Writer Chris Jordan busts the notion of unfilmable movies with his first piece on the topic.
One of my biggest film-related pet peeves is when someone refers to a novel as “unfilmable.” The term is almost always used in a pretentious, self-satisfied, my-art-is-better-than-your-art kind of way, with a heavy underlying message of “literature is inherently a far more sophisticated storytelling medium that film can never hope to live up to.” Such a dismissive view of cinema sells the medium – and the abilities of the artists who work in it – far short, and is simply untrue. Are there plenty of bad book-to-film adaptations out there? Sure. But does that mean that book-to-film adaptations are, as a category of movies, bad? Definitely not. After all, every category or genre of film has plenty of bad movies, just as every category or genre of books has plenty of bad ones. But both mediums are equally capable of producing masterpieces, and can certainly produce masterpieces when working together.
As with any medium, it is simply a matter of requiring the right artist to tell the right story. There are plenty of novels that would be very, very challenging to adapt to film, which would require a very particular sort of filmmaker to do well. But there are also brilliant, talented filmmakers out there who are perfectly capable of understanding the intricacies of any such novel, and translating that novel appropriately into this other medium. Books and films are inherently very different modes of storytelling, and a common fallacy is for literary fans to confuse “good adaptation” with “absolutely faithful to every word, detail, and structural component of a novel.” No film is ever going to perfectly mimic the experience of reading a book – and no film should. Expecting an adaptation to do this is to lack imagination, and to misunderstand the storytelling strengths of each medium. In adapting a story to such a different style of storytelling, a filmmaker should explore the new dimensions and new possibilities that this different medium offers. A film adaptation should enrich and enhance the experience of a novel while working well as a piece of art on its own; not just act as a glorified audiobook with pictures. And even when a novel may strongly resist a literal word-for-word, moment-for-moment translation to the screen, a thoughtful, creative, insightful adaptation is possible for even the most difficult source material in the hands of a filmmaker who understands it. If the notoriously dense and difficult James Joyce (John Huston's The Dead) or the fiercely logic-defying and non-narrative William S. Burroughs (David Cronenberg's Naked Lunch) can be successfully brought to the screen, then surely anything is possible.
There are a handful of authors who literary fans frequently love to snobbishly refer to as “unfilmable” and ironically, many of these authors have already been successfully translated to film. Granted, many of these films exist somewhat outside the mainstream, as indie or art-house filmmakers can be much more likely to attempt challenging, unusual adaptations than larger studios, so a bit of searching may be required. But that searching will pay off, and provide plenty of examples to bust the unfilmability myth. This is the first of a couple articles in which I will look at one of these authors who is frequently cited as unfilmable, but who has already been very successfully adapted to film at least a couple times. First up... Franz Kafka.
An author as mysterious and intriguing as much of the fiction that he wrote, the reclusive Kafka famously published almost none of his work within his lifetime, left all of his novels unfinished at the time of his death, and requested that his friend and literary executor burn all of his manuscripts. Fortunately, his friend ignored the request, arranged the unfinished novels into roughly completed forms, and turned him into the literary icon he is today. Kafka invented a very distinctive style somewhere between surrealism and a particularly dark and warped brand of magical realism; that very particular sort of nightmarish, logic-defying unease which we call Kafkaeque. His stories also embodied a dark, alienated, angst-ridden philosophy which made him a major influence on existentialist authors like Sartre and Camus. His contributions to art and thought can be observed all over literature, film, and philosophy – yet his stories themselves are typically seen as nearly-impossible to directly adapt to film, due to their slippery strangeness, the brief length of his short stories, and the unfinished nature of his novels. But there are some filmmakers who can't resist the idea of something that is supposed to be nearly impossible; filmmakers like Orson Welles.
The Trial (Orson Welles, 1962)
After the notorious clash between Welles and Universal surrounding Touch of Evil lead to the filmmaker being all but exiled from Hollywood, Welles went to Europe to find greater artistic freedom. Producer Alexander Salkind promised him absolute freedom and control to make this adaptation of Franz Kafka's novel, and the result is an absolute masterpiece that Welles argued was the best film he ever made – yes, better than Citizen Kane. Several things are really interesting about his adaptation of The Trial, beginning with one immediately-obvious observation: this does not feel like a movie made by an ostensibly-mainstream Hollywood filmmaker twenty years into his career; it's bold, forcefully unconventional, and thoroughly European. It feels like it was made for French art-houses rather than American movie theaters, and has a lot more in common with Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville than Touch of Evil or Citizen Kane. It also does what plenty of people still claim is impossible: it absolutely captures the essence of Kafka's novel, both narratively and stylistically.
Aside from issues of length or completeness, the main argument for Kafka being unfilmable is that his stories tend to not be conventional narratives, but rather psychologically-subjective nightmare parables that don't particularly lend themselves to Hollywood-style filmmaking. Welles is so successful in adapting Kafka because he not only realizes this, but absolutely embraces it. If a conventional narrative arc was forced upon The Trial's freeform wanderings throughout its mad world, it might very well fail; fortunately, Welles knew that the freeform wanderings – and the madness of the world – are the story. It isn't even really a story about a trial; it is a story about a man (Anthony Perkins, fresh off of Psycho and just as brilliant) plunged into a waking nightmare of paranoia, political bureaucracy, and existential dread when his life suddenly becomes absurd. Embracing these themes, the film captures the feeling of a nightmare better than possibly any other film I have seen, in every way.
