Does 'unfilmable' really mean anything anymore?

Another attempt to adapt Blood Meridian has that word buzzing again

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The recent media blitz revealing that James Franco was planning a film version of Cormac McCarthy's novel Blood Meridian sparked the obvious spread of reactions: interest, hope, apathy, and knee-jerk internet outrage. But detractors barely had time to get a full head of rageful steam up before the news pieces were updated. The negotiation for the rights to McCarthy's book abruptly fell apart, reportedly derailed by the wave of publicity around the project. According to Deadline, the adaptation was canceled "mere moments after details of it first became public."

In the wake of the second announcement, one reaction came up over and over online: "Just as well, because Blood Meridian is unfilmable." Entertainment Weekly used the term. Commentors at Variety did as well. They're joining a long tradition: The book frequently shows up on listicles about unfilmable books, and essays dissecting the reasons Blood Meridian couldn't possibly make it to the screen. The most frequently cited reasons McCarthy's classic will never hit theaters: the book is too grotesquely violent. It's too opaque and shapeless and experiential. It's too dependent on McCarthy's blunt lyricism. It's too grim and existential. There isn't enough dialogue, or there are too many speeches. The character of The Judge, "huge and pale and hairless, like an enormous infant," would be impossible to cast. It'd be too hard to understand the motives of the protagonist, The Kid, who doesn't express opinions on the shattering events around him.

It's certainly helped Blood Meridian's "unfilmable" reputation that several prominent directors have failed to get a film version off the ground. Before Franco, Ridley Scott had a script and a plan for the project, but couldn't find studio funding. Michael Haneke, John Hillcoat, and Todd Field have all expressed interest in adapting it. In 2014, Franco even released a half hour of test footage he'd shot to see what the film might look like on-screen. But it's extremely common for directors to blue-sky projects without moving past the wishful-thinking stage. Directors like Scott generally consider dozens of projects that never get bankrolled, or find their way to the top of a packed and shifting priority list. That says more about investors' caution, and the difficulties of shepherding a film all the way through production, than it says about the merits of any one project. So Blood Meridian's rep as an unclimbable glass mountain of a film is mostly a matter of perception and aspiration.

"Unfundable" continues to be a real concern for film projects. But we're reaching the point where "unfilmable" isn't. Every year, books that were once prominently labeled as unfilmable — Alan Moore's Watchmen, David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, and J.G. Ballard's High-Rise, for instance — successfully make it to the screen. And every year, there are fewer reasons a given film might be impossible to make.

Technology has made some previously unfilmable movies possible. In a world where the makers of Captain America: Civil War can seamlessly recreate an entire airport full of battling superheroes from digital scraps, books once deemed too challenging to shoot are at least theoretically possible, given a big enough budget. The democratization of media has helped as well: the rise of smaller, cheaper cameras and the ease of digital shooting and editing has made it possible for people to make films outside a rigid studio system, which has allowed for a broader range of approaches and voices, and for more freedom of ambition.

Other films have been made possible by cultural changes. The adaptation of Julie Maroh's graphic novel Blue Is The Warmest Color, with its graphic, intimate lesbian sex scenes, would have been considered unfilmable as little as a decade ago. Attitudes toward on-screen violence are constantly shifting as well. The "too violent for the screen" argument is becoming harder to support in Blood Meridian's case, as America eagerly tunes in to HBO every year to watch the nightly parade of decapitations, eviscerations, torture, and rape on Game Of Thrones. That book series was also considered unfilmable just a decade ago, because of its length and its immense, sprawling cast of characters. The growing interest in serial entertainment, on TV and via years-long film series like Peter Jackson's Lord Of The Rings movies or the Hunger Games films, has done as much to take books off the "unadaptable" shelf as any slackening prudery.

A Clockwork Orange

Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange was also written off as unadaptable. Stanley Kubrick's film version became a classic. (Warner Bros.)

Aside from projects that would be illegal to shoot (like an unbowdlerized version of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, which would legally be child pornography) or formally impossible to convey (like Mark Z. Danielewski's House Of Leaves, where the physical format of the book is a significant part of the story), virtually nothing is really unfilmable anymore. Which means that when people use the word now, they're probably not talking about the practicalities of scripting or shooting. They're often expressing concerns that have nothing to do with aesthetics, like "No one would risk investing in this," or "Making this would be expensive or time-consuming," or "I don't know how you'd sell this to an audience." If any usage of "unfilmable" should be booted from the lexicon, this is it: making a great film and selling it are different disciplines, and it's better not to muddy the waters between them by suggesting something hard to market therefore can't exist, or shouldn't.

