There’s a big difference between books that shouldn’t be adapted into films and books that couldn’t be adapted into films. Books that shouldn’t be are generally subjective and frequently the subject of drunken tirades (e.g. “No, but I, like, am Oscar de Leon; I would boycott all movies ever if they adapted The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao!”). Books that couldn’t be adapted, on the other hand, have reasons for never seeing the silver screen that are logical and not completely emotional. Either the author would never allow it or audiences wouldn't "get it" or the translation from page to screen would be technically impossible.
Some of the 10 books below fall into the "shouldn't" category and some into the "couldn't" category. Regardless, they won’t ever be coming to a theater near you.
1. House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski
First things first: Danielewski has refused to sell the rights to House of Leaves. But that is far from the only reason that a movie is impossible. It’s difficult to narrow Danielewski’s debut novel down to just one plot, but the main story is the following: A family moves into a new home and quickly discovers that the interior of the home is larger than the exterior. Danielewski uses footnotes, multiple text colors and unconventional page layouts to convey the insanity that takes over the family’s life and to give the reader the same sense of disorientation that the characters feel. How could you get that on film?
2. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
In 2008, just a few days after the tragic suicide of David Foster Wallace, Vulture speculated that there might an Infinite Jest film in the works. Since then, however, there’s been no talk of a movie — and for good reason. The book clocks in at 1,088 pages, nearly 400 footnotes and almost 500,000 words. In 2012, Germany’s leading experimental theater company, Hebbel am Ufer, adapted Infinite Jest for the stage — but was only able to do so only by making it a 24-hour play. Thus, unless a filmmaker took the route of Christian Marclay’s The Clock, it would likely be impossible to convey even most of what Wallace covers.
3. Finnegans Wake by James Joyce
James Joyce is many things, but accessible he is not. It’s speculated that the author’s last words were, “Does nobody understand?”, and if a Finnegans Wake film were to be made, audiences would likely say, “No! We totally don’t get it!” Joyce’s final novel is generally considered to be his most challenging: It ends in the middle of a sentence and begins in the middle of the same sentence; it’s written in idiosyncratic language; it’s told as stream of consciousness. It’s the perfect example of how what works on the page doesn’t necessarily work on screen.
4. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
For decades, directors and producers have hoped in vain to create a film adaptation of The Catcher in the Rye, but Salinger steadfastly refused to sell the rights. During his life, he rejected attempts from Sam Goldwyn, Jerry Lewis, Billy Wilder, Steven Spielberg and Harvey Weinstein. Director Cameron Crowe even published a letter that Salinger wrote in 1957 regarding the classic novel being adapted for the screen, in which he argues that Catcher is a “novelistic” novel, saying that Holden Caulfield’s thoughts are like “gasoline rainbows in street puddles,” and points out the “immeasurably risky business of using actors.” Plus: If a movie was to be made now, Salinger would probably rise from the grave to exact revenge.
5. Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov
Unlike Lolita, which has been successfully translated into a film twice, the real story of Pale Fire is in the footnotes, which Nabokov uses to depict the mind of a madman. And while it’s not impossible to capture mental illness on screen, Pale Fire is so deeply rooted in its medium that a film version would undoubtedly come up short.
6. Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner
Voices overlapping works in literature, but on film, it’s just a mess. Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! presents the story of Thomas Sutpen, a poor man in Western Virginia who moves to Mississippi with the distinct goal of becoming wealthy. The book is told in multiple perspectives, with voices overlapping and events being presented out of order, which would be a headache for moviegoers.
7. Building Stories by Chris Ware
While other graphic novels have successfully made the transition from page to screen (see: Ghost World), Building Stories would not. First off, it’s not really a book. Sure, it’s under the “Books” section on Amazon, but that’s only because Amazon doesn’t have a “Box Filled with Books and Other Book-Like Things” section. The entire experience of reading Building Stories rests on the way in which it is presented: There is no order; you can start just about anywhere and hop around from book to book. While there is somewhat of a storyline (the lives of people living in an apartment building in Oak Park, Illinois), it’s the medium presenting the lives of those people that matters most.
8. The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker
Here’s the plotline of The Mezzanine: A man rides an escalator on his lunch break. Seriously. That’s it. But Baker’s writing is so innovative and vivid that you’re left completely engrossed, despite there being little to no actual plot. At one point, Baker dedicates multiple pages to straws, arguing that paper ones are superior to plastic. On page, it’s stunning; on the screen, it’d put you to sleep.
9. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
How do you translate a Powerpoint into a film? Answer: You don’t. A Visit from the Goon Squad is another book defined by its unusual narrative structure. There is no single central character or narrative arc; as a result, many have speculated that it’s a series of linked short stories, not a novel. Egan utilizes a meter of time that film simply does not allow for, jumping back and forth over multiple different timelines. She also uses various styles throughout the novel, including a Powerpoint created by a 12-year-old girl that can only really live on the page.
UPDATE: Commenter Ben pointed out below that Egan had made a deal with HBO in 2011 to turn A Visit from the Goon Squad into a TV series. But after some more research, we discovered that, as of February 2013, it was no longer in development. Like we said: It wasn't meant to be!
10. The Waves by Virginia Woolf
The Waves is Virginia Woolf’s most experimental novel, made up of monologues from six different characters. Their voices are woven together and broken up by nine brief third-person sections about what the coast looks like in a day. It’s difficult to say how that would possibly work on the screen, but hopefully no one will take on the daunting task of trying to do so as The Waves is perfect as is.
Michelle King grew up in South Florida, and now lives in Brooklyn. Her contributions have appeared on BULLETT, Refinery29, xoJane and The Huffington Post. Harriet M. Welsch is still her role model and probably always will be.
KEEP READING: More Literature
- 8 Hilarious Audiobooks Written and Narrated by Comedians
- Make Something Offensive: An Interview with Social Malpractice Publishing
- What If Salinger Had Listened to His Dad and Become a Meat and Cheese Importer?