10 Impossible to Adapt Literary Classics Source:

With good movie ideas seemingly in short supply, movie studios have been searching far and wide for new intellectual property to adapt for the big screen. In particular, comic books have risen to prominence, with both Marvel and DC becoming powerhouses of cinema. However, an older type of intellectual property, the novel, still reigns supreme when it comes to providing material prime for Hollywood films. That said, not all novels are created equal, and listed below are 10 novels that would be impossible to properly adapt for the silver screen.

10. The Catcher in the Rye (1951) – J.D. Salinger

The quintessential coming of age story, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye follows the story of Holden Caulfield, a runaway who was one of the first in literature to espouse themes of existential teenage angst, alienation and rebellion. Known for its distinct narrative voice, conversational tone and profound effect on teenagers worldwide, The Catcher in the Rye seems a prime candidate for a big screen adaptation. Why the hesitation? Much of it has to do with the estate of the late author, who have rejected numerous potential adaptations over the past 50 years. Moreover, an inability to do justice to the cool, oftentimes vitriolic narration of Holden Caulfield have led many to assume a film adaptation would be…lacking. Source:

9. Infinite Jest (1996) – David Foster Wallace

There are many words that can be used to describe David Foster Wallace’s legendary novel Infinite Jest: expansive, intimate, articulate, astounding, confusing, post-modern. All fit the bill, and all are good reasons as to why the novel would never make for a suitable film. It’s also well over 1,000 pages and includes several hundred endnotes (some of which have endnotes of their own), a stylistic injection on the part of the author used to deconstruct a traditional understanding of narrative. Following the drug-addled residents of both a prestigious tennis academy and a halfway house, Infinite Jest is simply too grand and too complex to ever find its way onto the silver screen. Source:

8. Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) – Thomas Pynchon

This year saw the first ever adaption of a Thomas Pynchon novel, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice (2015). Before that, many had assumed the works of the reclusive author would be impossible to adapt; after all, they are consistently sprawling, convoluted and notoriously highbrow, the worst of which is undoubtedly Pynchon’s 1973 novel Gravity’s Rainbow. Infamous for its limited readability, the novel focuses on the construction of a German missile at the end of second World War, and features an innumerable number of characters, plots and subplots. There’s no way this classic, sometimes thought of as one of the greatest American novels ever written, could be adapted into a successful studio film. Source:

7. Wheel of Time (1990-2013) – Robert Jordan

With HBO’s Game of Thrones enjoying untold levels of success on television, many have turned their heads to Robert Jordan’s epic fantasy series The Wheel of Time and thought…why not? A vast narrative (Fourteen novels…FOURTEEN!) featuring wizards, Dark Ones and Dreamwalkers, The Wheel of Time seems a prime opportunity to capitalize on the likes of the aforementioned Game of Thrones, along with other popular intellectual properties like The Lord of the Rings. So why the hold up? Firstly, the sheer size of the series renders it nigh impossible to produce in its entirety; there would be an awful lot of cutting and pasting to do to render a film (or films) watchable. Moreover, while Jordan’s series does have a dedicated fanbase, it’s overall writing, structure and character development are not on par with the more famous fantasy literature mentioned here. Simply put, it’s good but not good enough for a film adaptation. Source:

6. House of Leaves (2000) – Mark Z. Danielewski

Like the aforementioned Infinite Jest, footnotes are the name of the game when it comes to Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. A horror story told simultaneously through two separate narratives, the text is notorious for being difficult to read and nearly impossible to adapt for the screen. The narrative oscillates between a family who has moved into a new home (which is bigger on the inside than on the outside…) and a tattoo parlor employee exploring the apartment of a recently deceased neighbor. It’s a haunting text complete with a companion piece (titled The Whalestone Letters) that would make a stunning film, were anyone able to properly stitch the unconventional narrative together. Source:

5. Ulysses (1922) – James Joyce

When speaking of impossible to adapt literary classics, this one should go without saying. Ulysses is a masterpiece by Irish author James Joyce, the quintessential modernist whose name is still synonymous with the literary movement of the early 20th century. A massive tome, Ulysses features dense, stream-of-consciousness prose that would be nearly impossible to hone into a voiceover or dialogue; moreover, the intricacies of the text, which often requires months to read, are staggeringly similar to the intricacies of thought and inner monologue, intricacies which would be incredibly difficult to encapsulate and communicate to an audience sitting in a cinema. Often referred to as “the most prominent landmark in modernist literature,” Ulysses will remain a masterpiece to be read, not viewed (despite an attempt in 1967). Source:

4. One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Just reading the log line of One Hundred Years of Solitude, one might be able to guess why it’d be impossible to adapt to the big screen; the novels tells a seven-generation-long story of a family whose patriarch founds the fictional town of Macondo. As with several other novels on this list, the sheer size and scale of the text’s narrative would make it incredibly difficult to translate successfully to movie format. However, there’s more issues here than just size; the text’s fantastical elements (Marquez is often thought of as the godfather of magical realism, a genre of literature which blends the arcane with the mundane) would be a task to incorporate into such a monumental tale, and the novel’s more controversial subject matter, such as incest, may not sit well with contemporary audiences. Source:

3. White Noise (1985) – Don DeLillo

There’s a level of absurdity to Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise; it follows a professor, the self-proclaimed founding father of Hitler Studies at a small, liberal arts college in middle America, through his experience with the “Airborne Toxic Event,” a catastrophic chemical incident which stands to reconfigure the structures of American society. Touching on subjects as varied as consumerism, media, environmentalism and mortality, the novel invests in pointing to the absurdities and inconsistencies present in the contemporary American paradigm, subject matter which would not make for the most entertaining of cinematic exploits. While the novel’s meditations on media saturation may prove to be more pertinent now than ever before, they remain best ingested through a reading of this vicious, satirical text. Source:

2. Light in August (1932) – William Faulkner

While not one of his better known novels, William Faulker’s Light in August remains a literary classic which features many of the author’s signature elements: a deep Southern setting, explorations of race and racial violence, and an experimental stream-of-consciousness style which renders the novel both personal and difficult to adapt. Faulker’s literary style has puzzled filmmakers for years, and despite a large literary canon, adaptations of his work have been subpar at best. Recent attempts by filmmakers like James Franco have been slightly more successful in capturing the deftness of Faulkner’s prose, however, a truly great adaptation of a complex work like Light in August seems very far away.,-Noel-Polk,-Joseph- Source:

1. The Great Gatsby (1925) – F. Scott Fitzgerald

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby headlines this list despite several past attempts at adaptation, the most notable of which are Robert Redford’s 1973 film and Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 film. Both of these adaptations failed in their attempts to translate Fitzgerald’s delicate, damning portrait of the “Roaring 20s” to the big screen. While Fitzgerald’s text condemned the vanity and excess of the era, these films seem to revel and accentuate it, undoing all the careful narrative work of the original text, which focused on the interactions between young Nick Carraway and former bootlegger turned reclusive millionaire Jay Gatsby. It’s a thoughtful text with musings on fame, fortune, love and loss, much of which has (and would be, one would think) lost in any film adaptation that did not include Fitzgerald’s tender, fragile prose. Source:
Jim Halden

Jim Halden

Josh Elyea has been writing about movies and TV for Goliath since 2015.