Ever since the film medium began, it borrowed from other established artforms for inspiration. It used the opera and its operetta cousins as cinematic sources. It adapted plays and standard musicals. Perhaps most importantly, it scoured through hundreds of established literary classics to give their upstart creative outlet some much needed gravitas (even if they did occasional rewrite the greats — like Shakespeare — for no real reason). With that in mind, and with yet another adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s proto-feminist tome Far from the Madding Crowd hitting theaters this month, we’ve come up with 10 more novels that should be made into movies. Some are complicated. Some are simple. All represent ideas ripe for crossing over from one aesthetic avenue to another.
#10 – Haroun and the Sea of Stories
Call it Salman Rushdie’s Alice in Wonderland, a phantasmagorical fable about colonialism disguised as a children’s story. Our title character lives with his father, a famous storyteller, who is trying to work for local politicians. They wind up in a magical place where all folklore and folktales come from. There, a war is being waged, with our heroes forced to take sides for or against imagination. Perfect for a stop motion animated effort (say, by Henry Salick) or an all out CG spectacle (with Ang Lee behind the lens).
While there’ve been several BBC TV mini-series based on the book, film has yet to feel the need to translate George Eliot’s look at early 19th century mores in the countryside of England (though Sam Mendes is said to be interested in the popular tome). With its dense narrative, numerous characters, and divergent yet intertwining storylines, the novel would have to be streamlined, or a studio would have to be interested in developing the property into a series of films. It’s full of both history and dramatic histrionics.
#8 – I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Oddly enough, this compelling portrait of the late great poet Maya Angelou during her very early years growing up has only been adapted once — into a 1979 TV movie. Not only having to deal with the racism of the time, the young woman at the center of the story is raped, leading to an internalized struggle to regain her sense of self. It’s tough going, but if Tyler Perry can make For Colored Girls into a mainstream movie, today’s Hollywood talent could easily tackle this material.
A traveling carnival is the setting for Katherine Dunn’s demented tale of familial dysfunction gone gonzo. A couple, fearing financial ruin, decides to genetically modify their own children into a collection of sideshow oddities. From there, the book detours into cults, fetish clubs, and interpersonal rivalries. Tim Burton has circled this novel so often you’d swear he was a vulture eyeing some carrion. He’d be the perfect filmmaker to turn this unusual and eccentric narrative into something filled with eerie eye candy and visual panache.
Aside from two silent film adaptations and three BBC takes on the material, there has never been a contemporary cinematic telling of Charles Dickens’ vast, sweeping story of a legal case and its implications on numerous members of an interconnected community. In fact, the author’s indictment of the failings in England’s courts lead to major reforms. As with most books by the famed author, there are dozens of characters and an equal number of subplots. While a mini-series may seem like the way to go, a film would be fascinating.
A woman acting as co-executor of her dead boyfriend’s estate. A set of stamps set to go on the auction block. A secret conspiracy about…the postal service? Yes, this and more (a lot more) form the basis of one of Thomas Pychon’s most accessible and deepest narratives. Through his main character, Oedipa Maas, he reflects on mysteries and mythology, using a series of surreal ancillary individuals to work through his various themes. With the success of Inherent Vice, this would be another easy adaptation for the right filmmaker.
With race remaining a huge hot button social issue, it only seems right that someone would come along and turn Ralph Ellison’s masterpiece about being black in America into a full length feature. Referencing the Nationalism, Marxism, and Reform politics of the time (the book is set in the ’20s and ’30s), it offers a harrowing and yet still hopeful view of the way we once treated (and often still do treat) people of color. It’s a vivid denouncement, and would make a magnificent movie.
Everybody always lists this as one of their “holy grail” adaptations and with good reason. Almost everyone in the Western speaking world has had their time with J. D. Salinger’s Holden Caufield and his angst-filled alienation. Loaded with the lingo of the era and touching on subjects that seem to affect all teens universally, it’s a Bible to some, a bunch of crap to others. With the right lead actor, and an equally exceptional director, this could also be a defining film for our oft-confused generation. Too bad Salinger mandated no film could ever be made as a condition of his will.
Here’s another long hoped for movie source, especially considering the unusual backstory regarding the book’s publication. Author John Kennedy Toole killed himself after failing to become a successful writer. His mother took this long-forgotten tome and shopped it around to see if anyone was interested. That was 1980. Since then, this story of a slovenly social misfit and his eccentric interactions with an early ’60s New Orleans has been the subject of several attempted adaptations, but none have made it past the pre-production phase.
So far, of all her works, only Beloved from Noble Prize winning author Toni Morrison has been made into a movie, and with good reason. Using a unique approach to her prose, mixing in poetry and temporal shifts, her work can be hard to get a handle on. In this case, however, the story of Macon “Milkman” Dead III and her travails from youth to old age has a simple story at the center would could easily be worked into a devastating drama. The book is epic. The movie could be as well.