As much as Yann Martel's Life of Pi is a fantastically moving fable - and a deserving winner of the Booker Prize - there weren't many who believed that one day it would be a smash-hit film. After all, when the director Ang Lee took the project on, he knew that the vast majority of the movie would consist of the interaction on a boat between a teenage boy and a Bengali tiger. As the very first line of The National's review noted: "Life of Pi is one of those lyrical, internalised novels that should have no business working on the screen."
And yet, Lee took home an Oscar last week for his direction of the movie. Our reviewer called it a "gorgeous, ruminative film that is soulfully entertaining". Technically, it is incredible - of all the interviews, the most telling was surely one with a zookeeper in The Guardian, who could only find fault with feeding the tiger a goat.
Lee has succeeded in filming the unfilmable, in his case by spending a year making completely sure the movie would actually work before he shot a single scene. And it's a lesson other directors would do well to take onboard in 2013, for some of this year's most eagerly awaited films have similarly toiled under the "unfilmable" tag.
Take Baz Luhrmann's new version of The Great Gatsby, out in May. There have been no less than three disappointing adaptations of F Scott Fitzgerald's classic, culminating in Jack Clayton's uneven 1974 attempt starring a miscast Robert Redford as the enigmatic roughneck Jay Gatsby.
The temptation has always been to concentrate on the period detail of the extravagant Roaring Twenties, but The Great Gatsby didn't become one of the greats of 20th-century literature by being a shallow chronicle of those hedonistic times. It's actually a novel about the corruption of the American dream amid such empty hedonism - and Gatsby is something of a vague "hero", a theatrical dreamer who somehow becomes more unknowable as the story progresses.
This is what made The Great Gatsby such a groundbreaking read, but dreams don't translate well to the narrative arc of a satisfying film. Still, although Luhrmann's stock in trade is a striking visual aesthetic - which will fit the feel of the time and has the style magazines purring already - it's encouraging that he wants to explore who Gatsby was. Or who he thinks Gatsby was.
At least Luhrmann has a relatively consistent time period to play with. David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas begins in 1840, shifts to another story set in the 1930s, which in turn is interrupted by another connected narrative from 1975. That's just the beginning of this labyrinthine story. The author himself never believed it could be filmed - and yet the Wachowski directorial team persuaded him otherwise, the proof first witnessed at the Dubai International Film Festival in December.
Writing in TheWall Street Journal, Mitchell made this film version sound like a speedy romp through time but made more interesting comments on why some books might seem "unfilmable", arguing that meandering narrative may be a virtue in literature but rarely works on the screen. In film, there isn't room for the subtle or amorphous development of a character so cherished in a book - the heart of the story has to be found in three hours or fewer.
In the end, says Mitchell, you have to trust that your "unfilmable" book will be translated in a way that makes sense as a film. It's certainly the default position most fans of Max Brooks' World War Z are taking as Marc Forster attempts to make sense of a novel set 10 years after a zombie apocalypse. As Brooks said to Glasgow's Daily Record in 2011: "There's no reason anybody should have optioned this for a movie, it does everything wrong. It doesn't have a main character, the storyline is told from a hundred different points of view and it would be prohibitively expensive filming in all these different countries. They have their work cut out for them."
Brooks's warnings have proved correct - there was talk throughout last year of rewrites and reshoots. The trailer, while entertaining, seems generic and doesn't reflect the satire of modern society explored in the books.
It will be fascinating to see the reaction of World War Z's fans when it's released in June. Such are the perils of taking on difficult source material. Sometimes, there's a reason these classics should remain on the shelves - and in our imaginations.
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