Visually, Welles channels the Kafka-esque through his expressionist cinematography and lighting (heavy use of deep shadows and skewed camera angles) of his bizarre sets, which were largely found. He shot the bulk of the film inside the skeleton of an abandoned train station in Paris, and that haunting location provides the perfect setting for Kafka's bad dream of a story. Equally haunting is the other major setting of the protagonist's home: a very modern-looking apartment building, eerily juxtaposed on the edge of an empty, post-apocalyptic-looking vacant field. But it is with the style of the storytelling that Welles truly drives the feeling of a nightmare home. The story moves with the slippery unreality of a dream: things don't make sense, the dots deliberately don't connect, and bizarre incident drifts into bizarre incident without much causality in-between. But just as these things seem to make sense when you are dreaming, all the characters except for the desperate protagonist act as though this all is perfectly logical and reasonable; the logic of a dream holds it all together even as the pieces willfully rip themselves apart. Watching the film is a powerfully disconcerting and alienating experience: it feels a bit like going insane, in the same way that the main character fears that he is going insane. But that's exactly the point; that's the Kafka-esque fully-realized, and while the experience may be very off putting to some viewers, it is brilliant.
Kafka (Steven Soderbergh, 1992)
Aside from a few mostly-small changes in plot details, Orson Welles' The Trial is narratively quite faithful to Franz Kafka's novel, as well as thematically. However, strictly-faithful-to-the-plot is not the only way to make a good adaptation that honors the source material, and deviating from specific narrative details does not make an adaptation less faithful on the whole. In fact, I would argue that an adaptation that changes some plot details but successfully captures the themes and general essence of the novel is a stronger adaptation – and does better justice to the source material – than one that is so preoccupied with being faithful to every last detail that it fails to have a soul of its own, or feel alive as a film. Again, one must remember that film is a very different storytelling medium, and sometimes changes are required to make the larger story work as well as possible in its new context. Which brings us to another very successful method of bringing allegedly-unfilmable authors to the screen: stop worrying about being so literally faithful to the plot, and explore creative ways of being faithful to the themes and “soul” of the work. The result may not please fans who are looking for a more straightforward adaptation, but it could be a much stronger interpretation: one that enhances the experience and understanding of the novel while being a great film in its own right.
In 1991, two filmmakers attempted such outside-the-box adaptations of difficult, supposedly-unfilmable novels... and oddly enough, independent of each other, they decided upon the exact same method of bringing the books to the screen. One of those filmmakers was David Cronenberg, with Naked Lunch, and the other was Steven Soderbergh, with Kafka. Both films take a novel that resists conventional adaptation (in the case of Kafka, it's “The Castle”), and create a hybrid that is partly a loose adaptation, and partly a fictionalized look at the real life of the book's author, told in the style of one of his stories.
Kafka stars Jeremy Irons as the reclusive, eccentric writer, who makes a living in early-1900s Prague as a clerk at a law office. In this loose spin on the story (which also includes elements of other Kafka tales, including “The Trial,” as a general pastiche of the author's work), Kafka himself gets pulled into a nightmare right out of his own writing: a labyrinth of conspiracy, bureaucracy, and manipulation by the mysterious authority that reigns from within the titular castle. The resulting story may play somewhat fast and loose with the details of both his life (this is no biopic) and his writing, but in some ways it is probably a more interesting adaptation because of it. Soderbergh's script gives him great freedom to examine and analyze the recurring ideas, themes, and philosophy of Kafka's stories, as well as the ways in which the author's protagonists reflected the man himself. One common complaint that literature buffs have made about the film is that they cannot accept the famously reclusive – and at this point in his life quite frail – author being turned into the hero of a thriller... yet this criticism entirely misses the point of this characterization. The main characters of many of Kafka's stories are fictionalized versions of himself: that's why the recurring protagonist of “The Trial” and “The Castle” is named simply “K,” and why Kafka began writing “The Castle” in the first person before eventually deciding to switch to the third. By taking out that layer of fictionalization and making Kafka himself the star of this story, Soderbergh examines the ways in which the author's life and worldview shaped his fiction.
Like Orson Welles with The Trial, Soderbergh uses expressionist filmmaking techniques to evoke the Kafkaesque. But he takes it a step further: Kafka is shot in the style of the German Expressionist films like Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, and M, that were made not too long after Franz Kafka's own lifetime. The film is shot in high-contrast black and white, with deep, moody shadows and ominous visions of nocturnal Prague. One character is even named Dr. Murnau, in reference to the great German Expressionist director. Channeling a more modern influence, the stilted sets sometimes evoke a more restrained Terry Gilliam; especially the bureaucratic hell of Kafka's workplace, which is very reminiscent of Brazil. Soderbergh may not be typically associated with films this visually stylized, but he has a wonderful eye for it, and creates a perfect world for Kafka's ideas to inhabit.
Unfortunately, the totally non-Soderbergh style of the film may have hurt it very badly upon its release. Audiences expect the bizarre from David Cronenberg, so of course Naked Lunch was greeted as an instant cult classic. But coming from Steven Soderbergh, making only his second film after Sex, Lies, and Videotape, audiences expected something much more like his debut feature. When they discovered a film that literally could not be more different, they greeted it with troubled confusion and instinctual dislike. Kafka did manage to gain a modest cult following and a bit more critical respect on VHS and laserdisc, but it has remained a bit of an underdog in Soderbergh's filmography, and Paramount has never deemed it worthy of a DVD release. There is a widescreen NTSC DVD available from Korea, but the film hasn't had a domestic release in twenty years; a very sad fate for such a good movie. In recent years, Soderbergh has said that he is working on a new director's cut of the film, and that he hopes both versions can be released side-by-side in a two-disc set. Criterion recently rescued his third film, King of the Hill, from the same VHS-only fate at the hands of Paramount, so perhaps they can do the same for Kafka.
With this evidence from Franz Kafka, Orson Welles, and Steven Soderbergh, I would love to declare the myth of unfilmability busted. But just in case you are still unconvinced, next we'll look at some great films based on stories by another allegedly-unfilmable author... H. P. Lovecraft.