Unfilmable Books and Life of Pi

life of pi movie posterLife of Pi (2012) arrived in cinemas at the end of last year amidst a babble of anticipation and speculation – how was this unfilmable book going to be adapted onto screen? The question wasn’t as in, “I wonder how they will do it?” but rather, “how is it possible to translate this book into a movie?”  Life of Pi isn’t the first book to be considered unfilmable, nor will it be the last but it has sparked a lot of conversation about whether or not there is any longer such a thing as an unfilmable book? The short answer: No. Advances in cinematic technology makes it possible to bring any scenario to life on the screen, and  thanks to the Internet we now have an endless diversification of active communities and subcultures which means an endless market for any kind of movie from any kind of book.

Unfilmable Books and Life of Pi

Life of Pi was published in 2001, the second novel for Canadian writer Yann Martel. It won the Booker prize in 2002 and has sold about 7 million copies. Life of Pi is a remarkable story: A man recounts his life story, telling of how as young boy he was shipwrecked and left adrift in the Pacific Ocean on a life boat with a Bengal tiger named, Richard Parker. Whatever format you’re experiencing it in, Life of Pi is a stunning tale, rich in adventure and overflowing with metaphysical philosophies. The story was considered unfilmable not only because much of the novel is Pi’s introspection and interior monologue, but also as most of the plot takes place with one character and a tiger in an unchanging and essentially endlessly empty setting.

But Life of Pi was filmable and not only that, Ang Lee’s film version is an utterly mesmerising film, with majestic visuals and a careful treatment of a delicate plot. Lee’s version of Life of Pi captures the very essence of the book and while they’re not precisely the same – as no book to film adaptation will ever be –Life of Pi the book and Life Of Pi the movie are two different types of amazing, sharing a common narrative.

cloud atlas movie posterCloud Atlas – The Film Version of another Unfilmable Book

Life of Pi isn’t the only book to film adaptation currently in cinemas. The film version of David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas (2004) is also now showing, directed by Tom Tykwer and Andy and Lana Wachowski. Cloud Atlas is a complex novel with a narrative split between several characters in several plots over several different points in time that all build to a point in a different future and then descend back to the beginning. With this impossibly complex and at times almost illogical timeline, it’s little wonder Cloud Atlas was thought unfilmable. Even David Mitchell told New Yorker he thought as he was writing the novel it was a shame it was an unfilmable story. And yet here we are and although the film has taken some liberty with the novel’s narrative structure, we still have another novel deemed unfilmable now filmed.

The Unfilmable Image – Unfilmable Books and Developments in Film Technology

J.R.R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings was once thought to be an unfilmable book, but we all know better now. Once upon a time though, it was. The Lord of the Rings and any other of the Middle Earth sagas all take place in such a deeply fantastical world that bringing that world to life on screen was just not feasible except using animation. The first film version of The Lord of the Rings was made in 1978, a heavily condensed adaptation directed by Ralph Bakshi, which used cell animation combined with rotoscope technology. Bakshi’s version of The Lord of the Rings was generally well received at the time although it has sunk into obscurity now.  Except in dedicated fan circles these days, few would know it has ever been made.

Traditional animation was once the mainstay of bringing fantasy stories to film and there are only a few examples of early live action fantasy stories, from novels or otherwise, that translated particularly well into film. During the late 1970s and into the first half of 1980s, the speculative fiction blockbuster was taking its first unstoppable strides into becoming movie making standards. Science fiction was doing ok, but fantasy was still finding its feet and even celebrated fantasy films of the 1980s like Ridley Scott’s, Legend (1985) were somewhat clunky in their delivery. The most enduringly appealing non-animated fantasy movies of the pre-digital age were those that used complex puppetry such as The Dark Crystal (1982); a live action and puppetry combination like Labyrinth (1986), The Neverending Story (1984) or Clash of the Titans (1981), or in the cast of the most enduringly successful fantasy films, normal human characters and settings only edging on the magical like The Princess Bride (1987), Ladyhawke (1985), or Excalibur (1981). Not all of these films were flawless in their fantastical spectacle. Even by the standards of the early 1980s, The Neverending Story’s Gmork was a crude head-on-a-stick with awkward movement and unrealistic physicality. While Gmork was indeed an effective character clunky puppetry notwithstanding, just compare the difference in effect to today’s equivalent wargs from Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth adaptations, especially the revised wargs from The Hobbit (2012 – ).


