It was once commonly held that The Lord of the Rings was unfilmable. Peter Jackson and his team writers, co-directors and special effects artists proved the misconception of that: The Lord of the Rings was only unfilmable in terms of the limitations of technology, never in terms of the story itself. However, there are stories that are far more problematic than others to translate to a visual medium.
Abstract or surrealist works such as House of Leaves, stories which contain images and concepts that are almost exclusively literary in nature, such as Clive Barker’s Imajica, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books (the various adaptations that exist of which are all problematic).
With the possibility of a movie or television adaptation of Stephen King’s seminal Dark Tower series now seeming likely (after almost a decade bouncing around development Hell), it’s pertinent to examine what makes a “good” or successful book to cinema adaptation, and whether the mantle of the ultimate “unfilmable” has found a fitting successor.
Returning to Tolkien’s work, for the moment, the reason it succeeds is not because it is a slavish, page for page adaptation of the actual story (that is most certainly unfilmable; the result would be a rambling, potentially days long nonsense of a thing); much is changed or curtailed; characters and plot lines are cut out, others are embellished or created from scratch to make the story flow cinematically, to make the characters engaging and complex where they might otherwise be fairly simplistic mythological archetypes. The adaptation treads a very fine line between capturing the essence and spirit of Tolkien’s work whilst simultaneously altering it for the cinema format, which is the key: there is a great deal of respect paid to the world, cultures and mythology Tolkien created, but the plot, characters are certain events from the story are altered subtly to make it more palatable and workable. It’s a fantastically difficult exercise; too much, and you risk alienating the intended audience or established fan base or becoming so far removed from the original work that the result may as well be its own, independent work. On the other hand, cleaving to close to the source material might make the result too esoteric for the cinema-going public or might result in something that simply doesn’t work cinematically (there are some very, very good examples of this in Stephen King’s back catalogue; the TV adaptations of The Langoliers, The Tommyknockers and Desperation to name but a few).
It also works simply because of the nature of the material; however difficult it might have been to achieve technically (what with elaborate, fantastical entities such as The Balrog, Treebeard and Gollum to render convincingly), the story is peculiarly well suited to a visual and auditory medium, in that much of Tolkien’s world is communicated in symbolic and linguistic terms: every setting, every weapon or instrument, every character and piece of armour are described in specifically detailed terms, plus the various spoken languages of Middle Earth are specified by the writer himself in terms if their mechanics, pronunciations etc, meaning that Middle Earth is technically better suited to cinema, where one can see the styles and symbolism rendered, where one can hear the languages spoken, than it is to its original medium.
The Dark Tower, then; a series that owes more than a modicum to The Lord of the Rings, by King’s own admission, a little to Wild West movie mythology, a little to Lovecraft and Blake and numerous other influences too various to list. The question is not: will the adaptation succeed, but rather can it succeed? The first book in the series, entitled The Gunslinger, is a highly poetic and abstract piece not only in terms of its writing, but the manner in which its characters and world react to one another. It is a world awash with symbols and portents; with recurring themes and concepts that are easily communicated in literary terms (the writer merely has to describe them), but within the medium of a film?; Highly problematic without an incredibly canny director, and maybe not even then. How, for example, would a film communicate the significance of the number 19, which recurs and recurs again throughout the series, in subtle and overt ways, in innocuous and profound manner. Without the narrative suicide of the characters standing around talking about the concept, how might this be achieved? Of course, a subtle director, who maintains respect for their audience, might choose not to communicate it at all; merely to include it as something for the audience to find on their own; having it occur visually and without specific notification or announcement, in everything from the numbers of buttons on a jacket to that of stars in a night sky. In that, the concept may become a game for the audience; how many instances of the number might they find and in what capacity?
However, if the adaptation does indeed choose this (entirely preferable) direction, then how does the film communicate the significance of the number, which is somewhat vague and metaphysical even within the book itself? Similarly, the recurrent images of roses. In the book, it make a a kind of poetic sense. In a film format?; Very difficult to communicate indeed, without committing the aforementioned cardinal sin of exposition.
This relates to another issue with the translation, which is back story. The mythology and framework for Roland Deschain’s quest to find the Dark Tower accrues slowly over a number of novels, and will, by necessity, have to accrue slowly over a number of films. This will inevitably prove alienating to those looking for a more tried and tested formula, more standard storytelling, but also will inevitably prove a problem for the film makers; the actions and reactions of characters in this multiverse relate directly to a back mythology that, certainly in the story’s earlier instalments, consists of vague allusions and references; snippets of story that aren’t fleshed out until much later, and, in certain instances, not at all, outside of the extended mythology. The boy Jake’s uncharacteristic parting words when Roland lets him fall to his death, the seeming decades, maybe even centuries that pass while Roland has his fortune read by The Man in Black at the first book’s conclusion, the latter’s strange manipulations and often manic behaviours, of phrase . . . all of this could potentially culminate in a film adaptation that is, for most, simply too strange, too esoteric; too literary in its structure, rhythms and devices.
Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials suffered a similar fate, not necessarily owing to any fault on the film maker’s part, but because the source material is extremely difficult to communicate in cinematic terms. There are concepts within the books that comprise the trilogy which work wonderfully on paper (that of “demons,” for example: animal spirits that every human being is born with and with whom they can communicate), but which the film struggles massively to communicate clearly, despite doing so via several means (narrative voice over, characters explaining it to one another on more than one occasion). Similarly, King’s Dark Tower contains notions such as Ka (fate, but not quite) and Gan (God, but not quite) and numerous others, all of which crop up both in conversation and within the metaphysics of the multiverse that King establishes, but never to the degree that they become concrete or absolute. Even the concept of the Tower itself is somewhat fluid; a thing that is both metaphor and physical structure; idea and state of being; the spine of all realities, where every universe converges and originates. It is a distant and abstract thing, at least until the last book in the series, but one that is the driving imperative of the whole narrative; the motivating force of Roland himself. If any potential adaptation fails to nail it down, then the entire story will collapse.
This is not to say that such is impossible; there are any number of means that the film makers might employ to communicate or include these highly abstract notions, but they are generally more familiar to forms of film that exist outside of the mainstream markets in which this will undoubtedly operate; the likelihood of those responsible for its financing placing reigns and limitations on the stranger or more surreal aspects of the work is high, as is the market imperative to “simplify;” make it more palatable for a mainstream audience, which is usually the kiss of death for such projects.
Along with rumours and rumblings of a Dark Tower adaptation, we have similar stirrings of a TV series based on Clive Barker’s Imajica, a book similar to the Dark Tower in terms of its scope and metaphysics, but also its highly literary nature; its inclusion of concepts and imagery that are readily communicated in the form of written fiction, but which, in a visual format, will inevitably prove problematic. Here, we have states in which matter and thought intermingle, in which ideas take on shape and become flesh, where men and women become divinities via their exercise of this very principle. Furthermore, we have entire segments of the story give over to metaphysical journeys and introspections; revelations that occur inwardly as much as they are expressed outwardly. Any film maker attempting to communicate these concepts on screen has their work cut out, though, as with The Dark Tower, such is far from impossible.
This is before we even broach the abstruse, disturbing and horrific subject matters that these stories contain; horrors both personal and metaphysical; focused and far reaching; individual pain and suffering, the collapse of conditions, the distress of entire nations. There are forms of horror and unsettling subject within both stories that have never been seen on film before; subjects that may or may not translate well to a visual format.
Take, for example, the chattering “lobstrosities” of The Dark Tower’s second book, The Drawing of Three, and the horrific mutilations they visit upon Roland of Gilead (all exquisitely rendered by King). In prose, the creatures and their work enhance the tension of the scenes in which they occur; they are a constant threat, exacerbated by the increasingly weak and wounded Roland’s state, which is a horror story in and of itself. In film, there is potential for these monstrosities and their strange chattering nonsense to be absurd, even comical, for Roland’s condition to be ridiculous or overblown. Similarly, the moments of sheer, magical and metaphysical bravura that Imajica reaches (Goddesses frozen in ice, a man breathing fire into being, entities with heads like partially clasped hands between whose fingers lightning flickers, a creature that is neither male or female, but operates on a sexual spectrum beyond either; a protean condition, in which all potentials are possible) could so easily become matters of absurdity when translated to film. All require very particular touches; creators and imaginers who understand the nature and import of the subject, but also how it can be rendered to provoke gasps of awe, arousal and/or horror rather than snickers of laughter.
There are many, truly stunning, genre-defining examples of literary adaptations throughout he history of cinema, from Nosferatu—a loose adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula—to The Innocents (a truly stunning rendering of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw). The history of cinema itself, not to mention more recent formats such as video games, is intertwined with that of written fiction; they are not separate disciplines, but different evolutionary branches of the same tree. The success or failure of adaptations of stories from one format to the other relies as much on the adapter’s willingness to reinvent the material as it does their comprehension of it; their ability to capture something essential without attempting to reproduce the story verbatim. Whether or not The Dark Tower and Imajica prove workable depends largely on who is involved and whether circumstances allow them to breathe, evolve and be what they must be. So many factors that influence projects as ambitious as this have the capacity to murder or mutilate them before they take their first steps, before their first breath. If the stars are right, and circumstance obliges, then both of these could potentially revolutionise cinematic and televisual narrative; they could be those especial works that redefine everything, that provide fresh contexts that most have never conceived or thought possible before.
If it does not, then they could potentially be disasters of equal gravity, reinforcing every negative stereotype and assumption of the genres that are assigned to them. Time will no doubt tell.