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5 Great Films Made from “Unadaptable” Source Material




Stanley Kubrick once said that “if it can be written, or thought, it can be filmed.” This was no doubt true for the revered filmmaker, who made a career out of adaptations that elevated their source material and visual compositions that conveyed complex ideas – but this oft-quoted remark ignores some fundamental differences between the film and written art forms. In the essay collection Deep Focus: Reflections on Cinema, filmmaker Satyajit Ray (a giant of equal stature to Kubrick) noted that good films made from books are re-shapings of their sources, because “books are not primarily written to be filmed. If they were, they would read like scenarios; and if they were good scenarios, they would probably read badly as literature, for scenarios are no more than indications in words of what is really meant to be conveyed in images.”

At its most basic (and with many exceptions depending on how the artist approaches the form), the difference between film and literature is the difference between the external and the internal. Films use images and montages to suggest meaning in real time, while prose uses language to state meaning outside of time. These fundamental differences have not stopped the vast output of film adaptations, many of which successfully translate the spirit of a story from linguistic to visual terms. Yet, there are literary works whose impact and function are so firmly woven into their form that an adaptation is practically impossible. This is especially true for modernist and postmodernist literature, which investigate the very notion of internal experience and the mitigation of reality through language/abstraction. Many of these novels (e.g. Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow

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) have remained untouched by filmmakers, while others (e.g. Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway) have been attempted with mixed results; but sometimes a film will take a pass at “unadaptable” material and find a way to bring an absolute novel to cinematic life without compromising the integrity of the film form or the source material.

Below we take a look at five successful films that adapted “unadaptable” material, and how they succeeded. Some used filmic techniques to stand in for literary techniques; others radically re-imagined the material; and some had the audacity to prove that the only thing that made a work “unadaptable” was sheer small mindedness.

Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 isn’t just one of the best literary debuts of all time – it’s one of the greatest works in the anti-war, absurdist, paranoid fiction, and satirical canons. It is also rather dense and abstract, and for all its Marx brothers antics, it doesn’t come across as particularly adaptable. Much of the novel’s meaning originates in its third-person omniscient narrator, whose free associations and non-linear digressions embody the absurd logic of institutional bureaucracy, a structure that reveals its inhumanity most acutely when applied to the darkest human condition: war. Most of the characters’ names are linguistic jokes, and scenes are linked not by plot continuity but by (frequently meaningless) parallels in phrasing. Though not fourth-wall-breaking or challenging enough to count as postmodernism, Heller’s book has similar attitudes toward language as a mediator of experience that takes on a destructive life of its own.

Since its publication, there have been three motion picture adaptations of Catch-22: a film, a pilot, and a limited series. Of the three, the only to truly capture the form of the novel is Mike Nichols’ under-sung 1970 masterpiece. Though unfavorably compared to Altman’s Mash (1970), a lower-budget film many felt was closer to the anti-authority sentiment of Catch-22 and the times in general, Nichols’ maximalist approach to the material is a jaw-dropping manifestation of the New Hollywood ethos, in which major studio money was put behind confrontational material. To approximate the free associations and abstract connections of the novel, Nichols uses conventions of film vocabulary to link disparate spaces (e.g. when we cut between two linked conversation, the actors are covered as if they are in the same space, with one dominating the left of frame and the other dominating the right). This approach is one Nichols carried over from his previous film, The Graduate (1967), which features a sequence in which the protagonist’s daily routines and double life are woven into continuous gestures that depict stasis and the passing of time.

The director makes use of his background in comedy and his newfound status as a major filmmaker with the power of Hollywood at his fingertips to create a surreal mishmash of war, epic spectacle, and screwball humor. One iconic wide-angle shot depicts a crooked Colonel and an aspiring war profiteer walking along a landing strip, discussing the potential profitability of the egg trade – meanwhile, a bomber comes crashing down and bursts into flames behind them, hardly noticed by the characters. It is a visual interpretation of the contrast between human frailty and the stakes of war that runs through the novel; and while the film may never reach the heights of the book, it stands on its own as an off-kilter and relevant tale of military oppression, the traps of civilization, resistance, and the insanity of being the only sane person in a world that’s lost its mind.

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