Yes, I am aware that “unfilmable” is not a word.

I think I missed Cloud Atlas in the theaters. I looked up what’s playing today and it’s not there anymore. Which is a drag, because I really wanted to see it. But I’ve been super broke and the theater (or theatre, if you’d rather) is two hours away which, with a three-hour movie, means that I’d have to take a whole day off to go. And planting winter crops waits for no man. Or movie. Fucking winter crops. I don’t even like cauliflower. There, I said it. I feel so much better.

Urm, anyway. Cloud Atlas. I read the book. Maybe three years ago? Ish? It took a minute to really get into it, but once I got past the seventeenth century shipboard epistolary bits (because those are the most boring kinds of books on the planet, and I have read computer manuals cover to cover), it was awesome. All kinds of awesome, actually. And it doesn’t really sum up well, so I’ll spare you the torture of my trying. But now that it’s a big movie, you should be able to waltz into any bookstore and find a copy pretty easily.

Which always makes me have all kinds of annoying feely things, when that happens. That I-want-to-read-the-book-because-of-the-movie thing makes me cranky and I can’t really put my finger on why. On the one hand, I like it when people read books. We don’t do enough of that, frankly, and I’m kind of staking my life trajectory on the fact that people will continue to do it at least into the near future. But on the other hand, there’s something really icky about people flocking in droves to read a book just because they liked the movie and want more more more more of a franchise or a character. Little piglets, snarfling up every crumb of media exposure they can get to a thing that made them happy once for a little while, right? And that’s probably me selling people short. I do that a lot. (Not so much anymore, since I am, by necessity, around fewer people. It’s an impulse control thing I’m working on.) But you see my point? They wouldn’t have read the book at all if the movie hadn’t come out. I’d like to see the math on how many books would not get read in America if there weren’t movies made from them. I saw it happen a thousand times at the Giant Evil Bookstore. Harry Potter, Golden Compass, The Help, Hunger Games, Watchmen, any of those Jodi Picoult/Nicholas Sparks monstrosities, and godforsaken fucking Twilight. And tv shows, too: Dexter, True Blood, Game of Thrones (even though I think I left before that show actually started to air, the hype was already getting really big).

And I’m not making any sort of commentary on the quality of these shows or movies. Just because the book was good, doesn’t mean that the movie will necessarily fall short, but that’s usually the case. More often than the other way around, anyway. I think I’ve only seen a handful of movies that live up to the book. Depending on the style of writing, many books just don’t lend themselves to being turned into movies. And that’s the thing about Cloud Atlas. I wanted to see it, but I was kind of scared to because I so enjoyed the novel and didn’t want to see it get fucked up. But I will say that I really like the Wachowskis and they probably didn’t do as much damage as other directors could have, but if they did it’ll be the first time they’ve disappointed me.

Cloud Atlas is in a small group of books that I had previously considered unfilmable. And most of the books on that list are so fantastic precisely because they are unfilmable. Maybe it’s just the way my brain is wired, but there’s something precious about being forced to figure out how a thing would look or how a scene would work using just the tools available inside your head. You think on it for a while, manipulate it with your worldview, turn it over and over, and then move on. Part of it is yours after that, you know? Reading a great book is a collaborative effort between two brains, miles and years apart, and I think that’s an amazing kind of sorcery. A feat of the engineering of our little monkey minds, that we can do that to and with each other. And maybe that’s why we feel like so many movies are duds, because sometimes they don’t play out like we thought they would, or look the way we thought they should, or something we thought was important got left out (I’m looking at you, Peter Jackson). A brief and incomplete list of these unfilmables (in order of increasing impossibility, and not counting comics):

Most of the Dark Tower series – Stephen King
Geek Love – Katherine Dunn
Imajica (and to a lesser degree, Weaveworld) – Clive Barker
Dhalgren – Samuel R. Delany
Gravity’s Rainbow – Thomas Pynchon
Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace
House of Leaves – Mark Z. Danielewski

I could be wrong. Maybe, since computer graphics are getting better every second, one day these will be within reach of being done correctly. But that’s the problem. There is no “correctly.” Literature is so subjective, you know? In a way that movies can never be. And while it’s admirable that a director might take on a passion project and try their best to make a great film out of a book they adored (like the Wachowskis did with Cloud Atlas – it’s a huge movie but it’s 100% indie), I just feel like there’s no substitute for the reader’s brain. What an incredible piece of machinery.

10 thoughts on “Yes, I am aware that “unfilmable” is not a word.

  1. I’m firmly in the “WHHHHHHYYYY GODDDDDDDD DID YOU ALLOW THIS TO HAPPEN” camp when it comes to Cloud Atlas. For me though, it’s that I do think the Wachowskis would fuck it up worse than many. THEY ARE THE LEAST SUBTLE FILMMAKERS WORKING APART FROM MAYBE MICHAEL BAY. So what do they do? ADAPT A BOOK THAT WORKS IN LARGE PART BECAUSE IT IS SUBTLE.

    I will direct you to this:
    which covers it as good as I’ve seen it.

    And then say, good day.

    1. Are you whyGodwhy because you saw it and hated it? Or just the prospect of serious fucking up makes you go whyGodwhy? I’ve read a ton of reviews of the movie and pretty much all of them say “just go read the book.”

      1. It’s the coverage I’ve read. I too waited too long and now it’s left. Other reviews pointed out it’s structural and other flaws, but that New York Review of Books I think put my misgivings about Mitchell’s subtlety and playfulness in as good a way as I could think.

  2. I know you just complained about people who want to read books only because they saw the movie, but WAIT A SECOND SCOTLAND, PA IS A BOOK TOO?

    1. Damn. I feel like a real moron for that overexcited and completely oblivious comment–but forgive me, I so loved Jane Smiley’s “A Thousand Acres” (adaptation of “King Lear”) and I thought someone had given the Scottish play similar treatment.

      1. In other news, I’m really glad that you noticed my list widget. I was on the verge of getting rid of it because I didn’t think it got noticed. But I REALLY like making lists, so thanks.

    2. It took watching it maybe four times before I realized it was Macbeth. Seriously. I was probably high, but it still made me feel dumb. Only Shakespeare play that I really adore and I couldn’t even recognize it with a different outfit on. Derp.

      1. I love the widget list! But then again I like lists. I have them lying all over my house.

        I don’t think I would’ve recognized “Scotland, PA” as MacBeth if I hadn’t known beforehand–sure, I would’ve figured out by the end that it was borrowing heavily, at the very least. It breathes a new kind of life into the story instead of merely relying on ideas already done.

        1. No joke–I come home today, fresh from comment writing (and work, of course), and, without any knowledge of our interaction here, the bf and his bestie put on “Scotland PA” to watch during dinner. It was meant to be.

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