Over at Screen Head, they have posted an article detailing their List Of The Hardest Novels To Film. This list includes all your favorites such as Ulysses, 100 Years Of Solitude and Metamorphosis, among others. But I got to thinking, science fiction is the home of the strange and fantastic so there ought to be SF books that would be darn near impossible to put on film, at least in any comprehensible form.

But what makes a book unfilmable? Is it story structure? Narrative style? Perhaps its the sheer inventiveness and weirdness of a far-future univerese that any movie, full of needed CGI, just can’t capture correctly. I’m sure our group of faithful readers, as diverse and well read in the SF field as we are, can come up with an interesting list of titles. I’ll list mine, at least those I can think of, below.


Dhalgren is Samuel Delany’s classic post-disaster novel of the city of Bellona. Strange things happen here: a river changes location, the protagonist looks in a mirror and sees someone else (someone vaguely familiar to the reader (hopefully)), and time passes differently for different characters. The reason for this becomes clear when the reader discovers what the central conceit of the story is, but if you haven’t read it, I won’t spoil it for you. Dhalgren is big, dense and complex and I don’t see how this novel could ever work as movie. It would be incredibly difficult to film correctly, and we haven’t even covered the themes of sex, gender and race, among others, that make this a difficult read, not to mention put on film.

In the interest of completeness, I must admit that I tried to read Dhalgren several times before I finally managed to work through it. I found it dull and tedious each time, even when I finished it. However, that was roughly 20 years ago, so I think as an adult, I might find it more bearable to read. But we may never know, as there are so many good, new stuff coming out, I may never get around to it.


Vellum is Hal Duncan’s debut novel, and I think you could consider it to be this generation’s Dhalgren. At times challenging and complex, Vellum also play fast and lose with narrative and time. After a somewhat conventional start (if you consider motorcylce driving witches conventional), Vellum veers off into territory where time and space really have little meaning, preferring to focus on the characters journey of discovery. Again, with the unconventional use of time, I see no easy way to put this story on film. Its challenging enough to read, let alone try to watch and figure out what the heck is going on. See the SFSignal review for more.


Both of the novels presented above make liberal use of unstructured narratives. But what about books that are just full of hard SF or big ideas? Could a film do these stories justice? Here I’m thinking about the Xeelee Sequence by Baxter and the Revelation Space series by Reynolds. Both are far future, but Baxter’s scope typically expands exponentially throughout the course of a novel and I’m not sure that the big screen would be big enough to show this. As far as Reynolds goes, I’m not sure todays film making is up to the task of doing his work justice on the big screen. Although, with the success of The Lord Of The Rings, its clear that SFX might be able image Reynolds’ ideas soon. As with Baxter though, I’m not sure even an Imax screen is large enough for the canvas Reynolds’ story is written on.

So now we throw it over to you, the readers. What SF novels do you think are ‘unfilmable’?

Filed under: Books

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