When 'Unfilmable' Books Make Memorable Movies Life of Pi and Cloud Atlas are two complicated, ambitious novels recently adapted for the big screen. NPR's Elizabeth Blair explores what makes some singular narratives workable on film — and what makes some fail.
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When 'Unfilmable' Books Make Memorable Movies

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When 'Unfilmable' Books Make Memorable Movies

When 'Unfilmable' Books Make Memorable Movies

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The film "Life of Pi" opens in theaters this week. Most of the story is about a boy adrift on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean with a tiger. Easy enough for writer Yann Martel to depict in his novel but hard to show in a movie, given real tigers have teeth. And there's another movie in theaters based on a novel that seemed un-filmable, "Cloud Atlas." It has six different plots woven through six different time periods.

NPR's Elizabeth Blair has this story of Hollywood directors wrestling with un-filmable novels and getting mixed results.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Some books are challenging to film because they're challenging to read. Take James Joyce's "Ulysses," a stream of consciousness masterpiece published in 1922.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: And as for them saying that there's no God, well, I wouldn't give a snap of me two fingers for all their learning.

MARIA KONNIKOVA: "Ulysses" was for a very long time considered un-filmable, both because of the complexity of the plot and the point of view of the characters.

BLAIR: Maria Konnikova is a freelance writer who recently explored un-filmable books for The Atlantic.

KONNIKOVA: But it was done not once but twice.

BLAIR: Other novels are considered un-filmable because they're too introspective and heady. Take Joseph Heller's dark World War II novel, "Catch 22."

KONNIKOVA: Both the paranoia and kind of the sense of helplessness in the plot makes it difficult to kind of get out of the head of the characters and to translate that to the screen.


BLAIR: But that didn't stop director Mike Nichols from trying.


BLAIR: Critics panned the movie "Catch 22." Author Joseph Heller had mixed feelings about it. But he also said complex novels don't make good movies. And it's for that reason that another writer never thought one of his ambitious novels would ever make it to the screen.

DAVID MITCHELL: Really, no. It's the truth.

BLAIR: David Mitchell's "Cloud Atlas" won a British Book Award and was short-listed for the Booker Prize.

MITCHELL: My only film-related thought when I was writing the book was what a shame, there's not a chance in hell this book would ever be made into a film.

BLAIR: "Cloud Atlas" is all over the place, intentionally. It follows six completely different stories, from science fiction to crime thriller to romantic love story. It took three people to bring it to the screen: Andy and Lana Wachowski - who made the "The Matrix" movies - and Tom Tykwer.

Like the novel, there are six movies within the movie, set in the past...


BLAIR: ...and the future.


BLAIR: One of the many reasons David Mitchell thought his novel would never make it to the screen is the size of the cast it would take. It doesn't cost a writer a dime to add a character. But it can cost a filmmaker a lot to add an actor to a cast. The Wachowskis got around the problem by having actors play as many as six completely different roles. Tom Hanks, Halle Berry and Hugh Grant, among others, are transformed to the point of being unrecognizable through the Hollywood magic of make-up and costumes.

By doing it this way, David Mitchell believes the filmmakers also made it easier for viewers to understand his concept: one soul moving through the many different worlds.

MITCHELL: In a different body, in a different time, in a different age. So the directors have played to the advantages of film as a medium.

BLAIR: Played to the advantages of film as a medium. That was the only way director Ang Lee could adapt the novel "Life of Pi."


BLAIR: And in the movie that tiger is stunningly real.


BLAIR: Was the actor who plays Pi ever on the boat with a real tiger?


BLAIR: So for director Ang Lee, the key to making the entire narrative believable was not an option.

LEE: I would like to but we're not allowed to by 20th Century Fox.

BLAIR: So Ang Lee - who is known for taking risks - didn't do it. Instead, those scenes were shot separately with a combination of real tigers and computer generated tigers.


BLAIR: Technology has come so far that Ang Lee can put a boy and a tiger on a lifeboat together, and sometimes underwater. But technology alone isn't what will make "Life of Pi" as much of a success as the novel. Fortunately for 20th Century Fox, Ang Lee brings so many more talents to the table, not least of which is an extraordinary imagination. He was also given an enormous budget.

But journalist Maria Konnikova believes there are filmmakers who overuse CGI, at the expense of the story. Take the screen adaptations of "Lord of the Rings." Even though they've been critically and commercially successful, Konnikova says they've lost the emotional depth of Tolkien's writings to what she calls special effects plot points.

KONNIKOVA: You lose the kind of the dynamics. You lose the inner struggles that are happening within each character, which are so finely wrought on the page.

BLAIR: Konnikova thinks it's better to take the spirit of a novel and then work it into a new, original movie.

KONNIKOVA: The best adaptation of Jane Austen I've ever seen is "Clueless," which was inspired by "Emma."

BLAIR: Except that it takes place in a rich Beverly Hills high school in the 1990s.

KONNIKOVA: Amy Heckerling showed an insight when she did that to make it so different that she completely, I think, captured the spirit of Jane Austen without really kind of dragging it down.


BLAIR: Some movie versions fail because the filmmakers have tried to be too faithful to the original text, says Ang Lee.

LEE: There's a saying in the business: Either you ruin a novel or you make a great film, or you can be loyal to the book and make a bad movie.

BLAIR: Author David Mitchell says he's learned to be careful when filmmakers say they won't change a thing.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.



As Elizabeth mentioned, some of those seemingly unfilmable books are from "The Lord of the Rings Trilogy," written by JRR Tolkien. New Line Cinema, owned by Warner Brothers, converted the books into a highly successful film series. Now Warner Brothers is being sued by the Tolkien estate.

MONTAGNE: The estate claims the film studio overstepped its merchandising rights by creating a "Lord of the Rings" online slot machine game. The suit filed yesterday is seeking $80 million in damages. The estate says that the rights only extend to physical objects and that the use of the trilogy for online gambling has harmed Tolkien's legacy.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

WERTHEIMER: And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

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