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Unfilmable Science Fiction Novels

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 universe 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 motorcycle 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 SF Signal 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’?

About JP Frantz (2322 Articles)
Has nothing interesting to say so in the interest of time, will get on with not saying it.

11 Comments on Unfilmable Science Fiction Novels

  1. Just about anything by M John Harrison. I’ve read all of his books. They are strange and wonderful and he writes beautifully. But I still don’t quite know what some of them are about. You might be able to film “The Centauri Device”, but that’s about it.

  2. Gene Wolfe’s Book of the Short Sun (On Blue’s Waters, In Green’s Jungles, Return to the Whorl) centers around the puzzle of the narrator’s identity, and there are parts of the book where just getting to see the narrator/protagonist would be a major spoiler. Hard to see how you’d film that.

  3. Aristoi by Walter Jon Williams. Much of the book is printed in parallel columns of text, one for the protagonist, and one for the subroutines running in his head.

  4. Charlie Green // January 16, 2007 at 7:45 pm //

    How ’bout the odds of getting a Vernor Vinge story on the big screen? Try and make a large array of nanobot networked detectors meaningful in any other media.

    OK, I guess making the point of view of an inherently unintelligent nanobot the narration might work. But likely not. :-@

  5. Three novels by Brian Aldiss. Two of them I would love to see made into movies and the third would be impossible to make.

    1. “A Report on Probability”(1968) would be impossible to film. The book is as repetitious and cold and clinical as any novel by Alain Robbe-Grillet. The book’s “narrative” consists of an endless feedback loop, images keep reappearing, and the phenomenological world is peeled away only to reveal that repetition is at heart of everything (there is no resolution no epiphanies). Are aliens voyeuristically studying a very small plot of earth, mainly a rain besotted suburban backyard and shed? Are we a machine entity stuck staring at walls and art reproductions forever and ever? Great book. Impossible to film.

    2. I would love to see really good film adaptations of these two Aldiss novels (in my opinion his two best): “The Long Afternoon of Earth”(1961) and “Non-Stop”(1958) (also known as “Starship”).

  6. Eric Gelber // January 16, 2007 at 7:53 pm //


    “Report on Probability A” sorry about that.

  7. Pohl’s Man Plus has just a few real moments of action. The rest is basically, a great, yet unfilmable head trip.

  8. Well, I’ve been maintaining for years that it would be impossible to convert Solaris to film, since (in some contrast to others of Lem’s books) it has very little plot and a lot of long psychological ramblings.

    But that haven’t stopped anyone from trying, again and again.

    So the way I see it, there’s no reason for them to avoid any other “unfilmable” book.

    And of course it’s possible to turn Report on Probability A into a movie. The viewers will fall asleep in droves while watching, but on the other hand it can probably be done on a fairly low budget. 😉

  9. I would say Asimov’s Foundation Series. Despite news for decades that they were to be made into a film (including, most recently, by the folks–shudder–who butchered “I, Robot”!) I don’t see these as a film. Relatively little action, a lot of background and most of the books are long strings of dialogue between various characters.

    They are among my favorites, but I don’t think they should be on the screen.

    When I got a couple of books signed by Alfred Bester, he wrote in the copy of “The Demolished Man”, “I don’t think it will make a good film!” That was when the book had been optioned. You’ll note that nearly three decades later, we haven’t seen it on the big screen.

  10. Hmm, many of Greg Egan’s novels I doubt would translate, in particular Diaspora or Schild’s Ladder, where a large amount of the activity takes place either acorporeally, or in a universe with utterly alien constants and laws.

  11. Believe it or not Dhalgren very nearly went to the big screen. The story is that when I was a teenage college student in NYC in the late 70’s I was hanging around with Joey Reith, one of Chip Delany’s biggest fans. I read Dhalgren and really got into the other-worldly yet same-worldly weirdness of it. Suddenly I got inspired to try to film some short B&W images based on the characters in the book.

    I borrowed a camera from a friend who was in a film class at the time. Then I rounded up some likely suspects, Joey, Christian, Allyn Brodsky, and we pushed the film equipment in an old pram towards the abandoned warehouses under the west side highway (off the meatpacking district). We needed to wrap ourselves in a bunch of chains, so we stopped at Charles Platt’s place…he conveniently had a WHOLE F***ING closet full of leather restraints, chains, etc, which made us swear to give back. (we never did). Then garbed in leather, jeans, and chains, we went into up on the west side hiway and shot outdoors, then into the warehouses. I remember a long shot of Christian walking forward towards the camera, framed against the bright sky through a ripped out section of wall, pacing like a cat over the wrecked interior, then he tossed a handful of silver glitter (like a Scorpion kid’s light it flashed and sparkled in the air).

    Delany liked the footage so much he actually gave us a one year option on the film rights. We set up a production company with David Coombs, John Flynn, & others in West Hollywood, & at one time Spielberg tried to buy us out. But the production people were so greedy they wouldn’t sell the option. I bailed out and sold them my shares back & the whole thing fizzled out in 1983 or so.

    So just for the record books…Dhalgren ALMOST got filmed…by Spielberg…maybe we can breathe a sigh of relief?

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