Watching the final, (occasionally) high-quality products you see when you turn on the TV or head to the movies is a bit like looking at an iceberg: You're only getting about 10 percent of the whole picture. That is to say, for every Game of Thrones and Hunger Games, there are at least nine other Hollywood ideas that are either dead or wasting away in purgatory.
And because Hollywood so frequently snatches its ideas from books, if your favorite novel has never been adapted into a movie or TV show, it’s probably either come close or — for better or worse — is currently in the works. Here are five great works of literature that nearly hit the big screen:
1. A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
Egan's 2011 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel probably lends itself to a TV series more than most single-book works of fiction. Egan's sprawling narrative — to say it focuses on music industry-types during the 1980s doesn't quite do it justice — actually lends itself nicely to a highbrow TV adaptation since each of its novel's 13 chapters details the struggles of a single character as they cope with drug addiction, aging and all the other fun stuff that happens when punk kids grow up. Egan herself has even cited The Sopranos as a huge influence on the work.
Shortly after Good Squad won the Pulitzer, there was word that HBO was interested in making a series based on the book, but as of last year, the project was reported to have fizzled. Considering how easily you could imagine Egan's darkly funny, atmospheric writing thriving on HBO, this Goon Squad fanboy is still holding out hope.
2. A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
Almost no story in Hollywood history has seen as many near misses as Toole's posthumously published 1980 classic. Names attached to play the Toole's lazy, philosophical New Orleanian protagonist, Ignatius Reilly have included such heroes of modern comedy as John Belushi, Will Ferrell and John Goodman — with John Waters, Stephen Fry, Steven Soderbergh and David Gordon Green all attached in behind-the-camera roles. The latest iteration is rumored to feature Da Ali G Show, Flight of the Conchords and Muppets veteran James Bobin directing and Zach Galifianakis starring.
But is Dunces on the big screen something that we even really want? Narrowing its 416 pages, which lacks an easy narrative arc, would require some fancy pen work; the hulking page count might lend itself better to a mini-series. But with Bobin working on a sequel to Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland and Zach Galifianakis never short on projects, holding your breath for Dunces is not recommended.
3. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
Upon its initial release in 2007, Diaz's debut novel was adorned with every form of critical love imaginable, including the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. So, of course, a quick rush to snag the film rights followed, with Miramax and producer Scott Rudin (No Country for Old Men, The Social Network and countless others) eventually landing them.
While the novel — centered around an overweight, comic book-obsessed Dominican student at Rutgers University — would have been in adept hands with Rudin, the lead role would have needed to be played by an unknown actor. (Hollywood's A-list is short on overweight Dominicans.) Also, much of what makes Wao so, erm, wondrous is its shifting narrative voices and Diaz's metafictional sensibility, which is probably part of why interest in the project to tapered off around 2010 — or, in Diaz's simplified words: "I don’t think during this economic collapse there’s much clamor to film a movie about Dominican nerds in New Jersey."
4. At the Mountains of Madness by H. P. Lovecraft
A fan favorite among Lovecraft diehards, Mountains tells the story of a bizarre, ill-fated Antarctic exploration that contains everything you could ever want from a Lovecraft work: a desolate setting, terrifying encounters with the supernatural and not much in the way of redemption or hope. Unfortunately, that last bit has made it incredibly difficult to get a Hollywood adaptation off the ground, even in the hands of eccentric horror-turned-Hollywood blockbuster mad scientist Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth, Hellboy, Pacific Rim), who wrote on his official fansite: "The studio is very nervous about the cost and it not having a love story or a happy ending, but it's impossible to do either in the Lovecraft universe."
Even the marketability of bringing on Tom Cruise as geologist William Dyer and James Cameron as a producer in a 3D version of del Toro's vision hasn't convinced Warner Brothers to get the movie off the ground. Still, this humble writer is patiently holding out hope as the latest word has del Toro continuing to work on getting Mountains made.
5. The Dark Tower Series by Stephen King
No series is more primed for a highbrow TV adaptation or Lord of the Rings-style movie trilogy than King's magnum opus. Tower, which melds science fiction, fantasy, Western and horror, follows an early Eastwood-style antihero named Roland Deschain as he journeys to a mysterious tower rumored to be the center of the universe. Of course, since the series spans eight novels at about 500 pages a piece, that description hardly does the story justice.
King has always envisioned the series being adapted on a grand scale and cites The Lord of the Rings and Sergio Leone's Man with No Name Trilogy as influences. Over the years, geek-approved names like J. J. Abrams have been attached to the project, with Leonardo Dicaprio and Javier Bardem rumored to take on the role of the cold, gunslinging Roland. The latest iteration had Ron Howard producing and Russell Crowe starring in three movies, with two accompanying HBO TV seasons filling in the blanks, but as of today, both Warner Brothers and Universal have passed, and the project looks dead in the water. Too bad, but I'd still take the long-awaited, high-budget The Stand adaptation as consolation.
Of course, these five titles only skim the surface. (Hey, if a magazine reporter’s book about talking to David Foster Wallace can get a movie treatment, it’s fair to say just about anything can.) Are there any works of literature you’re dying to see on the big screen or television? Any others you’re hoping Hollywood keeps its grubby hands off of forever? Let us know in the comments below.
Adam D’Arpino is a Brooklyn-based culture, entertainment and comedy wordsmith. He’s written for MTV, CollegeHumor, Nerve.com and more. He also came up with this Seinfeld movie poster thing that the Internet got pretty excited about last year. You can follow him on Twitter: @AdamDArpino
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