Aug 02 2013
Certain books just beg to be adapted to the screen. Whether it’s a certain character that’s so vibrant that you can’t help but wonder how your favorite actor would bring them off the page, or a certain scene that’s so epic and cinematic in scope that you storyboard the whole thing in your head, there are certain books that you can’t help but imagine as masterpieces of film or TV.
We’ve seen great pieces of literature adapted into some great movies – Flight Club, Lord of the Rings, and No Country For Old Men are shining stars of both the page and the screen. Of course, on the other side of the spectrum you’ve got Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Flowers in the Attic, and I, Robot, film versions of beloved, important, notable books that either completely missed the point, bastardized the story, or generally did a horrible job of translating the magic of the book to the screen.
The most frustrating type of book is one that deserves to be made into a great movie, but never will. Below, you’ll find five examples of these books, the reason they’ll never get made, and a bit of wistful dreaming as I hypothetically cast a character from each book with an actor who would just blow it out of the water.
1. Lamb – Christopher Moore
What it’s about: “The birth of Jesus has been well chronicled, as have his glorious teachings, acts, and divine sacrifice after his thirtieth birthday. But no one knows about the early life of the Son of God, the missing years — except Biff. Ever since the day when he came upon six-year-old Joshua of Nazareth resurrecting lizards in the village square, Levi bar Alphaeus, called “Biff,” had the distinction of being the Messiah’s best bud. That’s why the angel Raziel has resurrected Biff from the dust of Jerusalem and brought him to America to write a new gospel, one that tells the real, untold story. Meanwhile, Raziel will order pizza, watch the WWF on TV, and aspire to become Spider-Man.” (Amazon)
Why it would make an amazing movie: Uh, where do I start? For one thing, it’s hilarious, and unlike Hitchhiker’s where a lot of the comedy comes from the writing itself, much of Lamb’s comedy comes from situation and dialogue, both things that translate well to the screen. There are also certain scenes that would look great on the big screen. Raziel, “I’m good with weather,” the avenging angel stopping Titus’ ship in its tracks. Balhazar’s demon getting loose and everything that happens then. Biff dressed as Kali with the exploding heads. Biff riding the elephant around the harbor and yelling, “Look, I’m walking on water!” The real reason, though, is the relationship between Joshua and Biff. It’s perfect for a movie – they go on a literal journey together, seeing and doing some incredible things, and at the end, there’s a huge, huge emotional payoff. It’s the Greatest Story Never Told.
Why it’ll never happen: The production company that optioned it wants nothing to do with it. They actually refused a musical adaptation for the stage even though they haven’t started work on a movie, at all. Aside from the logistical problems, there are several other issues. For one thing, Hollywood has never been crazy about movies that poke fun (even if it’s not at all mean-spirited) at Christianity. Life of Brian was protested rather heavily, and Dogma wasn’t exactly a smash hit with everyone. I tend to think that these days it wouldn’t be an issue, but that might be optimistic of me. No one who has ever read the book, that I’ve talked to, has had a problem with it. Another issue is the structure of the book, with its frequent flash-forwards to Biff writing his Gospel in a hotel room in modern times, would have to be modified fairly heavily. You couldn’t just cut that part, because without it the ending would be rather grim. With all these issues, it’s hard to imagine this ever hitting theaters, although if it did, I’d be first in line.
Dreamcasting a role: Chris Pratt as Biff
Biff’s humor comes from a combination of obliviousness and sometimes brutal honesty and pragmatism. He’s also kind of a douchebag, but a likable one. I think Pratt could pull this off extremely well.
2. The Wheel of Time – Robert Jordan
What it’s about: TL;DR. I mean, this is the mother of all epic fantasies. A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones, for those of you who only know it from television) has gotten more attention in the zeitgeist, but both series are 1A and 1B of American fantasy. Attempting it summarize the story goes beyond the scope of this article.
Why it would make an amazing movie: It’s epic fantasy, and the scale is even more epic than A Song of Ice and Fire and Lord of the Rings. There are battle scenes with 100,000 monsters attacking a manor house and 10-20 magic wielding characters fending them off with fiery death. There’s a scene where a character creates a ‘Gateway’ between the inside of a volcano and 15 feet above an opposing army. There’s a duel in the sky, there’s the destruction of cities, and there’s a battle within a shifting dreamscape that makes The Matrix look unimaginative. Aside from the epic nature of the work itself, the cast of characters is stellar; a core group that matures and comes of age in a fully fleshed-out world of political intrigue, magic, prophecy, and awesomeness.
