The 'unfilmable' becomes filmable as slew of sweeping books leap to big screen

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TORONTO - It would appear that labelling a book unfilmable is a sure-fire way to get a filmmaker's attention.

How else to explain the multitude of book-inspired features currently at the multiplex, a good number of them drawn from challenging literary works chock full of the very things popular cinema generally tries to avoid?

Rambling storylines, monumental themes, complex structures, detours into wild fantasy and innumerable characters are proving little impediment to the perennial search for the next big blockbuster.

This week, Yann Martel's long-considered-unfilmable tale "Life of Pi" appears in theatres as a 3D spectacle, the painstaking work of Oscar-winning director Ang Lee.

It follows the ambitious adaptations of David Mitchell's literary puzzle "Cloud Atlas" and Salman Rushdie's magical, historical tale "Midnight's Children."

And next month, theatres welcome a big screen take on J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy-laden "The Hobbit" while January will see Jack Kerouac's meandering Beat generation novel "On the Road."

As film critic and curator Jesse Wente notes: "A book is only unfilmable until someone makes a movie of it."

Whether that adaptation is a good film or not is another question entirely.

Reaction has been mixed to the cinematic incarnations of the two-hour-and-43-minute "Cloud Atlas" and the two-and-a-half-hour "Midnight's Children" — each elaborate ventures that faced distinct challenges in wrestling their sweeping narratives into script form.

"Cloud Atlas" co-writer-director Lana Wachowski admits that figuring out a plan often "seemed too impossible."

But her passion for the centuries-spanning book — really a collection of six tales crossing genres including historical drama, '70s murder mystery, slick sci-fi adventure and dystopian thriller — instilled an against-all-odds determination she shared with co-writers-directors Larry Wachowski and Tom Tykwer.

"The novel was the most exciting thing we'd read in a long, long time," Wachowski gushed when the film screened at the Toronto International Film Festival back in September.

"Sometimes we'd give up and (Tykwer) would go: 'No, we must keep going!'"

The trio decided early on that getting Mitchell's blessing was key to making the venture work. Then they set about reworking his tale entirely — chopping it into segments and rearranging the pieces into a single, fully integrated story.

"The book feels a little more like an anthology and it's a little bit more acceptable in literature to write a book like that," says Lana Wachowski.

"But for a movie we thought that it would be too hard to start over or start a new story an hour or so, an hour and a half into it with totally new characters."

Recognizing the different storytelling demands of film and literature is paramount to any adaptation, agrees Rushdie, who wrestled his own 600-page "Midnight's Children" into a 120-page screenplay.

The Booker Prize-winning writer says he and director Deepa Mehta made it clear from the get-go that the goal was to make a film — "not just a faithful adaptation of a literary text."

"It required a lot of sometimes very painful editing-out of elements in the book," says Rushdie, who mixes magical realism and period drama in his sweeping take on India's early days of independence.

"Some of the characters in the book that I'm most fond of didn't make it onto the screen. But in the end I thought, I'm enough of a movie person (to let them go).

"I just thought in the end the important thing is to make a film that works as a film. You don't want people to be sitting there constantly saying, 'Where's that bit of the book?' Or, 'I didn't think of this character in this way.' "

While a book can retreat into introspection and philosophical musings, film requires dialogue and action to keep the plot chugging along.

And so sometimes staying true to the spirit of a book means ripping the story apart.

"For years, when I was a kid there was talk that you couldn't do Philip K. Dick novels," notes Wente, film programmer at the Toronto arthouse theatre TIFF Bell Lightbox.

"But 'Blade Runner' is an adaptation of a Philip K. Dick novel, but only in the loosest sense. The novel is called 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?' It's a different idea (but) both are classics in their own right."

Then there are the demands of Hollywood.

The final instalments of the "Twilight" saga take bold liberties with the final Stephenie Meyer book — splitting it in two to double the box office payoff.

And much is being made of a dramatic detour in "Breaking Dawn — Part 2" — a wham-bam sequence that bloodies up what is otherwise a relatively staid climactic scene in the book to create a finale more befitting of a billion-dollar movie franchise.

Such departures are to be expected when jumping between mediums, says Wente.

"Not all the ideas from the page are going to work on screen and not all the ideas of the screen flow to the page. I think it's the magic that occurs in the middle that makes it," he says.

"Totally filmable books can end up as appalling movies and unfilmable books can win Oscars. And we've seen that."

An explosion of digital movie-making tools has allowed for even more "unfilmable" books — as well as comic books — to hit the big screen, he adds.

"All sorts of what we now are calling populist cinema wasn't possible 20 years ago, or at least wasn't possible in the same way and with the same sort of vision," says Wente.

"In the last 15 years there's been a dramatic change because of the digital technology. For many, many years, in fact much of my childhood, 'The Lord of the Rings' was an unfilmable book — they made it as an animated cartoon, that was the only way that anyone had ever thought of doing it. And yet they're now one of the biggest blockbusters of all time."

The computer generated imagery on display in "Life of Pi" certainly didn't exist when the book came out in 2001.

It's a big reason its Saskatoon-based author says he had a hard time imagining how a film could be made from his Booker Prize-winning tale, about an Indian boy stranded on a lifeboat with a tiger in the middle of the Pacific.

Plus, so much of the story unfolds through reflection, with the hero Pi struggling with deep philosophical and spiritual questions — hardly the stuff of box office smashes.

"Those are easy words to write on the page. But how would one bring them to life on the screen?" Martel writes in the forward to the behind-the-scenes book, "The Making of Life of Pi."

"The challenge seemed forbidding. Who would be crazy enough to try?"

It took a decade for someone to work out a viable strategy, with would-be directors Alfonso Cuaron, M. Night Shyamalan and Jean-Pierre Jeunet among the casualties.

When Lee took on the project, the "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" director brought ambitious plans with him: he would build a massive wave tank to recreate a swelling, open ocean; use real Bengal tigers that would be seamlessly integrated with computer-generated images and shoot it all 3D to simulate the mesmerizing depths of the Pacific.

Lee's choices included going with an entirely international cast of relative unknowns, reportedly replacing Tobey Maguire with Brit TV actor Rafe Spall because the "Spider-Man" star was too famous.

Picking the wrong actor can torpedo an adaptation, says Erica Wagner, author and literary editor of The Times in London.

Wagner complains of "terrible miscasting" in "Anna Karenina," saying the movie didn't work for her because of star Keira Knightley.

"It's hard because everyone is going to have their own Anna, aren't they?" says Wagner.

"It's why something like David Lean's 'Great Expectations' is such a miraculous film. Because to me, that's the one example of a film that's as good as an extraordinary novel. But that's very, very hard to do."

She frets over Baz Luhrmann's upcoming take on "The Great Gatsby," and whether she can overlook the blinding star power of Leonardo DiCaprio in his portrayal of the mythical Jay Gatsby.

"Leonardo DiCaprio is a great actor but when someone says 'Oh, that's Gatsby,' you think, 'No, that's Leonardo DiCaprio.'"

Although it's the power of the book that will draw curious fans into the theatre, an adaptation can only succeed on its own terms, says Rushdie.

"You want people to be absorbed by the characters and the emotions and the narrative line," he says.

"At the end of the film what you want people to think is, 'Oh, that was a good movie.' "


— With files from CP reporter Victoria Ahearn

Organizations: Mitchell's, The Times

Geographic location: TORONTO, India, Pacific Hollywood Bengal London

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