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There Is No Such Thing As An “Unfilmable Book”

With the release of Cloud Atlas this week and trailers for Life of Pi appearing all over the place, it’s time to finally say goodbye to an idea that has haunted cinema since its very inception: The notion that there is such a thing as an “unfilmable book.”

To be fair, the “unfilmable book” idea has always been flawed; ever since the invention of cinema, any book has been as “filmable” as any other, it’s simply that some would have been more challenging and less believable to try and translate from one medium into the other. Looking at the trailer for Life of Pi, that is reinforced pretty heavily; there are shots and moments that almost declare that this movie would be impossible in an era without computer generated imagery, because how else could things like the leaping whale have been portrayed convincingly (or even unconvincingly)?

But nowadays, I feel as if almost any visual spectacle that can be written can be (relatively) effectively recreated on screen, thanks to the wonders of technology, which removes one of the final barriers to “unfilmable” books becoming movies. With enough money and the right visual effects designers – not to mention, a willing audience – almost anything is possible for filmmakers these days, and the only limits left appear to be imagination and suspension of disbelief. If someone can put it on paper, a team of other someones can put it – or a reasonable simulation of it – on screen.

What’s left, then, is the question of not whether a book “is” flammable, but whether or not it should be filmed. This is the real issue behind most people’s ideas of “unfilmable” books: That there’s something in the novel’s format that wouldn’t translate well into movies, for whatever reason. This is true of many, many great books, and in many cases what makes the books great is what makes them unlikely candidates for successful translation into movies: Their use of dialogue, their narrative structure (Whether or not there is first person narration, which is harder to do in movies – especially if the narrator isn’t an entirely reliable source of information – or something similar, for example), just the sheer beauty of the language being used, whatever it may be. Ultimately, I think, what makes a book into a good movie is the strength of its basic plot; that is what translates most easily, and most clearly between the two media.

Not every book would make a good movie, nor should it – The idea that all stories should work irrespective of medium is a depressingly reductive one; why not have stories that only work in the medium they were created for, as celebrations of that medium? – but the idea that those make them “unfilmable” books is a misguided one that misses the point and, oddly, casts the idea of failure upon those works in some way. Instead of complaining that some books are unfilmable, why not concentrate on why those that are more easily turned into movies – or should be – are so receptive to translation across media?


  • Beau Rossel


  • Deanjsimons

    Surely its not about whether or not a book is unfilmable but whether you can write an adaptation that keeps to the general spirit of the book whilst having the room to experiment with how to depict the source material.

  • Zomburai45

    House of Leaves.

  • Jay Mattson

    house of leaves. BAM!

  • Jay Mattson

    that’s what ‘unfilmable’ means

  • K. D. Braaaaiiiinns!

    “What’s left, then, is the question of not whether a book “is” flammable” – in my experience, the majority of books are flammable.

  • Moses C

    “What’s left, then, is the question of not whether a book “is” flammable, but whether or not it shouldbe filmed.”  
    Pretty sure nobody was questioning the flammability of books.  Also, shouldbe should be two separate words.

  • Moses C

    “What’s left, then, is the question of not whether a book “is” flammable, but whether or not it shouldbe filmed.”  
    Pretty sure nobody was questioning the flammability of books.  Also, shouldbe should be two separate words.

  • Dan C.

    This article seems to be taking the idea of unfilmable novels a touch too literally. It’s always a casual notion, generally trotted out when the adaptation of a difficult book finally does land in theaters. It seems right, though, to focus on whether film can capture what makes a novel distinctive in print. By that standard, it is arguably true that things like Cloud Atlas, The Sound and the Fury, and Moby-Dick still haven’t made the leap intact. The adaptations have captured the stories but largely discarded the original narrative structures and surface textures.

  • Matches Malone

    I’ve never believed there to be a case of a book that can’t be translated to the big screen. The key is translating the internal to the external, and writing visually in the case of a screenplay. 

    PS, all books are flammable, as I’ve seen Fahrenheit 451 ;)

  • brownbear42

    Then lets start up interest for a movie series or television show based on Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series. Seems like that’s a series that’s begging to be made into a blockbuster masterpiece.

  • Ozymandas

    I don’t think there is any doubt that all books are flammable (4th paragraph). :D

  • Marvelcomics1981

    The real question is how it should be filmed?

  • Marvelcomics1981

    As a movie or miniseries. Live action or animated.

  • Dean Blumberg

    If David Cronenberg can do Naked Lunch…

  • GordoftheNorth

    Nobody actually films a book anyway. What they do is adapt a written narrative into an audio-visual one. A book is a book and a movie is a movie. Just like a sculpture is not a painting or a dance is not a song. There are areas of overlap but each medium communicates in different ways. Some stories simply change too much when they are adapted from written words and are ‘unfilmable’ in this sense. 

  • Michael J

    Truer words were never spoken but not all films based off a novel, can become another billion dollar franchise like say the Harry Potter series,Twilight and now The Hunger Games.The movie Cloud Atlas bombed in the box office.That movie was made for a cool  $50 million dollars but was only able to get $3.4 million on Friday.So in a way Warner Bros get’s a win with Argo but loses big time with Cloud Atlas. Not making back $150 million dollars is a huge deal.

    Not too long ago, John Carter too, also bombed in the box office and I’m sure pissed off a lot of the top execs at Disney’s office but thanks to the Avengers success all was forgotten.Though they did clean house a bit and brought someone from Marvel comics to lead them in a certain entertainment department.

  • SeamusMcClernan


  • Laurence J Sinclair

    Book of the New Sun.  Unmanageable as a movie concept.

  • Demoncat4

    another attempt at dune should never be done plus any love craft even though del torro if he can ever get some one with guts to back at the mountains of maddness may come close.

  • Tyler Ward

    I imagine Gravity’s Rainbow will never be successfully filmed either.

  • Wowzers

    Every book can be filmed.  You just set up a camera and point it at the book.  Your entire commentary about how misguided the concept of the term “unfilmable book” is in itself misguided.

    The term is as relevant today as it has ever been.  Limiting it to your interpretation that is only has to do with the advancement of visual effects is YOUR conceit, and granted it has largely been the main impetus of the term’s usage.  However, many things remain unfilmable to this day for a myriad of reasons.  Furthermore, I’d counter that no book is truly adaptable in its intended form because something always changes in the translation.  From that angle, no book is filmable. 

    It’s amazing, but you’ve managed to be completely wrong for two diametrically opposing reasons.  

  • ATK

    Pop-Up book the movie, and no 3D doesn’t count.

  • Sebastian Sandberg

    Phonebook: The Movie!


  • Orphan

    No please tell me it’s not true that Disney is still convinced they can make live action movies.It would be interesting to see who they brought over from Marvel since that studio can’t do anything right either.Everything that has been a success is due to picking the right or wrong directors and taking undue credit every time something goes right.

  • Dudeface

    I do believe that that some things are easier to adapt to film than others, and that some works should be made into television series rather than movies.

  • Mr Ez_akito

    I’ll be damned if they make a movie based on Finnegans Wake.