal Horror') brought his trademark disturbing filmmaking to Naked Lunch to create an unforgettable, darkly entertaining story that was praised by critics and has gone on to become a cult classic.


The sprawling space epic by Frank Herbert is one of the world's best-selling science fiction novels tells the story of an interstellar war in 10,1191 AD, chock full of philosophy, political comment, religion, ecology and more far-reaching ideas.

The film version had been attempted twice in the decade before 'master of the weird' David Lynch took over production, writing the screenplay despite having not read the book, known the story, or even been interested in science fiction.

Did it work?
Not by a long shot - critics lambasted the result as boring, incomprehensible and hollow,
meanwhile, audiences were left baffled, unless they had the read the book, in which case they were disappointed with the condensed plot. Lynch distanced himself from the film, and in some of the cuts has had his name removed from the credits.


Vladimir Nabokov's controversial 1955 novel centres around a middle-aged literature professor who becomes with obsessed with, and enters a sexual relationship with a 12-year-old girl after becoming her stepfather.

With Kubrick in the director's chair for an adaptation, Nabokov wrote the screenplay, and with the 1960s censorship, were forced to tone down much of the aspects of the novel, often leaving much to the audiences' imagination.

The film was released with the tagline “How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?” to emphasise how unfeasible it was to realise Nabokov's novel on the big screen while Kubrick felt stifled by the censorship, stating that he wouldn't have made the film if he knew the restrictions he would come up against.

Did it work?
Not at the time - critics were divided on their opinions, some praising it highly, while others were dismissive; one person who wasn't a fan was Nabokov, who grumbled to The Paris Review: "the film is only a blurred skimpy glimpse of the marvellous picture I imagined."

The film has gone on to be reappraised by critics and fans and now is well-received, sitting respectfully among Kubrick's other famed directorial efforts.

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