In these early days of blockbuster effects cinema, science fiction did enjoy a revolution of imagined realism that pure fantasy couldn’t reach. George Lucas’ Star Wars trilogy transformed expectations of bringing imagined spectacle to screen which spawned a string of imitators, Krull (1983) for example. Why was science fiction so much more successful than fantasy in being realised on screen in these pioneering blockbusters? It’s a question for a far more detailed discussion, but for now we can speculate that it was the visual differences between the two genres. Science fiction builds on what is currently real – flying ships, armoured costumes, advanced weaponry, more industrial settings – whereas fantasy requires everything be created from the ground up – mythical creatures, magical effects, purely imagined settings. Further discussion on this idea is more than welcome.

Even in the science fiction genres, those early films (and TV shows) that were best able to bring imagined worlds to life on screen were the products of traditional animation. Arguably, this is why Disney came to dominate the fantasy screen market with its multitude of animated films, the most popular and successful being fully realised adaptations of already classic fairy tales. How would0 The Little Mermaid, Aladdin or Beauty and the Beast have been brought from page to screen in decades gone by without the benefits of traditional animation? Would it have been nearly as well received as these animated versions? Digital effects, which is a kind of drawn animation in itself, now makes it possible to have “live action” versions of these stories articulated with infinite visual reality as though we were actually seeing real magic happen in our real lives. Perhaps most importantly, it’s now also affordable to achieve these effects. Something like Star Wars was also unprecedented for its day for its enormous budget that made a lot of its never-before-seen effects possible. Now that these effects technologies are more prevalent, they’re also more affordable and even the most amateur of film makers can stick their drawings into their laptops and achieve some level of fantastical realism.


It’s this move from animation and puppetry to the infinitely life like and very real fantastical adaptations of our contemporary speculative fiction blockbusters that renders any written work, no matter how out of this world, able to be articulated on screen. Anything that can be imagined can now be seen with this new generation of speculative fiction verisimilitude. And it’s getting increasingly simple as it gets increasingly possible and accessible and the limitations of what’s filmable and what’s not in visual terms are now only a matter of budget.

It isn’t only the actual translation of the fantastical from the page to the screen that digital cinema has enabled. Even in Life of Pi, where there are no dragons, no wargs, nothing that’s not possible by the limits of reality (except for perhaps a carnivorous island, but hey, maybe!), digital effects were used in Life of Pi the movie with stunning results. Sure, having a digital tiger made for much easier (and safer!) filmmaking than had an actual tiger been used throughout the whole film, but this wasn’t the key to the successful page to screen adaptation. Rather, it was the way Lee used digital effects to convey the metaphysical qualities and surrealism of Pi’s experiences – ­ the leaping whale, the glowing phosphorescence, the magical undersea worlds, the adult Pi’s dreamlike recollections – these were the effects that enabled the film to capture the mesmerising and spiritual essence of the novel and without digital cinema, Life Of Pi might very well have been an unfilmable story.

Ang Lee was not the first director who thought about adapting Yan Martel’s novel to the screen, with M. Night Shyamalan, Alfonso Cuarón and Jean-Pierre Jeunet all being attached to the project as directors at different points. Lee’s films are renowned for their spectacle, even Brokeback Mountain (2005) and Sense and Sensibility (1995) the most un-speculative of stories, were made with breathtaking cinematic imagery. How different might Life of Pi been as a movie under the hands of Shyamalan, whose films while speculative, don’t contain the kinds of surrealism that Lee is famed for from films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). Would Life of Pi been a filmable story without this? The plot – a boy, a boat, a tiger – could have brought to the screen by any filmmaker but a filmmaker with a command of visual effects cinema like Lee could have only make the entire novel filmable and that was really only possible with digital effects. So, like The Lord of the Rings, once upon a time, Life of Pi might very well have been an unfilmable book.

Unfilmable Books and Unfilmable Plots

With film making technology removing the boundaries for what’s possible to realise visually on screen, what about when the plot itself makes something seemingly unfilmable? Cloud Atlas may have had a complex and highly irregular narrative flow but there wasn’t anything particularly unfilmable about the story itself.

immortalityMilan Kundera’s novel, Immortality(1988) could be an unfilmable book and indeed it even says so much in the novel itself. Immortality combines a story where the author himself is writing of a character that plays a part in a connected plot within his own real life world, and in other plots winding through the novel we have real life figures, Goethe and Hemmingway going about in fictionalised version of their actual lives. Immortality removes the boundaries between real life and fiction and having the author himself as a character blends fictional reality from our actual reality adding another almost illogically complex level of narrative.  In 1988, the same year Kundera wrote Immortality, Phillip Kaufman adapted Kundera’s still most popular novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984), for the screen. The movie, starring Juliette Binoche and Daniel Day-Lewis, was a dismal failure with Kundera himself saying that it failed to capture the spirit of the novel. Kundera has since then denied the film adaptation rights to any his novels, and it’s easily conceivable he wrote Immortality as a purposefully unfilmable book. While Immortality would not make for a very straightforward film, it’s not a very straightforward book for that matter, it is however possible to put the basics of the plot down in screenplay form. Delicate nuances and existential ponderings are not the sole property of written works so even with some creative narrative adaptation it could even be possible to translate the essence of the book into screen just as Lee and screenwriter, David Magee succeeded in doing with Life of Pi.

