15 Books That Would Probably Never Work As Movie Adaptations
Every book lover has at least one favorite read that they would love to see on the big screen, but sometimes those books haven't been adapted for a reason. There are some books that would never work as movies, and I have collected 15 of them for you to check out below. Read them now, because you'll never see justice done for them on the big screen.
It's worthwhile to note that, yes, you can absolutely film whatever you want. Movies don't really have to make sense, after all, nor do they need to follow Hollywood conventions. But, in the same way that there are some stories that could only work on screen, there are others that are better left on the page.
Some of the books below have been the subject of adaptation attempts before, but those adaptations fell far short of fans' expectations. At some point, any of the 15 titles I've chosen for this list might be made into a successful, blockbuster film, but as of this writing, it hasn't happened. If someone can prove me wrong, I'm willing to watch.
Check out my top picks for the books that would never work as movies below:
'Dawn' by Octavia E. Butler
What It's About: Centuries after she witnessed the end of the world, Lilith wakes up on an alien spacecraft controlled by the Oankali, a species that perpetuates itself by inter-breeding with other, more primitive peoples. The Oankali propose re-populating Earth with Lilith's children — human-Oankali hybrids.
Why It Would Never Work As A Movie: The Shape of Water might have cracked the glass ceiling for interspecial relationships, but Dawn's depiction of alien-human group sex might be too much for some production studios. Still, Ava DuVernay is currently attached to create a TV adaptation of Dawn, so readers will have to see how that turns out before rendering an ultimate verdict on the subject of a Dawn film.
'Dhalgren' by Samuel R. Delany
What It's About: After an unknown cataclysm cuts off Bellona, U.S.A. from the rest of the world, it becomes reachable by only foot traffic. The Kid walks into Bellona with a poetic sensibility and no memory of his former life, or even his name. Through him, and through others, Samuel R. Delany explores the complicated nature of life in an isolated, post-apocalyptic town.
Why It Would Never Work As A Movie: Oh boy, where to begin. Time doesn't work right in Bellona, and sometimes very weird things happen with moons and suns. Dhalgren is a novel about racism, sex, and violence, but it doesn't romanticize anything, which turns many of its revelations into downright bitter pills to swallow. Delany's novel isn't about preachy, but it does have something to say, and it's just not a message you can interpret on a screen.
'The Female Man' by Joanna Russ
What It's About: Four women from different worlds mingle in one another's wheres and whens. The lead explorer, Janet, comes from a place where a plague killed all men, and she documents the gender dynamics on Jeanine and Joanna's worlds, where men remain in power.
Why It Would Never Work As A Movie: The Female Man is a pretty slim novel, but it packs a lot of punch. The four disparate worlds Russ creates can't be examined fully in a two-hour movie, and the political and philosophical nature of the novel doesn't lend itself to engaging filmmaking.
'House of Leaves' by Mark Z. Danielewski
What It's About: Johnny Truant moves into a new apartment and finds the previous tenant's manuscript: an in-depth analysis of a documentary film called The Navidson Record. But there's no evidence that the film or its subject has ever existed.
Why It Would Never Work As A Movie: You can read every volume in your local library and never come close to finding a book like this one. House of Leaves is a meta-text to end all meta-texts: self-referential to the extent that you'll be forced to flip forward and backward in a desperate bid to understand just what the hell is going on. Although some parts of the narrative might make for a decent film, no movie could ever hope to capture the experience of Mark Z. Danielewski's novel.
'Geek Love' by Katherine Dunn
What It's About: The Binewski Carnival Fabulon falls on hard times until Al and Crystal Lil, the married ringmaster and geek, decide to breed their own circus of freaks. Over the next few years, Lil gives birth to Arturo, who has flippers instead of arms and legs; Electra and Iphigenia, who are conjoined twin savants; Olympia, who is an albino dwarf hunchback; and Fortunato, the most talented one of all.
Why It Would Never Work As A Movie: Geek Love is, to put it mildly, an exquisitely screwed-up book. There's drug abuse, fratricide, an immaculate conception, a circus-born cult, and lots of elective surgeries. That's not to mention the two timelines, one decades ahead of the other, that are impossible to separate. Enjoy this one as a book, and abandon all hope of a film adaptation.
'Homegoing' by Yaa Gyasi
What It's About: After her mother's escape from slavery leaves her in the care of her father and stepmother, Effia marries an English governor and lives in the lap of luxury in the Cape Coast Castle. She doesn't know that her younger half-sister, Esi, resides in the dungeons of her home, awaiting transport to the United States, where she will be sold to the highest bidder.
Why It Would Never Work As A Movie: Yaa Gyasi's novel stretches for centuries, following Effia and Esi's descendants in Africa, Europe, and the U.S. from the 18th century to the modern day. Homegoing tells a stunning story, but family sagas — particularly ones as brilliant and broad as this — are notoriously difficult to translate on film.
'The God of Small Things' by Arundhati Roy
What It's About: Set in mid-century India, The God of Small Things probes into the lives of Esthappen and Rahel: fraternal twins whose family has been fragmented through misfortune and class conflict.
