That is another thought about the book I was not alone in having—White Noise famously belongs to the category of “unfilmable novels,” books thought to be impossible to adapt to the screen for one reason or another. And yet Noah Baumbach’s version of the book is out now, streaming on Netflix. The Guardian seems to be really into itwhile one of my favorite newsletters, The Dirt, thinks Baumbach’s take on the book tries a little too hard, If you care about Rotten Tomatoes, as of me writing this, it barely squeaks by with audiences, getting a 57 percent score from them, and a 63 percent on the Tomatometer, All of which seems to suggest: yeah, adapting this book? Bad idea.
The funny thing about film adaptations of unfilmable novels, though, is how they age: while they tend to meet critical resistance upon release, something interesting happens after that. Often, the movie versions of unfilmable novels tend to grow more interesting with time.
It’s worth asking what, exactly, makes a book “unfilmable” in the first place. “I feel like there are two broad categories of unfilmable books,” says Lincoln Michel, who writes the publishing industry newsletter Counter Craft, The first category is all about complexity and/or scale. The grand example of this is literally the father of all novels, Miguel de Cervantes’ 17th-century masterpiece Don Quixote, Terry Gilliam made a film lampooning his famous failed attempts at bringing the 1000-plus page book to the screen, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, The other category, Michel says, “are novels that are thought to be artistically unfilmable in the sense that their style and form is so tied to the novel—to text and the page—that film couldn’t capture what makes them work and any adaptation would simply be an entirely different thing.”
John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces might be the king of this category: despite seemingly filmable subject matter (a sloppy schmuck’s misadventures in New Orleans), a posthumous Pulitzer for the author, and a still-obsessive fanbase, failed attempts at making the book into a movie are the stuff of legends. Harold Ramis, John Waters and Steven Soderbergh have all been linked to directing a version of the movie, and everybody from Divine, John Candy, John Belushi, Will Ferrell, Chris Farley and Zach Galifianakis have been considered for the lead role of Ignatius J. Reilly. Yet in 2015, I made the drive out to Boston to see a stage adaptation of the book starring Nick Offerman as the novel’s bumbling central character—and it was great, This makes me wonder if the book is unfilmable—or if risk-averse movie studios are just uninterested in proving that it belongs on the silver screen.