Friday, 12 January 2007

The myth of the 'unfilmable' novel

With 'Perfume' finally making it to the big screen, Will Gore considers other supposedly unfilmmable novels.
Will Gore Jan 10 2007 © Time Out

With the recent arrival of 'Perfume: The Story of a Murderer' in cinemas, perhaps the myth of the 'unfilmable' novel can finally be laid to rest.

Author Patrick Suskind's tale of a killer with an extraordinary sense of smell features pages and pages of detailed sensory descriptions that appear impossible to translate to film, and Suskind initially believed his novel would never make it to the big screen.

However, he eventually entrusted the rights to his friend and film producer Bernd Eichinger, and the result is a menacing, morally ambiguous effort that may lack the depth and scope of the novel, but nevertheless stands up as a decent piece of work in its own right.

'Perfume' was not the first book to be labelled 'unfilmable', but this is clearly a misnomer. In every case I can think of filmmakers have found ways of bringing all kinds of 'difficult' books to our screens, and 'difficult' can mean a range of things, from excessive violence and drug taking to sexually explicit content and problematic story structures.

Yet it seems none of these problems are impossible to overcome, although the resulting films often meet with differing levels of success.

David Cronenberg adapted JG Ballard's controversial novel 'Crash' and the result was a sexually charged, if somewhat dull film. Mary Harron fared much better with her adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis's infamous 'American Psycho'. Rather than taking Cronenberg's po-faced literal approach to adaptation, she eschewed much of the book's carnage, and created a dark, hilarious satire of eighties yuppie-dom.

Another reason why few, if any, books remain 'unfilmable' is that the adaptation can become a holy grail for filmmakers, who are in the main a determined bunch.

Francis Ford Coppola owns the rights to Jack Kerouac's seminal beat generation novel 'On the Road', and has kept this project alive for decades, having acquired the rights to the book in 1968.

The production has endured many false starts, perhaps due to the iconic status of the novel or the story's unwieldy structure. But finally it appears Coppola's dream will be realised as shooting could begin on the picture later this year with Walter Salles, of 'The Motorcycle Diaries' fame, slated to direct.

As far as adaptations are concerned, the best results seem to come when adaptors are faced with tricky books that force them to think creatively, so we have high hopes for the forthcoming adaptations of 'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time', 'Atlas Shrugged' and 'The Time Traveller's Wife'.

Indeed, when a book is too 'filmable' things can go horribly wrong, as with Brian de Palma's disastrous version of Tom Wolfe's bestseller, 'The Bonfire of the Vanities'. The satirical tome seemed to be crying out for translation to celluloid, but ended up an overblown, expensive mess.

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