At heart, though, most of the people calling a book like Blood Meridian unfilmable are expressing their personal fears: "I loved the experience of reading this book, and I don't see how that experience could be exactly duplicated in another medium." Or more simply: "I don't want another version of this story to get in the way of my positive memories." Books with richly internal characters, complicated timelines, or lush prose are often called unfilmable because a screen version might not accurately preserve those things. Books that elicit a strong or complicated emotional reaction provoke the same kind of protective response.

"Unfilmable" isn't about scripting or shooting anymore

That resistance is reasonable, up to a point. Film adaptation inevitably changes books, often for the worse, and sometimes for terrible reasons that have nothing to do with art. To be fair, though, the kind of wrong-headed studio interference or commercially focused concerns that can ruin a book adaptation can ruin any film, regardless of origin. That's the fault of the process, not the source material, and calling a book unfilmable because a studio or producer will want to alter the content into something more sellable isn't fair to all the terrific movies that do emerge from the sausage-grinder intact.

The personal "I consider this unfilmable" reaction also makes sense, because it's based so deeply in subjectivity and a proprietary feeling for the things we love. So much of the "unfilmable" reaction to Blood Meridian falls into this camp. The Judge isn't uncastable, but fans of the book might reasonably worry that an on-screen version couldn't be big and strange enough to match the feelings of otherworldliness they got from the book. Worse, even a fully literal on-screen version might diminish him for readers, just by turning him into a real, visible person instead of a barely conceivable legend. In the same vein, the graphic violence in the book doesn't necessarily exceed the violence seen in other films. But the book's fandom know it would be different on-screen — less disturbingly poetic, more overwhelming and visceral. A film might not capture the book's haunted tone, simply because movies are more event-driven: in the theater, you can't put a movie down to ponder and absorb its contents. The experience of watching a movie is fundamentally different from reading a book, no matter the genre or tone. The only books that translate to film without significant changes are the ones that resemble screenplays to begin with — short, bluntly written books focused on scene description, dialogue, or external action, like David Benioff's The 25th Hour, or James Sallis' Drive.

life of pi 1020

Ang Lee's 2012 adaptation of The Life of Pi. (Twentieth Century Fox)

There's nothing wrong with the two media forms being different. It's inherent to their nature, to the way they communicate. Reproducing a book on-screen should be a different goal from using it as inspiration for an original film. The savviest filmmakers understand that. As Ang Lee told NPR in 2012, regarding his action-focused adaptation of Yann Martel's philosophy-heavy novel Life Of Pi, "There's a saying in the business: Either you ruin a novel and make a great film, or you can be loyal to the book and make a bad movie."

The greatest film adaptations of books are often the ones where the creators took advantage of cinema's strengths, rather than trying to ignore its weaknesses. Books are better at complicated internal movements, at explaining characters' backgrounds and motivations and reactions. Films generally can't capture the specific lyricism of great writing, and attempts to do so (usually with heavy voiceover) are intrusive and artificial. Films are better at immediacy and immersion. And they're stronger at presenting complicated environments, without the need for pages of description. A picture is worth a thousand words, but a thousand-page book can create a story that would take a dozen hours to fully tell on-screen.

For what it's worth, Cormac McCarthy himself has said he doesn't consider Blood Meridian unfilmable. "That's all crap," he told The Wall Street Journal in 2009. "The fact that's it's a bleak and bloody story has nothing to do with whether or not you can put it on the screen. That's not the issue. The issue is it would be very difficult to do and would require someone with a bountiful imagination and a lot of balls. But the payoff could be extraordinary."

There's a venal appeal in any book adaptation — the lure of a built-in audience, the long-term franchise and merchandising potential of the next Harry Potter. But there's also the real draw of a good story. That's what keeps luring filmmakers to bring books like A Clockwork Orange or Watership Down to audiences.  When someone like Franco sets out to make a movie out of something like Blood Meridian, he's trying to convey that story to a bigger audience, and to create something new that expresses something he already loves. He's trying to put something fantastic onto the screen. As long as filmmakers keep falling in love with books, they'll keep fighting the word "unfilmable."

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