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From Watchmen to Catch-22: can TV tackle ‘unfilmable’ books?

21 February 2018

From The Guardian:

In recent months, a spate of books has been adapted for TV, with Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore’s Watchmen in varying stages of production. They share something in common: all have been made into films – none of which have worked. The film versions had prestige directors Mike Nichols (Catch-22) and François Truffaut (Fahrenheit 451), while Zach Snyder took on Watchmen with a $120m budget. But despite the big names with big budgets, they couldn’t quite pull it off.

Early attempts at TV adaptations of notoriously unwieldy literary creations haven’t been straightforward. Amazon had an ill-advised crack at F Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel The Last Tycoon, the second Fitzgerald project it had taken on after its original series (Z: The Beginning of Everything) about his relationship with his wife Zelda. Widely felt to misfire (“there’s none of the chemistry, the fire and thunder of the great writer” wrote Sam Wollaston), The Last Tycoon went the way of Elia Kazan’s equally soporific 1976 movie, which – despite a cast that included Robert De Niro, Jack Nicholson and Jeanne Moreau, and a Harold Pinter screenplay – fell flat and would be the director’s last film.

TV, with its capacity for long-form storytelling, can suit these “unfilmable” projects. Turning movie adaptations of novels into TV shows has worked in varying degrees. Hannibal, Bates Motel and The Exorcist were huge successes, while others, such as the Stephen King adaptation The Mist, and the woeful Rosemary’s Baby failed dismally. It was clear that material ideally suited to the film format was stretched too thinly to justify a series.

. . . .

So with scorn from authors, and scepticism from fans, what prompts these attempts at the unfilmable? Ego is a consideration, and a desire to succeed where others have failed. With the advance of special effects, previously challenging books are now within the realm of possibility. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is the best example of this, with Amazon’s eye-wateringly expensive take on the books currently in development. The need for streaming sites to seek their answer to huge hits such as Game of Thrones may also be a factor. Adaptations of ambitious books make headlines, fuel interest and – if done correctly – can be spun out into decades-long franchises.

Another unfilmable project that fits into the epic lineage is Martin Freeman’s planned series version of John Milton’s 17th-century poem Paradise Lost, which producer Laurence Bowen has described as a “biblical Game of Thrones”.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

PG suggests that John Milton is turning over in his grave.

Milton was buried at St Giles-without-Cripplegate church in London in 1674. Here’s a photo of Milton’s memorial inside the church.



Milton dictated Paradise Lost, consisting of ten books with over ten thousand lines of blank verse, to a series of scribes, including his daughters, because he was blind.

He lived in a turbulent era which included the English Civil Wars between the Royalists and the Parliamentarians, during which King Charles I was tried and executed for treason and his son was exiled.

Religious upheaval was a constant condition during Milton’s life. The establishment of the Church of England as the official religion of the realm and persecution of British Catholics had occurred less than 100 years prior to Milton’s birth. The bishops of the Church of England actively participated in the English Civil Wars.

The Protestant Reformation led to a significant religious and political contention in Europe that carried over into England as Calvinist and other religious dissenters from the Church of England were severely persecuted by the government. Milton lived during the latter stages of the Thirty Years War, fought between Protestant and Catholic European states, and one of the most destructive in European history. For Americans, Milton lived and wrote during a time when English religious minorities, Pilgrims and Puritans, migrated to what would become the United States to escape persecution in Britain.

Paradise Lost was a deeply religious work created during a time when religion played a central role in personal and political life and has had a profound influence on authors and other artists in the centuries following its publication.

Bringing Paradise Lost down to more recent era, in 1942, C.S. Lewis wrote a preface of about 150 pages to a new publication of the epic poem.

Reflecting the times in which it was written, among other things, Paradise Lost is the story of a civil war between heaven and earth, God and Satan.

Milton was also a staunch advocate of freedom of speech during a time when any publication in England required a government license before it could be printed and sold. Such licensing laws first appeared during the Catholic inquisition. In 1644, Milton wrote Areopagitica in support of unlicensed printing.

