Five Novels That May Be Unfilmable–and the Artists We Would Like to See Try

#1 Riddley Walker

Asking a literature person his favorite novel is a bit like asking a cinephile his favorite movie. You are more apt to get an angry, scornful glance for suggesting such decisions are possible than to get an answer. I doubt I could ever select just one, and (as it should be, I would argue) my answers change from time to time. But Russell Hoban’s post-apocalyptic tale of a civilization trying to rebuild a remnant of a broken world only to break it further is one of those novels that, each time I re-read it, sends me to the thesaurus looking for synonyms for “sublime.”

For the novel Hoban creates a new dialect of English, a sort of mish-mash of phonetic phrases whose etymology has been lost (Gallack Seas) and signs that have been stretched across multiple signifiers. (Eusa is both an abbreviation of Eustace and the name given to the mythological figure representing the U.S.A.)

Riddley Walker is like a checklist of unfilmable elements. A narrative that reveals itself very slowly and demands scrutiny, if not repeat viewing? Yep. A novel that relies on language and privileges the spoken word over the visual image? Well, there would be some cracking good images, sure, but by this point we’ve seen post-apocolytpic landscapes well enough. (Hey, let’s reboot Mad Max!) Kids doing all nature of things (drugs, sex) we aren’t comfortable with watching them do? You bet. One could, I suppose, like with Ender’s Games, make the actors slightly older, but so much of the pathos of the novel comes from the shortened lifespans of its participants which contributes to our sense of the magnitude of what has been lost and the feeble but totally understandable steps they take to try to make sense of it.

In addition to all the other challenges of adapting this novel, I would add that it is one that could easily draw the ire of of some religious readers who are troubled by the implications of its scarily plausible conflation of history, folklore, and mythology. Because we are one side of an historical chasm we can see the distant kinship between actual historical antecedents and the mutated mythology the scared and ignorant have woven around them. Is the novel postulating that all history is similarly corrupt? That the distant past is unknowable? I used to think so, but as I have revisited the novel, I am less sure.

What I am sure about is that no novel has given me deeper insight into the meaning of original sin: how we are individually and corporately inheritors of the consequences of choices made by our ancestors, how being so makes us feel like victims rather than agents, and how, even in the face of that, we make the same bad choices over and over. That’s not a popular doctrine, so why can’t I imagine it as part of a summer sci-fi extravaganza?

I prefer not to see many of my favorites made into bad–or even mediocre–films. So I’m happy to have Riddley Walker on the shelf with my books and not my DVDs. If someone had to try to film it? I suppose George Miller would be an obvious choice given echoes of the film in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. I was one of the few in my circle who couldn’t take Noah seriously, but liberated from the expectations that comes with a Biblical text, I could see Darren Aronofsky doing the novel justice.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.