Looking around at others blogging on the topic, we see a lot of lists of so called unfilmable books. Gabe Habash of The Huffington Post put together a list of “15 Great Books Never Coming To a Theatre Near You.” Among their list were books with impossibly complex plots like James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939) and those with highly taboo subject matter like Alan Moore’s comic Lost Girls (1991-2006) – a sexually explicit retelling of three female characters from classic fantasy literature: Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, Wendy from Peter Pan, and Alice from Alice in Wonderland – or Art Speigelaman’s consistently celebrated graphic novel,  Maus (1991) – a harrowing tale of Nazi persecution using mice and other animals as characters. Steven Lloyd Wilson of Pajiba, wrote about “The Five Most Fantastic but Unfilmable Books”, naming titles such as Neil Gaiman’s masterpiece Sandman comic series and Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series.

Are Discworld Books Unfilmable?

Adapting any of the Discworld novels presents all new problems in that each book is written with delicate references to other books in the series. Not only that, the significant appeal of Terry Pratchett’s work is the narrative style he writes in – a kind of meandering and longwinded observation of events peppered with comedic references, comments and allusions. However, there have been numerous screen adaptations of the Discworld books. The the colour of magicColour of Magic (2008) achieved moderate success as a TV movie though being the first in the series, it was not beset with the difficulty of dealing with the extratextual references of the other novels. In 2006, Hogfather
(1996) was adapted for the screen in a two part TV series, followed in 2010 by an adaptation of the novel, Going Postal (2004).  There is also an animated TV series, Wyrd Sisters (1997) based on the Discworld novel of the same name. Were these screen adaptations of Discworld novels successful in bringing Pratchett’s style of narrative humour to the screen? While comedy is subjective, the films (or more correctly, TV series), are amusing in different ways than the books are amusing. But even so, the adaptations were generally faithful with some minor plot deviations. Extratextual references aside, there are indeed ways to bring the tales of the other Discworld novels to the screen in film form and who knows, with enough of them made even these films could start to play with referencing themselves.

From these and other lists like them, the general idea continues to be that a book cannot be adapted onto screen if the plot is too complex. It’s true that trying to boil the plot of Sandman down to a two hour film treatment would be an incredibly difficult undertaking even though the source material is a visual medium. The plot is endless, timeless and simultaneously an experience of real, surreal and dream spanning dimensions, but on a few levels that’s not all that unlike the plot of Cloud Atlas.

Virgina Woolf and Books into Movies

the_waves_virginia_woolf_cover-676x1024The works of Virginia Woolf are frequently touted to be unfilmable, though there have already been dismal renderings of Mrs Dalloway (1997) and To the Lighthouse (1983). Miserable as these films are they are still proof of the possibility of adapting such meandering streams of consciousness looped around such loose narratives in a movie. Will we be seeing a film adaptation of Woolf’s The Waves (1931) any time soon? It’s probably doubtful, as Habash agrees, but not impossible to imagine. After all, the single character introspection and deep monologues at work in Martel’s Life of Pi were translated beautifully onto the screen, so what’s to say the soliloquies of The Waves won’t either?

Finnegan’s Wake: The Movie from the Book?

Does this mean that even Finnegans Wake could be made into a movie? Habash flat out refuses to acknowledge the possibility but really, it is possible.  Finnegans Wake has little central plot, it’s experimental in style and language and is widely considered the most difficult book in the English language to read. However, once the nonsensical words and language experiments are filtered out, Finnegans Wake is still a story, granted one that essentially abandons the idea of structure and plot, but given the right treatment the core story of the novel itself could still be adapted into Finnegans Wake: The Movie.

Testimony to the argument that any story can be made into a movie is Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011). While The Tree of Life was not adapted from a novel, it does serve to illustrate that loosely structured, highly impressionistic and abstract stories can be made into films and with the critical acclaim and enormous number of awards The Tree of Life received, it also proves that it can be a successful film. Remember Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)? The same arguments can be made.  