Areopagitica continues to influence thought about freedom of expression. The United States Supreme Court has referenced Areopagitica in its case opinions interpreting the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.

From Wikipedia (citations omitted):

Most notably, the Court cited Areopagitica in the landmark case New York Times Co. v. Sullivan to explain the inherent value of false statements. The Court cited Milton to explain the dangers of prior restraint in Times Film Corp. v. City of Chicago et al. Later, Justice Douglas concurred in Eisenstadt, Sheriff v. Baird, citing the pamphlet to support striking down restrictions on lecturing about birth control. Finally, Justice Black cited Areopagitica when he dissented from the Court’s upholding of restrictions on the Communist Party of the United States against a free speech and free association challenge in Communist Party of the United States v. Subversive Activities Control Board. In each instance, Milton is cited by the Court’s members to support a broad and expansive protection of free speech and association.

Quotes from Areopagitica:

Books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them.

. . . .

And yet, on the other hand, unless wariness be used, as good almost kill a man as kill a good book. Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were in the eye. Many a man lives a burden to the earth; but a good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life. ‘Tis true, no age can restore a life, whereof perhaps there is no great loss; and revolutions of ages do not oft recover the loss of a rejected truth, for the want of which whole nations fare the worse.

. . . .

We should be wary therefore what persecution we raise against the living labours of public men, how we spill that seasoned life of man, preserved and stored up in books; since we see a kind of homicide may be thus committed, sometimes a martyrdom, and if it extend to the whole impression, a kind of massacre; whereof the execution ends not in the slaying of an elemental life, but strikes at that ethereal and fifth essence, the breath of reason itself, slays an immortality rather than a life.

. . . .

Where there is much desire to learn, here of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions; for opinion in good men is but knowledge in the making.

. . . .

Though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously, by licensing and prohibiting, to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?

. . . .

It is not possible for man to sever the wheat from the tares, the good fish from the other fry; that must be the Angels’ ministry at the end of mortal things. Yet if all cannot be of one mind — as who looks they should be? — this doubtless is more wholesome, more prudent, and more Christian, that many be tolerated, rather than all compelled.

. . . .

Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.

PG is concerned about the treatment of Paradise Lost, the masterwork of a true literary and moral genius, by 21st century Hollywood movie producers.

PG's Thoughts (such as they are)

3 Comments to “From Watchmen to Catch-22: can TV tackle ‘unfilmable’ books?”

  1. Sure.
    The trick is to do them as a miniseries, trust the viewer, and ignore the received wisdom about how to structure a TV show.

    The streaming folks get it.

    As for WATCHMEN, Snyder mostly did it justice. Even if he chose the absolutely worst song possible as a backdrop for the sex scene, totally undercutting his own characters. And he beat Moore’s ending.

    (Which Geoff Johns is in the process of fixing in DOOMSDAY CLOCK.)

  2. If Lost can be an award winning series, surely the whole cutting back and forth in narrative of Catch 22 can also be told on tv? I can’t imagine how you’d do that in a movie though. It would gut the book

    • Movies just aren’t long enough to effectively tackle long novels in full. Short stories and novellas is their limit.

      As for dealing with flashbacks/flashforwards/changes in setting, the CW superhero shows simply use camera filters so viewers can easily tell present day from flashback (ARROW), Earth vs alien planet (SUPERGIRL), or scenes on parallel worlds (FLASH). ARROW maintained dual season-long arcs, one present day and one five years in the past, for its first five seasons, covering ten years of the protagonist’s life.

      Nobody said anything, they just trusted their audience to notice and figure it out. It seems to have worked fine. There’s plenty of cinematography tricks that can be used to cue readers in to dream states, hallucinatory sequences, etc. By now most viewers have internalized the visual cue language in the video toolkit.

      The biggest constraints in adapting “difficult” works to live action video are the more common ones of locale, budget, and special effects/stunts. And in all three cases, computing tech is steadily dropping the costs with virtual sets and digital actors.

      If not now, soon no book will remain unfilmable.

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