Friday, 20 April 2012

Writing the Unfilmable Novel

Before I start, can I say thank you to everyone who voted and commented on last week's post about whether I should find a new agent. The poll came out 71% in favour of me looking for another agent, and I have already had a very pleasant chat with one and sent her my manuscript. Quite a few people favoured a two-tier approach of talking to editors and agents at the same time, so I will bear that in mind. You were all very generous with your advice and if you haven't seen Robot Agent, I suggest you go there right now.

But back to this week's subject – the unfilmable novel. After The Hunger Games' incredible haul at the box office, it seems churlish to suggest writing a book that would be impossible to adapt for the screen. But wouldn't that be the perfect embodiment of a story that could only be written as a novel? In this world of transmedia and ever-expanding franchises, there's a certain charm to a story that knows its limitations. Why not create an excellent narrative that truly exploits the format of one particular medium, rather than being mediocre across several?

I should stop at this juncture and point out that I haven't yet written an unfilmable novel (in fact, the rights to all of my unpublished books are still available at very reasonable prices). But it certainly feels like a challenge worth taking on.

Of course, unflimable novels are nothing new. And what's interesting about them is that, in many cases, someone has already made films from them. Breakfast of Champions, Naked Lunch, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Watchmen - these were all considered to be impossible to adapt until someone went ahead and did so. Perhaps, to a filmmaker, the unfilmable novel is as much of a challenge as it is to me as a writer. Or maybe there's a feedback loop here – if you write something truly inspirational, the readers you inspire will become creative people themselves. And I think we all remember the power of our early inspirations and how much we want to share those with the world.

Voice-driven novels can be especially tricky to adapt. Terry Gilliam's movie of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is pretty good, but it's barely a tenth as funny and outrageous as Hunter S. Thompson's original novel. In particular, the film can't avoid showing how monstrous the characters are, whereas they manage to be perversely likeable on the page. I wait with baited breath for the film version of Meg Rosoff's How I Live Now. It's the very definition of a voice-drive novel and one that manages to not show much of what is going on around the heroine. How can cinema – where one frame can reveal so much – cope with this kind of occluded narrative? How can the filmmakers possibly hide Daisy's anorexia, when she is front and centre in every scene?

Perhaps I'm focusing too tightly by talking about what is unfilmable. As media converge and mutate, there are lots of other avenues for adaptation. Is a non-linear narrative like The Unfortunates ungameable, for instance? Could voice-driven books be successfully adapted as radio plays or podcasts? Some of the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks that I loved so much as a child have already turned up as iPhone apps to serve the ever-growing nostalgia market. Perhaps if a work is strong or well-loved enough, it is hard to stop it spreading to other media.

One book remains stubbornly out of reach. Even after his death, J.D. Salinger's wishes have been respected, and the film rights to The Catcher in the Rye have not been opened to the market. If moviemakers want to adapt that unfilmable novel, they'll have to wait until the copyright expires.

In 2046.



  1. Call me wind because I am blown away by your post!

  2. Woo! A mention! I'm famous!

    I suppose you could steal the Peepshow idea for 'How I live Now', maybe that would work?

    Not sure how to write an unfilmable book, I'd quite like to see giant crabs on the big screen.

  3. Jane Eyre has always failed for me because it's all about her emotions and reactions in the book. Interesting post, Nick