Unfilmable Books are Unmarketable Movies

The controversial and taboo subjects of books like Lost Girls and Maus makes them not so much unfilmable books but unmarketable movie prospects – or at least movies that would be unlikely to take hold in the big commercial screens.  Seeing the sexual misadventures of long beloved children’s book characters realised in full colour and surround sound would indeed discomfort the majority of cinemagoers and, as Gabe Habash suggested, a cartoon mouse version of the holocaust presents its own problems with confusing children alongside the fact that serious animation seldom performs well at the box office.  However, hard to market to the mainstream does not in any way mean unfilmable.

Cinema, like every other commercial market no longer needs to cater primarily to the masses as, thanks to the Internet’s ability to connect and promote diverse niche markets, every subgroup now has a voice and a demand. Lost Girls: The Movie does have a market and arguing it doesn’t or couldn’t doesn’t take into consideration the scores of other highly controversial films made previously – Todd Solondz’s film Happiness (1998), Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972), or any of the hundreds of other extreme films that have been released. Further, Lost Girls comes with a ready made market. Alan Moore is one of the most respected comic writers in the business and the book has sold out on every one of its limited run printings, the first two on the first day of sale even with its hefty original $75 price tag. I can’t see the Lost Girls getting any screen time at the local shopping centre Megaplex, but what about film festivals?  The few independent cinemas that remain? Niche market DVD releases?

The Responsibilities of Filmmakers in Adapting Books to Movies

Regardless of the book in question, as soon as a film adaptation of any book is announced, the rally cries from people in arms against their favourite stories being adapted will always be there. People fear their stories will be ruined, misinterpreted or not look like they imagined it would look. Reading a book is a personal experience confined only to a person’s own head, and taking that story outside of the head and displaying it on the screen in one definitive version The-Hobbit-Part-1-An-Unexpected-Journey-2012-Movie-Poster-e1348339281255makes a lot of readers uncomfortable. It’s not only the actual changes to the script that upsets people – Why is Faramir taking the One Ring to Gondor? Where’s Tom Bombadil? – but also the differences in visual interpretation – that’s not what orcs are meant to look like! The recent release of The Hobbit has seen fans complain about the different take on the appearance of dwarves, many of them looking less like the stumpy bearded fellows we’ve come to expect and more like roguishly handsome pop idol heart throbs. Similarly, the recent release of Christopher McQuarrie’s Jack Reacher (2012) has had fans of the Lee Child novels up in arms against the casting of Tom Cruise in the title role, who is the physical opposite of the literary Jack Reacher.

The more ardent the fan base of a particular novel, the more outrage there’s going to be about a film adaptation regardless of what the story is or who’s making the film. This moves the question away from “can a book me made into a movie?” to “should a book be made into a movie?” J.D Salinger’s estate clings firmly to the film rights of Catcher in the Rye (1951) despite every name in Hollywood trying to have a go at for decades. A filmmaker needs to have a sense of obligation to faithfully direct a movie to the spirit of the source material and not play too fast and loose with the characterisation and plot. Peter Jackson made an intelligent move in having Alan Lee and John Howe lead his art direction as these artists have been responsible for so much official Middle Earth art for decades, their imagery has already taken deep root into the popular consciousness of how things are meant to look in Middle Earth.  But even this rule has its exceptions.

unfilmable books - where the wild things areIt can and does happen that film version of books can make something into an entirely different story and still be praised. Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are (2009) is one example, adapted from Maurice Sendak’s classic picture book of the same name. Jonze’s anthropomorphised Wild Things take on entirely new levels of characterisations, relationships and plots all completely invented for the film. Certainly, there are going to be liberties taken when adapting a two hour film from a twenty page children’s book which is a far different task then adapting a life’s work such as Tolkien’s into a series of epic films. But even so, the Middle Earth sagas were done (and are being still done) and done well, paving the road for countless book to screen adaptations to follow.

It seems the question of unfilmable books is a moot point. If the Life of Pi and Cloud Atlas can be successfully made into movies, then the process of novel to screen adaptation now knows no bounds. There is no such thing as an unfilmable book. Thanks to new cinema technologies as well as the multitude of niche markets, even the most convoluted and or extreme has its audience, some ready made. But does this mean that film should have free access to books for material? Should there be some books that remain only books? Are there really some books that are unfilmable books?


Kate Krake

Kate Krake (aka Kate Murphy) is a writer with a long established passion for all realms of popular culture. She lives in Brisbane, Australia. Find out more on Kate's Blog.