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  • Author Edward Craig
  • Published July 4, 2013

Five unfilmable books (that are now films)

Cloud Atlas is released on Blu-ray this week – the film of David Mitchell’s acclaimed novel, a book previously thought unfilmable. It’s almost a challenge to a director: book is hugely popular but hugely complicated. You could never make a film of it. Or could you? Here are the five Unfilmable Books that have made their way to the big screen over the last 20 years – with a wide variety of success.


In 1993, Irvine Welsh wrote his punk novel about drug taking in Edinburgh predominantly in Scottish dialect, with a very loose narrative, hung around a variety of central characters. Great book, not great ingredients for a film. Then in 1996 director Danny Boyle, equipped with a screenplay from John Hodge, got hold of it and produced the iconic film of the 1990s, capturing the tone, the humour, the horror and the satire of the novel. And 17 years on, there’s talk of a sequel.”Only if the script is right,” says Robert Carlyle who played the terrifying Begbie in the original.

Life of Pi

Yann Martel’s fantastical exploration of faith and story telling where a young Indian man is marooned at sea with only a Bengal tiger for company appeared impossible to translate to the big screen – actors, tigers and boats seemed an unhealthy mix. By the time director Ang Lee had a crack at it, film technology had caught up with Martel’s imagination and Life of Pi the film became a reality, winning four Oscars this year – including cinematography – and breathing a soul into the CGI creation that was the tiger: Richard Parker.

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

They still haven’t invented smell-a-vision – whoever “they” are – and this was a basic obstacle for any attempts to adapt Patrick Suskind’s 1985 novel Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. He tells an 18th century tale of serial killer Grenouille via the medium of the nose; every description involves smell, the killer’s motives and resolution is all about scent, the nose is everything. Translate that… Tom Tykwer had a go in 2006 and met with mixed success – a sensational looking film that included an astonishing mass orgy at its conclusion, but it lacked that key, and smelly, ingredient that made the book so hypnotic.


In what amounts to a love letter to Vita Sackville-West, Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel about the ever-living aristocrat who starts off a man, finishes as a woman, never grows old (and no one notices), is a complicated – if joyful – narrative to justify. It doesn’t make sense and it needed all Woolf’s writing skills to work. But when Sally Potter cast the androgynous Tilda Swinton for her 1992 adaption, the pieces started to click. Knowing, funny, strange and beautiful now apply to both book and film.

Cloud Atlas

David Mitchell’s brilliant yet complex novel sees six stories – set in a range of times from the 18th century to a post-apocalyptic future – fitted within each other; the first story concludes in the last chapter, the second story finishes in the penultimate chapter – and so on. Each story is a belter in its own right, each is wildly different, yet there are both explicit and subtle links between them. It is vast and versatile – again, not natural ingredients for the cinema. Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski siblings took it on – with a stellar cast – and produced a film that has divided opinion. The directors ignored the structure so integral to the book and – perhaps – retained too much of the language. One thing everyone agreed: it is a stunning looking film – and for that alone, merits a spot in any Blu-ray library. It’ll also get you thinking.

Now we’ve tickled your fancy, try whathifi.com’s playlist of the best games, films and music to put your HD home entertainment setup to the test.

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Edward Craig is editor of Haymarket Creative Solutions

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