'White Noise' and 9 Other Great Movies Based on Difficult Sources
Not so unphotographable after all.
As it becomes increasingly difficult to turn original ideas into films, especially those with ambitious and challenging concepts, filmmakers have turned their attention to adaptations. While studios have been reluctant to fund bolder original projects, they've been surprisingly willing to back bold films based on previously successful material.
Whether because of their density, abstraction, or intellectual complexity, many source materials are considered "unfilmable" or "unadaptable". However, with the arrival of Noah Baumbach's "White Noise," now seems like an ideal time for a film adaptation that no one thinks is possible.
'White Noise' (2022)
Adapted from Don DeLillo's masterpiece, White Noise was Noah Baumbach's first film not based on his own original story. DeLillo's novel is considered one of the classics of 20th-century postmodern fiction, while Baumbach's film has evoked a more polarizing response. Released on Netflix, the film follows the Gladney family who are forced to evacuate their home after a "toxic incident in the sky."
DeLillo's novel was long considered unfilmable due to its sharp language, broad scope, and idiosyncratic description. Rather than attempting to summarize an all-encompassing novel like White Noise, Baumbach's film goes through multiple stages, breaking the book up into distinct parts part. It's a tall order, and perhaps only a director as savvy as Baumbach could have made White Noise such a compelling film.
For years, fans have wondered whether Frank Herbert's sci-fi epic Dune would ever be made into a film. The sentiment continued even after David Lynch released his version on the silver screen in 1984. Acclaimed director Denis Villeneuve is shooting his Dune in 2021 on a $170 million budget. Grossing $400 million at the box office, the film tells the story of Paul Atreides trapped in a battle over the melange, a valuable resource.
Unlike Lynch, Villeneuve has adapted the Nebula Award-winning novel into two parts, Dune: Part 2, which will be released on November 3, 2023. The Dune version has always been seen as a challenge due to the breadth of the novel's content. With 2021's "Dune," however, Villeneuve has officially quelled the skeptics.
From Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and The Graduate, Mike Nichols may be the hottest director in Hollywood. Both adaptations, Nichols' first two films, proved that he was A master at translating previous material to the screen. However, the challenge only gets bigger when he takes on a Catch-22 about a group of "crazy people" during World War II.
Translated by Buck Henry and starring a stellar cast, the film was generally well-received. It was long thought that Joseph Heller's book couldn't be translated on screen, mostly because its absurd tone couldn't be delivered without being reduced to slapstick. While George Clooney has only appeared in fiction in recent years, Nichols' film may be one of the director's most underrated achievements.
'American Psycho' (2000)
American Psycho was moderately successful at the time and is now considered a cult classic. Written by 27-year-old literary brat Brat Packer Bret Easton Ellis, the novel was deemed potentially intrusive and was censored in several countries. The Mary Harron-directed film stars Christian Bale as banker Patrick Bateman, whose exterior hides an uncontrollable psychosis.
Ellis himself denounced the film in 2002, but has since softened his stance and is only somewhat critical of it. While many found it too disturbing to make, Ellis felt his book was not suitable for an adaptation because The ambiguous nature of fiction. American Psycho grew in popularity in the 2010s and probably didn't have to be made, but fans are glad it was.
'Naked Lunch' (1991)
David Cronenberg is no stranger to difficult adaptations. Whether it was Cosmopolis, Maps to the Stars, or Crash, Cronenberg was the first to take on the challenge, with fascinating results. Perhaps there is no more intimidating adaptation than Naked Lunch, an indescribably surreal and thematic journey.
Named after William Burroughs' novel of the same name, the film is only a loose translation incorporating Burroughs' other fictional works as well as some autobiographical aspects. The reason for this, according to Cronenberg's interview, was that a direct adaptation would be too costly and "would be banned in every country in the world." While unconventional, the film's cult status proves that fans are happy with the results they get.
Following a string of critically acclaimed but commercially underperforming turn-of-the-century films, director David Cronenberg rebuilt himself with a string of critically and financially successful films, including A History of Violence, "Eastern Promise" and "A Dangerous Method". After picking it up for his next project, Cronenberg eyed Cosmopolis, based on the novel by Don DeLillo, tells the story of a currency speculator who watches his life fall apart all night long.
While it is not surprising that Cronenberg thought of adapting one of DeLillo's novels, it is somewhat surprising that his choice of novel was Metropolis, one of DeLillo's critically acclaimed novels. Despite its box-office flop, the film's astute observations and Robert Pattinson's perfectly rhymed performance in the lead make "Metropolis" an odyssey worth exploring.
While Crash could have been included, High-Rise was also a difficult adaptation attempt. Directed by Ben Wheatley and written by Amy Japp, the film follows a group of tenants in a London high-rise building who experience chaos when a young doctor played by Tom Hiddleston moves in the whirlwind.
A film adaptation of the novel by J.G. Ballard has been chasing since its release in the 1970s, with Nicholas Roeg being tapped to direct at one point. "High-Rise" is a testing translation because of the novel's moral neutrality and Ballard's emotional abstraction. High-Rise lost money at the box office, and critics were divided, with some declaring it a masterpiece while others said it was just out Whitley's grasp.
How did they make the Lolita film? A poster for Stanley Kubrick's 1962 psychodrama Ask. Extensive scrutiny was the answer, a factor Kubrick lamented years later that he hadn't considered at the time. Based on Vladimir Nabokov's controversial novel of the same name, the film follows a middle-aged lecturer who develops a sexual obsession with an adolescent female student.
Although Adrian Lane's 1997 remake of Lolita was more faithful and explicit, Kubrick's 1962 version was still superior, earning an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. A veteran of adapting tricky material from A Clockwork Orange to 2001: A Space Odyssey, Lolita is one of Kubrick's best feathers.
When Terry Gilliam says your project is "unfilmable", you know you're up for a challenge. Adapted from the critically acclaimed DC Comics limited series, Overwatch has been in development trouble since the 1980s. The movie, which was eventually directed by Zack Snyder, follows a group of retired superheroes who stumble upon a conspiracy while investigating their own deaths.
Polarization of fans and critics, The film was praised for its visuals but condemned for its lack of subtlety and wit. Originally released at 163 minutes, a more popular 3-hour, 35-minute Director's Cut was released later that year. For all its flaws, there's enough in Watchmen to make it an enjoyable, if imperfect, adaptation.
Often cited as one of the best screenplays of all time, the adaptation cemented Charlie Kaufman's status as one of the greatest living screenwriters and a true Hollywood invention and master of the metafiction. Based on the 1998 non-fiction book "The Orchid Thief," the film follows screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's struggles in adapting the novel "The Orchid Thief," when his life became entangled with the characters in the book.
The novel itself may still not be adaptable, as the only way for the ingenious Kaufman to make it into a film is to include his own storyline in it. Original novelist Susan Orleans said that while she was initially intimidated by the insane script, she appreciated how it stayed true to the book's themes. Creatively memorable and delightful in the best possible way, Adaptation is one of a kind.