It may be time for Hollywood to retire the phrase "Unfilmable Novel."
Because if “Where the Wild Things Are,” which debuts in theaters this Friday, can be made into a movie, after all its trials and tribulations, then it stands to reason that there is no book Hollywood can’t translate to the big screen.
Producers spent decades trying to crack the riddle of how to bring Maurice Sendak’s sparse, 1963 literary classic to theatrical life. The biggest obstacle? How do you make a feature film out of a book with less than a dozen sentences?
The illustrated children's classic tells the story of Max, a misbehaving boy who after being sent to his room without supper by his mother, runs away to have a raucous good time in the forest with the huge "Wild Things" creatures, only learn in the end there is no place like home.
An animated movie was considered at first. And a six-minute animated short based on the book had already been made, back in 1973.
Then director Spike Jonze, a huge fan of the book, convinced Sendak his vision would be faithful to the book’s spirit. Once the author, who is also a producer on the film, gave his blessing, Jonze and co-screenwriter Dave Eggers went to work on fleshing out the story and beginning the Rumpus.
A combination of live action, animatronics and CGI animation – an expensive and "complicated process," the director admitted – was used to bring the 9-foot-tall title characters to life. The Wild Things’ facial expressions were done via digital manipulation during post-production.
The liberties Jonze took with elements of the book – such as altering the looks of the Wild Things and delving deeper into young Max’s home life – run the risk of alienating fans of the book. (And judging by early reaction to advance screenings, the griping has already begun.)
But such differences are often necessary when adapting a book to film, according to film critic Rene Rodriguez.
“The trick to nailing down so-called ‘unfilmable novels’ is not to try to replicate all of the book's details, but to capture their essence in cinematic terms,” says Rodriguez, the longtime critic for The Miami Herald
Rodriguez singles out David Cronenberg’s “Crash” as an example of a film that veered off the course set by the book it was based on, but that maintained the feel and meaning of the original story. He also mentions another Cronenberg adaptation that did justice to its literary source.
"Naked Lunch" was a much more radical departure from William S. Burroughs' book, but the author's presence was felt in every frame,” says Rodriguez.
"Wild Things" joins the club
Director Zack Snyder knows full well how freelancing from the source work can backfire. He caught heat earlier this year from diehard fans of the landmark graphic novel “Watchmen” for altering the book’s climactic scene.
[Spoiler Alert: the giant Squid didn’t make the cut.]
“Watchmen,” like ‘Wild Things’, is another former member of the "unfilmable" club. It languished in Hollywood purgatory for two decades, until comic book movies became licenses to print money and computer-generated effects made it possible to recreate some of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ ambitious sequences.
Now, the sky’s the limit. Because if you can show Dr. Manhattan naked on Mars, really, is there anything that can’t be put onscreen? Want more proof? Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic “The Road” is coming to theaters this fall with Viggo Mortensen in the lead role.
A short history of the "Unfilmable"
Fantasy and science fiction literary works have proven tough cinematic nuts to crack throughout the years. But several page-to-picture adaptations serve as mile markings along Hollywood’s historical highway.
The 1925 silent movie adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Lost World” broke new ground for stop-motion cinematic visual effects.
Steven Spielberg’s 1993 version of the Michael Crichton novel “Jurassic Park” became the highest-grossing film of all time to that point, thanks to the combination of Stan Winston’s animatronics and the nascent CGI technology that created the movie’s dinosaurs.
But in the realm of the "unfilmable," pop culture’s true white whale was finally captured in 2001. That’s when Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy arrived. Jackson’s deft translation of Tolkien’s epic masterwork was a colossal hit on all fronts. The films earned more than a billion dollars combined, won 17 Oscars, and made fans in the Shire happy.
Filmable doesn't necessarily mean faithful
Of course, going the book-to-feature film route often doesn’t come to an end at a happy place.
Compromises must be made, in regards to story clarity and running time. Key subplots and even beloved characters often don’t survive the adaptation process, which is bound to upset someone.
Then there’s another problem: Being too faithful to the source material.
“Sometimes, even the most slavish adaptation of a book, can completely miss what made the novel so great,” Rodriguez says. “The first two "Harry Potter" movies, for example, were excruciatingly faithful to the books, but made for boring films. Whereas "No Country For Old Men" succeeded not only for replicating the book so closely (right down to its controversial ending) but also capturing its ominous and nihilistic spirit.”
And while there is no question that the incredible visual effects technology available today makes the unfilmable filmable, digital filmmaking tools can’t carry the load.
“Eragon.” “Timeline.” “The Golden Compass.” All popular books that were saddled with lackluster cinematic translations that relied on special effects at the expense of story and character development.
Film critic Alison Bailes cites one of the most enduring fantasy literary adaptations when pointing out the importance of story over spectacle.
"”The Wizard of Oz” is one of the greatest fantasy films ever adapted from a children’s book and it was made in 1939, when very limited effects existed,” says Bailes.
“The common problem nowadays is that filmmakers have more technical options, and sometimes think that CGI can make everything possible. But if the story’s not there, then the movie won’t be any good, no matter what the concept.”
Children’s literature has been a bonanza for movie producers for some time. Dr. Seuss’ catalog has already been raided for “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” and “The Cat in the Hat.” The current box-office hit “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” is the most recent example. We’ll know soon enough if “Where the Wild Things Are” connects with audiences.
The Harry Potter books and to a lesser extent, The Narnia" series, both which appeal to adults as well as children, are the gold standards with regards to success in franchise novel adaptations. That's why Hollywood’s long affair with science fiction and fantasy literature is eternal.
The unfilmable final frontier
While it's been suggest the concept of the "Unfilmable Novel" is on its way to extinction, there are a few titles still on the endangered list.
“Gravity’s Rainbow” by Thomas Pynchon is high on the wait-and-see list of many science fiction fans.
So is a translation of Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” books. Asimov fans were disappointed by 2004’s “I, Robot” movie, and the news that disaster movie master Roland Emmerich plans a “Foundation” film trilogy didn’t exactly raise hopes. “Ender’s Game” from Orson Scott Card is another ambitious epic many would like to see onscreen.
Perhaps the toughest nut to crack in science fiction literature is one of the giants of the genre: Robert Heinlein’s 1961 landmark “Stranger in a Strange Land.” Rumors of an adaptation of the dense classic gain steam every few years (one of the most recent involved a version starring Rom Hanks and Sean Connery) and then fade away.
Comic books and graphic novels have been Hollywood’s recent favorite content supplier, and yes, “Watchmen” established a certain ‘anything is possible’ mentality with producers. But there remain a few titles that remain pipe dreams at becoming movies.
Art Spiegleman’s award-winning “Maus” is one that may never see the light of cinematic day. And Garth Ennis’ “Preacher” has already had numerous false starts in film and TV.
Among more mainstream superhero books, a movie based on Frank Miller’s visionary Batman story “The Dark Knight” remains a Fanboy fantasy.
Then there’s Neil Gaiman. The popular author is a Hollywood favorite, having already seen “Stardust” and “Coraline” turned into movies. But “American Gods” is a book he believes would only work as a cable network mini-series, not a two-hour film.
And don’t hold your breath waiting for his most popular work, “Sandman,” to arrive at a theater near you. Gaiman has said in the past he’d rather see no “Sandman” movie than a bad one.
Wouldn’t it be nice if more creators felt the same way?
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