“The book was better than the movie” – a mantra repeated by your more literary-inclined friends and neighbours. A statement that proves their superiority in taste; a predilection for the finer, richer things in life. The ones that prefer the aged cab blanc over boxed house wine, or sneer at twitter and blockbusters. The ones that claim to have read all of Infinite Jest (though few actually have).
But their argument is flawed. It negates the fact that films and novels, no matter their quality, are entirely different mediums. It’s apples and oranges. They may as well be arguing that Miles Davis was a better jazz musician than T.S. Elliot. Or Katy Perry is a more talented pop star than Daniel Day Lewis, for you millennials.
Every once in a while, however, comes that glorious moment when mediums, genre and talent merge into something transcendent. Some novels are already cinematic in nature, particularly airport thrillers and dime store detective stories. Occasionally, the dialogue on the page crackles with the same crackerjack cleverness on screen.
And there are numerous novels like that just waiting to be filmed. But there are setbacks. The rights aren’t secured, or switch hands too many times. Some, with adapted screenplays already completed, just haven’t found the right cast or director. Here are some of the books we’re waiting, breath abated, to see on the big screen.
15. The Big Nowhere
Sci-fi novelist William Gibson has had a strange relationship with Hollywood. His own adaptations of his work, as well as many original screenplays, have failed to gain much traction. He wrote an early draft of Alien 3 (one of many writers to attempt) well-liked by fans, but rejected by Fox. Other writers have produced flops loosely based on his worked such as the notoriously awful Keanu Reeves vehicle Johnny Mnemonic. And his two X-Files scripts, “Kill Switch” and “First Person Shooter,” are regarded with a shrug and deep disdain, respectively.
His debut novel, Neuromancer, is the manifesto of the cyberpunk genre. It concerns down-on-his-luck hacker in a dystopian future hired to pull off the ultimate hack. Films such as The Matrix and Strange Days drew heavily on the book. Canadian director Vincenzo Natali (Cube, Spliced) has been trying to get a film version made since 2010. Since then, he’s become unavailable, though his script – penned with assistance from Gibson, lies in wait.
13. White Jazz
Ellroy’s fourth book in the Quartet is another passion project of the Carnahans, though the rights were initially acquired by George Clooney‘s production company. Nick Nolte was set to play the lead character, an aging, corrupt cop attempting to clean up a severe mess that involves a gangland slaying of immigrants, another deranged serial killer, and the nefarious police captain Dudley Smith. John Cusack was set to play Junior Stemmons, Nolte’s new junkie partner.
Smith was played by James Cromwell in Confidential and (spoilers for a 19-year-old film) was gunned down by Guy Pearce‘s Ed Exley at the climax. The Carnahans promised to create a surrogate for Smith and Exley, freeing it from the sequel ties that otherwise would weigh heavily on the film. Still no word on whether or not it will ever see the light of day.
12. Rendezvous With Rama
There’s a running joke in the beloved cult series Party Down in which Roman, a writer of “hard sci-fi,” meets his novelist idol who has agreed to adapt his work with the caterer’s rival. They both have issues, however, in bringing an invisible monolith to screen without compromising the integrity of the author’s work.
Such is the dilemma of many a screenwriter: How do you bring to screen what is essentially unfilmable?
Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama is the same sort of sprawling, complex meditation on humankind’s existence that Stanley Kubrick approached with 2001: A Space Odyssey. Both Morgan Freeman and David Fincher have both been working to film the novel, but Freeman seems far more determined. Recently, he told physicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson that, “We ARE going to make that movie” – a sentiment he’s been expressing since 2003.
Much of Phillip K. Dick’s work, like many other science fiction writers, has been adapted in the loosest sense possible. Faithful adaptations such as Blade Runner and Predestination work well, while the tangents taken by the likes of Paycheck fail miserably. Mostly, however, his work has held up better under the camera than most.
His most acclaimed novel, Ubik, is a thrilling tale involving moon travel, telepaths and shifting reality. There have been several screenplays since the first attempt by French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin in 1974 (which Dick wrote himself). The most recent attempt was director Michel Gondry, who left the project two years ago, frustrated with the numerous drafts the production went through.