Why It Would Never Work As A Movie: Arundhati Roy's novel concerns itself with abuse and forbidden love. There's the woman who became a nun because she fell in love with a Catholic priest, and the woman who, after being abused by her husband, embarks on an affair with a man from a lower caste. These are mild, however, in comparison to the two events that would make The God of Small Things unfilmable, but I can't mention those without giving away the entire story. You should know — and be happy — that Roy has refused to sell the film rights to her novel.
'The Sound and the Fury' by William Faulkner
What It's About: The Compsons' only daughter, Caddy, has been ostracized after divorcing her husband and leaving her baby with relatives. In her absence, her three brothers' lives begin to crumble, and the old-money Southern family falls further into disgrace and disrepair.
Why It Would Never Work As A Movie: Two attempts to bring The Sound and the Fury to theaters have failed, largely because the Compson brothers' narrations are difficult to follow on the page, much less on screen. Benjy, the first narrator and Caddy's youngest brother, has an intellectual disability and is unable to experience time in a linear fashion, instead sliding backward and forward as events trigger memories of his past life. Quentin, the second narrator and Caddy's oldest brother, spirals into a deep depression, and his portion of the novel grows more and more deranged as it goes on.
'Blood Meridian' by Cormac McCarthy
What It's About: A teenager known only as "the kid" joins up with the Glanton gang, a real-life group of bounty hunters who collected scalps along the U.S.-Mexico border in the mid-19th century.
Why It Would Never Work As A Movie: This book has more violence than even Game of Thrones can handle, and more villain monologues than a James Bond movie. Give it a read, but don't expect to see it on screen anytime soon.
'The Divine Comedy' by Dante Alighieri
What It's About: Narrator Dante dies and travels to the world of the dead, where the poet Virgil leads him through Hell, Purgatory, and finally to Heaven, where Dante meets Beatrice, a woman he loved in life, but did not marry. It's a beautiful work of poetic achievement that has been appreciated and discussed for the last 800 years.
Why It Would Never Work As A Movie: In spite of all its intense imagery and lyrical beauty, The Divine Comedy would make for a pretty boring movie. The only real action or dialogue is comprised of Dante's philosophical discussions with Virgil and Beatrice — not exactly the stuff blockbuster films are made of. Enjoy this one on paper or your favorite e-reader and leave Hollywood out of it.
'The Left Hand of Darkness' by Ursula K. Le Guin
What It's About: A Terran called Genly Ai is sent from an interplanetary confederation as an ambassador to Gethen, which the confederation hopes will become its next member-planet.
Why It Would Never Work As A Movie: The Gethenians are androgynous for 26 days out of each lunar month, but they each assume a decidely male or female appearance during kemmer, their fertile period, which arrives on the last two days of each cycle. Gethenians don't identify as one gender or another, however, and the lack of a dichotomy causes a ton of confusion and prejudice in Genly. Ursula K. Le Guin has hundreds of pages to explain how political and social interactions work on Gethen, and how they differ from the Terran customs Genly is used to, but doing that in 120 minutes would likely result in an incoherent mess.
'J R' by William Gaddis
What It's About: The eponymous pre-teen trades in penny stocks to build a capitalist empire from the comfort of his school payphone booth, surrounded by adults and peers who all want a piece of the pie.
Why It Would Never Work As A Movie: J R is almost entirely comprised of dialogue, which would not generally be a problem, given that dialogue is an integral part of commercial films. The issue lies in the nature of the novel's dialogue, which is difficult to follow on the page, and is sometimes missing part of the conversation. J R is a rip-roaring satire of American capitalism, but it's probably not destined for Hollywood greatness.
'Deathless' by Catherynne M. Valente
What It's About: A re-telling of the Russian folktale about Koschei the Deathless, Catherynne M. Valente's novel sets the story in Stalinist Russia, where a girl named Marya discovers magic in her apartment building and is wooed by an immortal man who promises her a life of comfort.
Why It Would Never Work As A Movie: Most American audience members won't be familiar enough with Koschei's story or Russian fairytale tropes to understand Deathless as a film. I mean, the guy keeps his death, which he excised from his own body, in the egg of a magical bird. Valente's novel should be on your TBR, but don't add it to your Netflix queue.
'One Hundred Years of Solitude' by Gabriel García Márquez
What It's About: In Colombia, José Arcadio Buendía founds the town of Macondo. Isolated from the outside world by jungles and waters. Macondo's eventual exposure to Colombia and international politics brings nothing but misfortune.
Why It Would Never Work As A Movie: Gabriel García Márquez's novels are full of magical realism, but that isn't what would make One Hundred Years of Solitude difficult to translate for the screen. Not only is this novel another family saga, but many of the characters have the same exact names as their forebears. Combined with a non-linear narrative style, these features make Gabo's book largely unfilmable.
'Life after Life' by Kate Atkinson
What It's About: Sometimes Ursula Todd dies and sometimes she lives. Her life could be a tragedy or a triumph. Life after Life explores all the myriad ways a person's life could be changed by seemingly random events.
Why It Would Never Work As A Movie: Kate Atkinson's novel is the real M.V.P. when it comes to all the divergent possibilities life could offer, but telling Ursula Todd's story on screen would lose all of the nuance that the text has to offer.