The release of Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune,” arriving so quickly on the heels of “Apple’s Foundation” adaptation, shows and films that the lure of adapting so-called “unfilmable” books for the screen remains as strong as ever. No matter how successful — or not, as anyone who’s watched the “Breakfast of Champions” movie knows all too well — any adaptation of a book people believed couldn’t be done nonetheless appears to be such an accomplishment that filmmakers can’t help but look for subjects to aim their attention towards.
With that in mind, here are some of the few remaining untouched unfilmable masterpieces left in the world of genre literature to explore for yourself in their original form, while you still can.
‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ by Thomas Pynchon
To try and summarize Pynchon’s telling of the creation of the V-2 rockets — one of Time’s all-time 100 Greatest Novels, although upon its release, one described as both “unreadable” and “obscene” by Pulitzer Prize judges the year after its initial release — is an almost impossible task, which is what makes it such a difficult book to adapt. It’s not just that it’s astonishingly lengthy, but that so much of the book takes place in hallucinations or dream sequences, or end up being concerned about things that are either near impossible to make cinematic (Hello, telepathic communication) or should be (Hello yourself, shit-eating sequence). It’s not that Pynchon set out to write something that cinema couldn’t touch; that just turned out to be a happy accident of the book’s creation.
‘The Man Who Folded Himself’ by David Gerrold
Published the same year as “Gravity’s Rainbow,” Gerrold’s “The Man Who Folded Himself” has been described as the ultimate time travel novel, with good reason: it’s the story of a man who receives the gift of a belt that allows him to travel through time, and uses it to… hang out with himself over and over again. And, by “hang out with,” I mean, “have sex with” (more than once). Any cinematic version would require all manner of special effects to ensure that the lead actor appears on screen as much (and as often) as possible — especially given the philosophical and moral questions raised in the process.
‘Dhalgren’ by Samuel R. Delany
Intentionally oblique and experimental, Delany’s tale of a nameless protagonist exploring a seemingly destroyed city called Bellona is a frustrating and beautiful read that can prove particularly rewarding for those with the patience to make it through the 800+ page book. What (arguably) works as an exhaustive and exhausting literary investigation into the nature of self, reality and literature, however, would likely make for a disappointing cinematic experience when stripped of Delany’s individual voice and playfulness. It’s one thing to lose yourself in an expansive recursive tone poem of a book at your own leisure, after all; being trapped in a recreation of that inside a movie theater seems a far less attractive proposition.
‘The Silmarillion’ by J.R.R. Tolkien
Perhaps the best indicator of how unfilmable this collection of Middle-Earth stories by “Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” writer Tolkien is may come in the simple fact that it’s not been filmed; following the success of Peter Jackson’s two blockbuster trilogies, it would have seemed a safe bet that any remaining Tolkien stories would be snapped up for the big screen. “The Silmarillion,” though, is anything but crowd-friendly fodder — published posthumously in 1977, it was made up of esoteric material that included some initially refused by his publisher during his lifetime, with much of the material left unfinished or in need of a second draft, to be polite. If someone did want to adapt it for the screen, it might be best represented by Sir Ian McKellan just talking directly to the audience and saying, “Honestly, I don’t think you really need to bother” in that charming way of his.
‘Timequake’ by Kurt Vonnegut
Unlike earlier entries in this list, “Timequake” — the final “novel” by sci-fi master Vonnegut, although that definition is something we’ll return to in a second — has a concept that feels tailor-made for movies: a disruption in the time/space continuum that throws everyone back a decade to relive their lives a second time around. It’s Groundhog Day, but for the entire world! What makes the book a success, though, is something that no film could reproduce: Vonnegut’s voice, and the fact that the book is less of a straightforward story than a series of digressions about what Vonnegut is thinking about at the time, while simultaneously complaining that the book isn’t really coming together as planned. It’s a metafictional joy, and sadly, no amount of studio magic could make that happen anywhere else.
‘House of Leaves’ by Mark Z. Danielewski
When Danielewski’s debut novel was released in 2000, much of the attention wasn’t spent on the story — which centers around the discovery by the book’s protagonist of a study of a documentary that may or may not exist, and the interaction between the protagonist, the study, and the documentary itself as the three become more and more intertwined — but the way that the story was told, taking advantage of the very format of a book with footnotes, typographic tricks and more making the most of the way that we read. Sure, an enterprising director could do their best to replicate the appeal by using different film stock and image treatments, but in a post-“Blair Witch,” “Paranormal Activity” era, is that really going to make anyone pay attention?
‘The Gone-Away World’ by Nick Harkaway
For those wondering what “The Gone-Away World” is all about, the answer is partially suggested by the title: it’s the world that remains after something called the Go-Away War. What the Go-Away War was is a slightly more difficult proposition — a war fought using weapons that don’t just destroy their target, but destroy any evidence of their existence altogether… making them simply go away. Unfortunately, there’s a byproduct of all of this: the tendency for the matter that made up the gone-away material to reappear as the products of bystanders’ subconscious. A surreal, ridiculous, existential story, “The Gone-Away World” feels so tied to the insular world of its inhabitants and the unique way prose can invite audiences into that world that bringing it into any other medium feels almost guaranteed to fail.
‘S’ by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst
You might think that any story co-written by J.J. Abrams of all people would be destined for the screen — big or small! — but the existence of 2013’s “S” proves otherwise. Telling three different stories that are, kind of, the same story (kind of), “S” is what happens when someone works out a way to make a book that comes with notes in the margin already pre-written. Technically, there’s a movie to be made out of the central book in the project, “Ship of Theseus” by reclusive (and fictional) author V. M. Straka, but any such adaptation would miss the additional context added by Jennifer and Eric, the two characters who’ve already read Theseus and left notes for the reader to discover — and it’s the way that all three play against each other that truly make “S” as worthwhile as it ends up being.