Why it’ll never happen: Oh, it’ll never, ever happen. For one thing there’s a thing called “The Sliding Scale of Idealism versus Cynicism,” and cultural tastes theses days tend to fall along the cynicism side. We like our anti-heroes. Our Walter Whites, our Tyrion Lannisters, our Don Drapers. If Game of Thrones is on one end, and The Chronicles of Narnia on the other, The Wheel of Time falls somewhere in between. It’s a story about good and evil, and although there’s some moral ambiguity, for the most part there are good guys and bad guys. But that’s small potatoes compared to the real reason, which, in a word, is length. The series is just over 4 million words long, consisting of 14 books. The only way to make it work would be an HBO-style miniseries with each season consisting of a book. And 14 seasons is just too much. Even putting aside the length, there are just too many characters. The first few books could work, but once you get into the heart of the series and the cast of important characters starts to get into the triple-digits, you would never be able to follow along. I was impressed enough that they made Game of Thrones work as well as it does with its multiple plotlines, but Wheel of Time is on a different level.
Dreamcasting the Big 3 (Rand, Mat, Perrin): Jake Johnson as Perrin Aybara
A bit out of the box here, as I’m not sure I’ve seen Johnson in a non-comedy role, but he’s got all of the gruff, scruffy charm that Perrin needs to have to not seem totally wooden. He’d have to tone up a bit to look like Perrin (who’s supposed to be a blacksmith, and look like it), but he’s a great actor and I’d love to see him take a swing at this.
Daniel Radcliffe as Mat Cauthon
It’s fantasy, so everyone would be speaking in vaguely British accents anyway. Not so much in movies, but in real life (and on Extras) I’ve seen Radcliffe have the kind of sarcasm and wit that Mat Cauthon would need. He looks the part, too. And since Mat is everyone’s favorite character, you’d probably want him to be someone recognizable. Plus the Harry Potter/Wheel of Time mashup memes would practically write themselves.
Michael B. Jordan as Rand Al’Thor
Rand is a tricky character. In a huge cast, he’s the main character. He’s also the lens through which we see much of the world. As such, he’s not quite an Everyman, but he doesn’t start with strong characteristics, letting the reader put themselves in the story through him. He’s a good, honorable guy who has to deal with just a tremendous amount of shit, both external and especially internal. You need an actor who’s both that young, and that talented. You’d need someone who’s proved that he can hang with the cast of a complex, layered drama. You’d need someone open and naive enough to be amazed by the world after living a sheltered life, and strong and stubborn enough to take that entire world on when the time comes.
Yes, Rand is supposed to be fair skinned with red hair, which does matter because it’s a clue that he has Aiel ancestors (which is a thing that matters, down the road). All you’d have to do is make the Aiel predominantly black instead of predominantly pale redheads. And you know what that would let you do?
Boom. Idris Elba as Rhuarc, Aiel clan chief. Hell. Yes.
3. Stranger In A Strange Land – Robert Heinlein
What it’s about: “It tells the story of Valentine Michael Smith, a human who comes to Earth in early adulthood after being born on the planet Mars and raised by Martians. The novel explores his interaction with—and eventual transformation of—terrestrial culture.” (TVTropes)
Why it would make an amazing movie: It’s a poetic, brilliant, stunning look at human culture and our capacity for love and empathy, both as individuals and as a society. Mike is both incredibly intelligent and incredibly naive. Imagine explaining things like materialism, religion, war, females, clothing, and humor to someone who was human, but hadn’t grown up on Earth. Mike’s journey to understand the particular form of beauty and despair our modern human lives can create is both tragic and wonderful. He’s a complex character, displaying at once both a complete incomprehension of day-to-day life on Earth as well as the capacity to surpass it both mundane and more spiritual ways.
Why it’ll never happen: It challenges almost all of our social norms, not with sensationalism but with an eye towards objectivity and intellectualism. Frankly, I’m not sure that’s going to appeal to enough people. Discussions about casual nudity and polygamy and cannibalism are more interesting, but less sensational if they’re just that – discussions. I’m also really unsure how the end would play on the screen. It’s not open-ended, but I’m not sure the end would feel “satisfying” the way we’re used to in traditional movies.
Dreamcasting a role: Benedict Cumberbatch as Valentine Michael Smith, the Man From Mars
Come on, Cumberbatch kind of looks like an alien already, am I right? But in a good way. This one just makes sense. When you think about what Mike’s complex character has to portray – both complete innocence and complete comprehension at various points in the movie, Cumberbatch would knock it out of the park.