10. Snow Crash
Neal Stephenson’s funny, bizarre and endlessly fascinating novel could be considered almost a send-up of the entire cyberpunk movement. But it holds the tropes of the genre is such high esteem and manages to be as complexly layered that it’s mystifying to think of it as anything but sincere.
Also, like any seminal work, it’s influences on both similar fiction as well as real-world technological advances are not to be trifled with nor sneered at.
In 2012, filmmaker and comedian Joe Cornish (Attack the Block) had completed a script that Stephenson himself called “brilliant” but also stated there’s no guarantee it will be made. Just last month, however, producer Frank Marshall expressed enthusiasm about the film’s potential.
9. The Dark Tower
Aspiring filmmakers take note: theoretically, you could adapt a Stephen King work. So insanely wealthy is the man that he requires nothing more than a dollar and a handshake to acquire the film rights to any of his short stories and novels (though this might cost you a plane ticket to Maine). This is why so many student films wind up being adaptations of his work – from “The Lawnmower Man” (not the feature film) to “Popsy.” He refers to such adaptations as “Dollar babies.”
The Dark Tower series has been a prize on which numerous filmmakers have set their sights. Frank Darabont even teased audiences in the opening shots of The Mist, in which poster artist Thomas Jane (whose art itself is a tribute to the late Drew Struzan) is working on a painting resembling the main character, Roland Deschain.
Only recently has there been movement of the project that confirms they are indeed filming the first adaptation now. Photos of Idris Elba as Deschain started showing up online last month.
8. At The Mountains of Madness
Every few years, director Guillermo Del Toro updates the public on his efforts to bring H.P. Lovecraft’s seminal novella to the screen. A screenplay was completed in 2006, but Warner Bros. was skittish about financing it. The studio was concerned about the cost, as well as the unsentimental story. There is no love interest to speak of – the closest cinematic work to Madness would most likely be John Carpenter‘s 1982 remake of The Thing.
But what Del Toro hasn’t considered is another, larger issue that comes with adapting any of the horror writer’s works. With the exception of Stuart Gordon’s adaptations of Re-Animator and From Beyond, Lovecraft’s works have not been very successful. Most of his short fiction doesn’t crack 30 pages, leaving screenwriters to pad out plot points to the dismay of fans.
Lovecraftian fiction has a formula: Man visits strange place (usually with horrific, white supremacist subtext), man goes sees something unfathomable, man goes crazy or kills self. The monsters in his work are never fully seen or described, some are things even the human mind cannot process. Del Toro is fond of giant, CGI monsters (the glimpses of creatures seen at the end of Hellboy are Lovecraft-inspired). The creatures seen in the likes of Pacific Rim would bring some resentment from die-hard fans of the novella.
Since before The Terminator made us nervous about using any artificial technology, man has feared a robot takeover. Generally it was much more silly before James Cameron took it into darker territory, with giant men in silver cardboard wandering the screen in B-movies.
Daniel H. Wilson’s novel features a sentient A.I. that, like Skynet before it, begins plotting humankind’s extinction. Naturally, it was a bestseller in 2011.
No less than Steven Spielberg is still signed on to direct an adaptation, with a script by Drew Goddard (Cloverfield, The Cabin in the Woods). However, the film has been put on hold indefinitely, with all involved claiming the script was not ready and “too important” to screw up.
6. Blood Meridian
Following the success of the Coen Bros. blunt adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men, you’d think studios would leap at the opportunity to realize arguably his masterwork cinematically. Blood Meridian follows an unnamed protagonist as he scalps Native Americans in the West of the 1850s, as well as his run-ins with a well-educated but brutal judge.
The novel is as sparse as Old Men, and certainly more brutal and deeply cynical (if that can be imagined). Bringing it to screen would be a challenge – one taken up most recently by James Franco, who shot 20 minutes of test footage. After a viewing, producer Scott Rudin refused to move any further.
