The following is an abridged section of an essay from my collection of screenplays and ‘bonus material’ Off-Script. It’s a weird little collection: four short scripts, ranging in technical difficulty to film, a bunch of notes, and a few glossaries.
It was never going to be a best-seller.
I adapted a couple of previously published short stories into screenplays, and included one of my favourite shorts ‘A Bedtime Story’ which I explained, was in my opinion, ‘unfilmable’. The piece that follows is the first part of that essay, before I got into the story itself and why I felt that way.
Over the years there has been a whole bookshelf worth of novels and shorts that have been deemed ‘impossible to film’.
Some took up the challenge – so David Cronenberg took on Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis, Tom Tykwer and the Wachowskis made David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, back in 1970, Mike Nichols and Buck Henry adapted Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22” jettisoning multiple storylines and characters along the way in order to do so. Alan Moore has refused to be associated with any attempted adaptations of his works – from League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, From Hell, through to Watchmen and anything in between.
Other literary tomes have been left…so far: the likes of House of Leaves by Mark Z Danielewski (probably my favourite book I never finished…), The Catcher in The Rye by J.D Salinger, Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, 2666 by Roberto Bolaño to name just a handful.
What makes a text ‘unfilmable’?
A whole bunch of reasons.
It might be the length (‘Infinite Jest’ is over 1,000 pages and even the footnotes have footnotes…), it might be structure – House of Leaves is far from straight-forward prose, but it could be theme, or subject matter, or complexity, or sprawling plots that may work on paper but not on celluloid. They may just be too damned expensive (although the steps forward with FX are making that less of an issue), or simply, like Catcher in the Rye, deemed impossible to cast.
Why do I think Bedtime Story is impossible to film?
Well, if you’ve read it you’ll see that there is a twist somewhere around halfway through the story it’s a twist that has, in various formats been played with in movies – normally revolved around either extensive use of point of view or use of actors that can accommodate the required twist.
In Bedtime Story the use of extensive point of view is not a realistic choice – using it would give away the ‘hide’ relating to both central characters that can be played around with in written text, and the audible element of it would make it a no-go anyway.
It might be possible to make the ‘twist’ something different: that the ‘twist’ is not the fact that (comments redacted as spoilers) but to my mind that’s ‘changing’ the story too much.
So, to my mind, Bedtime Story, despite being a story I care about a lot, and is probably one of the more personal stories I’ve written, will remain out of the clutches of the Hollywood machine for the foreseeable future.
If you can think of a different angle, or a way to film it while maintaining the key details and feel of the piece – have at it. I’d love to see it.
Note: I appreciate the second part of this article – edited from the original version appearing in the book to avoid plot spoilers, may feel overly cryptic.
If you’re interested in reading the original story it is discussing, or read the four screenplays I did actually write, Off Script is available for free if you have Kindle Unlimited, or for £1.99 in standard Kindle format. You can read more about it here