From Blood Meridian to Gravity’s Rainbow there have always been works of literature deemed ‘unfilmable.’ Those two are still awaiting film adaptations, but there are plenty of difficult novels that defied the tag and made the jump to the big screen. There are any number of reasons for prose to be hard to translate into moving images. For example, slippery, interior, or even meta and post-modern narratives don’t always work visually. There might be grisly details that might be just about palatable on the page but prove too much for viewers to take when filmed. Meanwhile, complex formal structures and sprawling stories can be tough to work out within the time and budgetary constraints inherent in producing film.
This month HOME presents Adaptation: Impossible Novels, a series of films derived from novels once thought ‘unfilmable.’ Not every adaptation is 100% successful, but as series curator Jason Wood, HOME’s Artistic Director: Film and Culture, explains “Films, like novels, are often admired for their reach rather than their grasp. Many filmmakers, either through ambition or through sheer hubris, have struggled to bring to the screen supposedly ‘unfilmable’ novels. The effects can be uneven, flawed, but equally they can sometimes be admirable and lead the essence of the novel into hitherto unimagined dimensions.”
Straight pulp crime novels have successfully translated to screen time after time, but Wim Wenders’ 1982 film Hammett (Sunday 2 February), about real-life pulp writer Dashiel Hammett, is adapted from Joe Gorres’ knottier, meta source novel. Rarely screened, and Wenders’ first American film, Hammett stars Frederic Forrest as the eponymous crime writer who becomes embroiled in a mystery that is much like one of his own stories. The film itself is a fascinating case study in the history of difficult adaptations, with allegations of extensive reshoots by executive producer Francis Ford Coppola eventually leading to Wenders making a short film about his disputes with The Godfather director.
Mary Harron’s cult adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho follows on Sat 8 Feb. Alongside Ellis’ difficult, hyper-violent depiction of misogyny and 80s yuppie excesses, Harron also had to negotiate a complicating feature in the form of the novel’s unreliable narrator. From one cult film to another, HOME’s season presents a one-off opportunity to see Wojciech Has’ The Saragossa Manuscript on Sun 9 Feb. A 60s counterculture classic adapted from Jan Potocki’s heavyweight magnum opus, Has’ three-hour film came second on the list of the greatest Polish films of all time in a 2015 poll and counts Martin Scorsese amongst its champions.
Next up is a film from one of contemporary cinema’s most acclaimed auteurs. La Captive (Mon 10 Feb) is Marcel Proust’s La Prisonnière (the fifth volume of À la recherche du temps perdu) filtered through the eye of iconic feminist filmmaker Chantal Akerman. Another rarity, Film at Lincoln Centre described the film as “a hypnotic exploration of erotic obsession plays like Vertigo” — we’ll be at this one. Like Proust, the work of James Joyce is not an obvious choice for big-screen adaptation, but Joseph Strick tackled the writer’s Ulysses for his 1967 film of the same name (Wed 12 Feb.) Updated to 60s Dublin, programme notes describe Strick’s version as “a bold stab at filming the unfilmable.” Joyce’s novel was banned in Ireland upon release and, fittingly, Strick’s film suffered the same fate.
Some filmmakers are drawn to difficult adaptations. The fearless David Cronenberg has taken on novels by both J. G. Ballard and Don DeLillo over the course of his career, but HOME have chosen to showcase his hallucinogenic adaptation of Beat generation writer, William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch (Sun 16 – Wed 19 Feb.) Next, HOME look to Japan and one of the country’s most famous literary exports: Haruki Murakami. Described as about “forbidden love, despair and vinyl records” (a description that fits much of Murukami’s oeuvre), Franco-Vietnamese film-maker Tran Anh Hung’s 2010 film of the novelist’s 1987 Norwegian Wood plays on Sun 23 Feb.
Most of the above are difficult, transgressive films made from difficult, transgressive books. Spike Jonze had an altogether different set of problems when it came to adapting Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are — the book consisted of only ten sentences. Jonze embraced the simplicity, using the tale of Max — a small boy who flees home only to find himself in a forest full of wild, bounding creatures — to conjure in viewers the emotional highs and lows of childhood. Utilising physical costumes and the significant voice talent of James Gandolfini, Jonze’s bold approach pays off spectacularly.