5. The Breathing Method
Is there a period of time in Hollywood during which there isn’t a Stephen King adaptation of some kind in the works? Just this year we have a new It, a new Cujo and a television series based on The Mist.
The Breathing Method a haunting novella told as an anecdote in which a pregnant woman is decapitated in a car accident, yet the labour continues. Less horror than a violent tragedy, the work is one of King’s more depressing works (and that’s saying a lot).
4. American Tabloid
From L.A. to the entire United States, Ellroy chronicled and fictionalized the behind-the-scenes scandals that gave rise to the America we know today, from the assassinations of JFK, RFK and MLK; from the Bay of Pigs invasion to the infiltration of the Black Panthers. It’s written in the same three-word sentence-fever dream intensity that became Ellroy’s hallmark.
Bruce Willis initially expressed interested in developing Tabloid as a miniseries. Shortly after that fell through, in 2008, Tom Hanks‘ production company was developing a mini or ongoing series for HBO that would cover the events of Tabloid and its sequel, The Cold Six Thousand.
There’s been no movement on the adaptation since, though a third and final novel, Blood’s a Rover, has been released. The last time Ellroy made the jump to television was a short story adaptation for the brief HBO anthology series Fallen Angels (in an episode featuring running character Buzz Meeks). With the proper backing, there’s no doubt the show would quickly turn into appointment television.
Neil Gaiman’s trippy, metaphysical comic series ran for 75 issues over the course of six years. In the world of fantasy fiction, no work has had more of an influence on other writers. Gaiman’s Sandman is set in the world of dreams, in which seven entities known as The Endless – anthropomorphic representations of Death, Destiny, Dream, Desire, Delirium, Despair and Destruction – battle for control over their domains.
Warner Bros. worked to bring a film, or several, to the screen throughout the 90s. Screenwriter Roger Avary (Pulp Fiction, Silent Hill) was attached to direct, but soon fired due to creative differences.
Fanboy Joseph Gordon Levitt has been slated to star for the past five years, with names involved in various capacities including screenwriter David S. Goyer (Blade, Batman V. Superman), Terry Gilliam and British television writer Jack Thorne (Skins). However, Levitt has since dropped out due to, once again, creative differences.
2. The Talisman
Stephen King briefly collaborated with horror writer Peter Straub in the 1980s. The result was The Talisman, in which a young boy sets out to find a mysterious, fantastical cure for his mother’s cancer through both the heart of America and its alternate universe.
Reactions to the highly anticipated collaboration range from considering it one of the worst to one of the best of its kind, and everywhere on the spectrum in between.
The plot elements, specifically those involving a young boy with no strong father figure on a journey, sound like something out of a Spielberg film. So it’s no shock that his production company, Amblin Entertainment, optioned the rights quickly. Not much has been heard until very recently, with the news that Frank Marshall (Arachnophobia, Congo) is attached to direct.
1. A Confederacy of Dunces
The title of John Kennedy Toole’s cult classic sheds some tragic light on the novel’s long history to publication. Toole tried to get it published for years, with countless rejections his only response. In short, no publisher seemed to understand the work, with Simon and Schuster referring to the manuscript as pointless. It seemed that the dunces in question were those refusing to publish the work that his now hailed as brilliant; and Toole is the genius fighting against said Confederacy.
Or he would have been had he not committed suicide at the age of 31. The book was published 11 years later, after his mother found a copy of the manuscript in his personal effects. It earned Toole a posthumous Pulitzer.
In 1982, the late Harold Ramis was trying to put together an adaptation with John Belushi and Richard Pryor in the lead roles. Belushi, like Toole, died young that same year. The role was later offered to Chris Farley, who suffered the same fate – bringing many to think the role might be cursed.
A general lack of interest from studio executives, director Stephen Soderberg’s genuine belief in the curse as well as the devastation of New Orleans (the novel’s setting) in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina have kept this particular masterpiece from ever seeing the light of day.
Sources: Movieseum, Geek.com, Wikipedia