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First Life of Pi, now Cloud Atlas. Why keep trying to film the unfilmable?

2 March 2013

9:00 AM

2 March 2013

9:00 AM

Whenever the possibility of a film version of a difficult or complex book is mooted, speculation mounts about how it will be done. Usually at this point some dull spark will pipe up that some novels are simply ‘unfilmable’ (though such reservations are sometimes shared by the authors of the novels in question: David Mitchell himself never believed that his novel Cloud Atlas could be turned into a movie: ‘My only film-related thought when I was writing the book was what a shame that no one would ever, ever film this,’ he said. ‘I was quite convinced it would never happen’).

But the myth of the unfilmable novel has been exploded in the past 12 months with a trio of apparently impossible to adapt books — Cloud Atlas, On the Road and Life of Pi — making their way into our multiplexes. While these novels certainly present big challenges to potential adaptors (shifts in time! Hipsters in cars! A tiger in a boat!), in each case film-makers have grasped the nettle. It took 11 long years to bring Yann Martel’s Life of Pi to the screen, but Ang Lee’s faith has been vindicated by audiences and critics alike: the film won four Oscars, including best director and best visual effects.

But just because a book is filmed doesn’t mean it translates well to the screen. On the Road was a disaster, with the adaptation failing to get to grips with the novel’s episodic structure. Some books, I reckon, are still best left to one’s own imagination.


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