4. Bridge of Birds – Barry Hughart
What it’s about: “A fantasy novel taking place in a version of ancient China wherein the regional folk tales and Taoist myths are all true. The gods really do meddle in the affairs of mortals (but subtly, for reasons of etiquette) and minor bits of magic can be found anywhere. Lu Yu, nicknamed Number Ten Ox because of his birth order and great strength, is a humble peasant living in the village of Ku-fu, content to spend his days farming and assisting with the annual silk harvest…until one year when the abject failure of the harvest coincides with a devastating plague that infects the children—and only the children—of the village. Ox’s aunt sends him to Peking with money in order to hire a wise man to solve the mystery, and he winds up with one Li Kao, an antiquated drunkard who keeps company with bandits and thugs. But despite these “slight flaws in his character,” Master Li also has a well-developed sense of justice and quite possibly the keenest mind in all China, and he eagerly joins—in fact, he takes command of—Ox’s quest to save the children. A quest that ultimately takes them into every conceivable corner of China, into bustling cities and deep caverns and across deserts and mountain ranges, to do business and battle (sometimes simultaneously) with brilliant scholars, horrifying monsters, scheming noblewomen, obsessive businessmen, demigods, and not a few tormented ghosts.” (TVTropes)
Why it would make an amazing movie: If you didn’t read that, just trust me on the fact that it’s an incredible book. Its structure is almost that of a fairy tale. There’s the Epic Quest that’s the spine of the novel, complete with visually stunning vistas and hyperbolic, over-the-top fight scenes. Master Li is one of my favorite characters of all time, and his deviousness plays perfectly to Number Ten Ox’s foil as the straight man. Through it all, the book never loses its sense of adventure, and more importantly its sense of fun.
Why it’ll never happen: To be blunt, when’s the last time you saw a non-martial arts movie that featured two Asian leads? Hollywood doesn’t exactly have a great track record there. The other issue is that the book, as wonderful as it is, is a virtual unknown. No one I’ve ever talked to has ever heard of it. It’s great to have in your back pocket as a recommendation, but if studio execs look at the popularity of a book to gauge interest in a possible movie, this book isn’t getting anywhere near the threshold.
Dreamcasting a role: Aaron Yoo as Number 10 Ox
He’d definitely have to bulk up, but something about his earnestness and vivaciousness makes me think he’s excel in this role. Ox is more “Country Bumpkin” than “Gentle Giant,” and while he does have to be physically imposing, I’d rather have a good actor in a role and have to do some cinematic slight-of-hand than a worse actor who fits the physical description. Plus it would almost be a joke in and of itself if Yoo was this super-slight guy who everyone treated like a bruiser, and he had the strength of one.
American Gods – Neil Gaiman
What it’s about: “The novel is a blend of Americana, fantasy, and various strands of ancient and modern mythology, all centering on the mysterious and taciturn Shadow. Fantasy at its best, Gaiman’s novel pits the gods of old against the gods of the modern world in a spiritual battle for society’s very soul.” (Amazon)
Why it would make a great movie: It has brilliant characters, amazing and complex ideas, and the dark, gritty tone fits perfectly with direction modern cinema is embracing at the moment. The ending would be incredibly cool to see on screen. Shadow visiting the land of the dead, and the almost-but-not quite climatic battle would be just bonkers – the sheer variety of mythology would make the myriad gods just crazy to see on film.
Why it’ll never happen: There’s a possibility that it will. However, it might never work as a movie but only as a TV miniseries. There are just too many characters to have to spend some time with, enough to do justice to them. If the film cut enough to just focus on Shadow and Mr. Wednesday, you’d lose a lot of what makes the book special. But if you made it for TV, you wouldn’t have the intense special effects budget you’d need to do justice to some of the crazier scenes. This would have to be someone’s labor of love to come out right. I’d love to see it, but I don’t think the odds are great.
Dreamcasting a role: Anthony Hopkins as Mr. Wednesday
This is the popular choice, but come on. It’s obvious. He’s perfect.
Not on the list:
Confederacy of Dunces. It’s one of the funniest books I’ve ever read; I just think it wouldn’t translate well to film. I think it would film about as well as Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; so much of the humor is in the writing itself. Plus they’ve been trying to make it into a movie for about a decade.
Infinite Jest – I would love to see someone take a crack at this, but it’s not exactly realistic. This may be one of the more unfilmable books ever.
The Dark Tower – Because it could actually happen. PLEASE, let it happen. Fingers crossed.
Snow Crash - because it’s actually happening.
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