Five Classic Novels That Were Never Adapted for the Big Screen

One of the first questions people ask when a novel is successful is: who will play the lead character in the film adaptation? Some writers are even cannier, selling the film rights before the books are even finished! Writers can often command hefty pay checks, such as J.K. Rowling, who sold the first four Harry Potter books for $2 million, and Dan Brown, who sold The Da Vinci Code for a ridiculous $6 million.

Nonetheless, just because a book is successful doesn’t always mean that it is destined to be made into a film by Hollywood. While some novels, like Little Women, have made it to the big screen a whopping seven times, others have never been adapted despite obvious audience demand. Whether its due to their narrative complexity, rights issues, or good old fashioned production woes, these novels have never quite made it to the big screen. Read on to see what we picked. Did we miss something important? Please leave your suggestions in the comments below.

The Secret History

The first novel by Donna Tartt, The Secret History was a huge success upon its release, with over 75,000 copies published for its first edition. Telling the story of a group of Vermont students obsessed with Ancient Greek rituals, it’s a stunning murder in reverse that is as gripping as it is enigmatically told, making it ripe for adaptation.

Town and Country Mag have a lengthy explanation as to why this never came to pass.  Director Alan J. Pakula had the option for Warner Brothers, with Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne set to write and Scott Hicks to direct. But when he died in a car crash, the project stalled. Gwyneth Paltrow was later interested, with herself to star, but put the project aside when her own father died. The film rights have been up in the air ever since. With The Goldfinch, an adaptation of Tartt’s wide-spanning tale of painterly theft, a complete flop, the possibility of The Secret History ever reaching the big screen has been even further lessened. We wait in infinite hope.

Blood Meridian

Legendary American writer Cormac McCarthy is no stranger to the big screen. Adaptations like All The Pretty Horses and The Road show how well his style can translate to the big screen. He even wrote the screenplay for The Counselor, Ridley Scott’s bizarre border drama that completely confounded critics.

Nonetheless, his greatest novel, the anti-Western Blood Meridian, often seen as one of the best books ever written, has eluded the big screen.  Attempts to produce it have been cursed, with multiple directors attached, including: Ridley Scott, Tommy Lee Jones, Martin Scorsese, John Hillcoat and James Franco. If these guys can’t get it made, perhaps Blood Meridian will never make it! Considering the book’s extreme violence, otherworldly villain and lack of traditional narrative, it makes it a hard sell for investors.

Gravity’s Rainbow

Thomas Pynchon is a notoriously unfilmable director. After all, the only film of his to make it to the big screen, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, is difficult enough as it is, and that’s his most accessible work. That novel pales in comparison to Gravity’s Rainbow’s fiendish complexity.

Gravity’s Rainbow is hard enough to simply read: an incredibly complex rumination on the fragmentation of post-war life that requires multiple attempts to even remotely understand. I read it back at university and still couldn’t really tell you anything about it. It’s well known for this difficulty; a character in Knives Out even pretends to have read it to seem smarter than they really are.

A film adaptation of the 760 page historical novel would require both limitless confidence and an immense production budget. Stanley Kubrick springs to mind. Sadly for us, he has been dead for over 20 years. Paul Thomas Anderson, having succeeded with Inherent Vice, is the next best bet, but he’s probably over filming Pynchon now.

Infinite Jest

Where does one even start thinking about adapting Infinite Jest into a film? With over 388 endnotes, the wildly experimental novel from David Foster Wallace interweaves the story of an elite tennis academy, Québécois terrorists, alcoholics and drug abusers in Boston and the history of the Incandenza family, all connected by a mysterious film named Infinite Jest.

Baseless rumours have swirled around ever since the director’s suicide that it might be made into a movie, but no official news has been confirmed yet. The closest thing one has is The End of the Tour, with Jason Segel playing the famous author opposite a Rolling Stone reporter played by Jesse Eisenberg. It would be ironic if anyone could, considering the novel actually revolves around a film so pleasurable that people who watch cannot do anything else (Netflix executives must have all read it). Considering its length and complexity, perhaps it would work far better as a TV series, with each chapter directed by a different director? Anyone tackling this by themselves is likely to go crazy.

The Catcher in The Rye

We all want to see Timotheé Chalamet play Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in The Rye. In fact, it’s such a strong desire of mine I would probably contribute some of the budget myself. Nonetheless, this is unlikely to happen soon. J.D. Salinger refused to sell the film rights, and soon developed a reputation, like Holden Caulfield, of hating movies themselves. Time will only tell if his estate may one day give up the rights.

That hasn’t stopped multiple filmmakers creating Salinger-adjacent material: My Salinger Year, which will debut this month at the Berlinale, tells the story of an assistant to a literary agent whose job it is to answer Salinger’s fan mail in the 90s, while The Rebel in The Rye, released in 2017, is a biographical drama about Salinger starring Nicholas Hoult as the reclusive writer. There is also Chasing Holden, about a troubled young man who goes on a crazy journey while writing a paper on the book, and Coming Through the Rye, about two young men who set out to find Salinger. 

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