In the fall and winter, movies get a bit more serious than they do in the summer, when it’s all aliens invading, superheroes saving us from alien invasions, and 80-minute animated toy commercials. These high-minded, late-in-the-year films are the ones competing for awards consideration and as such many are adapted from bestselling or critically-praised novels. This year alone, we’ve seen or will see big-screen takes on The Girl on the Train, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, American Pastoral, and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, to name a few. Not coming to a theater near you, ever, however: the following books. That’s in spite of the fact that they’re popular and beloved. Are they just cursed?
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Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy
Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is another great novel from the master of the unsettling postmodern Western in that the plot is spare but full of dread and violence. Western? Dread? Violence? How is this, one of McCarthy’s best reviewed and enduring novels, not a movie? Oh, how Hollywood has tried. After the book about 19th century Old West unsavories was first published in 1984, many big-name movie folks have not quite gotten Blood Meridian off and running. Ridley Scott, Tommy Lee Jones, Martin Scorsese, and James Franco have all put in attempts, but each and every time it was scrapped while in development. The extreme violence might be the hold-up. Or it’s the lack of a cinematic friendly linear narrative. Ah, but that didn’t stop Cloud Atlas.
The Catcher in the Rye, by J. D. Salinger
It’s arguably the most famous 20th century American novel, probably because it’s almost a rite of passage to read it during or after adolescence. The mystique of The Catcher in the Rye has only grown over the decades due to the reclusiveness and few other novels of its author, J.D. Salinger. Had it been written by someone a bit more willing to play with others, The Catcher in the Rye could’ve been a 1950s classic of American cinema, a searing black-and-white masterpiece of rage on par with On the Waterfront. (It probably would’ve even been remade a couple of times by now.) But alas, this one never went anywhere beyond a 17-year-old’s bookshelf. In the early ’50s, Jerry Lewis asked to adapt it but was turned down. So were all-time greats in their pursuits: Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson, and Billy Wilder. More recently, Leonardo DiCaprio allegedly tried and failed to secure the rights. So did Steven Spielberg.
A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole
It’s the greatest comic novel of all time. Bar none. Idiosyncratic, one-of-a-kind, and exploding with unique characters and New Orleans charm, Toole couldn’t get this too-unique gem published when he wrote it in the 1960s. He ultimately took his own life, but his mother doggedly pursued publishers until Louisiana State University Press bit in 1980. And then it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The lead role of underemployed academic Ignatius J. Reilly—pugnacious, arrogant, oblivious, selfish, terrible—would be right at home in today’s TV world of self-involved anti-heroes. It’s been a passion project for every dominant comic actor of the last 30 years, but each time it falls apart…often because of the actor’s death. Harold Ramis was working on an adaptation starring John Belushi, but he died in 1983. John Waters wanted frequent collaborator Divine to play Ignatius…but he died in 1988. Also attached, and dearly departed, over the years: John Candy and Chris Farley. Stephen Soderbergh co-wrote a script set to star Will Ferrell, but that ultimately didn’t happen. So did a version starring Zach Galifianakis…
The Incomparable Atuk, by Mordecai Richler
If A Confederacy of Dunces is the prototypical picaresque novel of the American South, then The Incomparable Atuk stakes a claim on the title for Canada. Written in 1963, the bitingly satirical novel is about an Inuit poet who gets discovered, moves to Toronto and has a bunch of fish-out-of-water adventures only to succumb to the superficial lifestyle that come with being a literary sensation. It was a cult hit and its stature grew by the 1980s, and it found its way to Hollywood. Also similar to A Confederacy of Dunces was how the same handful of actors of a larger physical stature were at some point interested in a film version of Atuk, only to die before the movie could be made. John Belushi, Chris Farley, John Candy, and Sam Kinison had all been in talks to play Atuk.
The Secret History, by Donna Tartt
While we all await news on the adaptation of Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece The Goldfinch, maybe it’s best not to look at the rocky movie history of her first novel for clues. The novel was in the works as a movie by producer Alan J. Pakula in the early ’90s, who hired married literary icons Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne to write the screenplay. They never finished a script, Pakula died in 1998, and that was that. A few years later, Gwyneth Paltrow signed a deal with Miramax to produce, but after her father died, she lost interest and moved on to other movies. It’s been so long that the rights have reverted back to Tartt, and she doesn’t want to sell them again.
What other novels will probably never make it to the big screen?