The Film That Wasn’t There

Bosley Crowther begins his 1962 review of Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita by asking and answering the question posed by the film’s posters: How did they ever make a movie of Nabokov’s novel? “They didn’t,” Crowther writes. “They made a movie from a script in which the characters have the same names as the characters in the book, the plot bears a resemblance to the original and some of the incidents are vaguely similar. But the ‘Lolita’ that Vladimir Nabokov wrote as a novel and the ‘Lolita’ he wrote to be a film, directed by Stanley Kubrick, are two conspicuously different things.”

This conspicuous difference, however, doesn’t prevent Crowther from spending the next seven paragraphs explaining how one of these things is not like the other (Lolita “is not a child in the movie”; “the structure and the climate of the movie are not the same as those of the book”), and of declaring, like so many moviegoers before and after him, that the book was better (“The changes are disconcerting,” he sighs, finally). Crowther ignores George Bluestone’s caution in Novels into Film—a landmark study of literary adaptation published just five years prior to Lolita’s release—that it is “as fruitless to say that film A is better or worse than novel B as it is to pronounce Wright’s Johnson’s Wax Building better or worse than Tchaikowsky’s Swan Lake.” The Times critic is perfectly content to compare buildings and ballets, or apples and oranges: Nabokov’s Lolita has notes of “sardonic mischievousness,” with a “distractingly sultry climate”; Kubrick’s Lolita “has got a lot of fun and frolic” and “a bit of pathos and irony” but “some strange confusions of style and mood as it moves along.” Crowther concludes, “This is not the novel ‘Lolita,’ but it is a provocative sort of film.”

For Crowther, Kubrick’s Lolita simply does not exist as an adaptation of Nabokov’s novel (what would the critic have made of Adrian Lyne’s more explicit 1997 attempt?). We could blame the film’s apparent failure on the constraints of American moviemaking circa 1962, but we could also blame Crowther’s own failure of imagination, his own constraint in refusing to see Kubrick’s Lolita for what it is: Kubrick’s Lolita, not Crowther’s. This is the crux, after all, of literary adaptation—that any movie based on a book is not really based on a book but on some idea thereof. There is no stable Lolita, only a stable of Lolitas: Crowther’s, Kubrick’s, Nabokov’s, Lyne’s, yours, mine, one of which may look more or less like the other depending on the day. The French professor Pierre Bayard suggests that what we talk about when we talk about books are “not the books themselves but substitute objects we create for the occasion.” Adaptations are substitutes par excellence, and Crowther can accept—or except—no substitutes for his own Lolita. If, as Bayard maintains, “the book is an undefined object that we can discuss only in imprecise terms, an object forever buffeted by our fantasies and illusions,” then Kubrick merely failed to make a film of a novel that was never there in the first place, or a novel that was somewhere else.

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Sometimes, though, the film really isn’t there—they don’t make the movie—in ways far less figurative than Crowther imagines. Two of the aughts’ most revealing making-of features, Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe’s Lost in La Mancha (2002) and Frank Pavich’s Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013), revolve around adaptations that were never actually made. The former records the demise of Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, a surreal take on the Cervantes classic, while the latter exorcises the neon demons of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s proposed film of the 1965 Frank Herbert bestseller. Both directors—both visionaries—buffeted the books that inspired their projects with tsunamic waves of illusion and fantasy. Gilliam’s film would’ve found a modern man transported to seventeenth-century Spain to become Don Quixote’s unwitting Pancho, battling windmills-cum-giants and puppet armies. Jodorowksy’s Dune would’ve run for over ten hours, featured planets tied to Pink Floyd and the French prog rockers Magma, and included cameos by Dalí and Orson Welles (who himself famously left his own Quixote adaptation unfinished). Every major studio passed on Jodorowsky’s film, while Gilliam’s, produced in Europe, outside the purview of Hollywood, was stymied by a rising budget, an ill leading man, and shoots waylaid by storms and streaming F16s from a nearby Spanish military base (“If it isn’t the F16s, it’s thunder,” Gilliam muses at one point). In the end, all we’re left with are the imaginings or fantasies of what the two films might’ve been.

Yet both directors are adamant that their adaptations have been made, if not on screen then in their minds, in storyboards and sketches, through costuming and casting. Lost In La Mancha begins with Gilliam explaining, “I’ve made the film in my head … The pictures are there … it’s been played out many, many times”—a point he echoes at the documentary’s end (“I’ve done the film too often in my head, too many times. I’ve seen it, I’ve been through it, I know how it goes”) before wondering, “Is it better, you know, just to leave it there?” Even in the middle of a war of attrition on his imagination, Gilliam insists that the film has been made, if it hasn’t quite materialized. Jodorowsky’s Dune, meanwhile, materializes in the hardbound collection of concept art and storyboards at the center of the documentary, a lookbook used to shop the project to potential studios in the seventies. “Drawing by drawing,” Jodorowsky says, “I shoot the picture. I need 3000 drawings. Point of view. Movement of camera. Dialogue. The relation between character.” Drive director Nicolas Wending Refn recalls the night that Jodorowsky asked him if he wanted to see Dune, to which a befuddled Refn replied, “I didn’t know you made it.” Jodorowsky affirms that he did, showing Refn the storied book and narrating “what was going to happen in every scene.” Says Refn, “in a way, I’m the only guy who actually ever saw Jodorowsky’s Dune. I am the only spectator that has seen the movie.”

Audiences watching a documentary called Jodorowsky’s Dune may beg to differ, especially when Pavich’s movie, like Lost in La Mancha, frequently turns into the very adaptation whose undoing it details. In one instance, Jodorowsky describes the film’s opening: Dune—“my Dune,” he stresses—starts with a long shot traversing space, a conscious nod to Touch of Evil. As Jodorowsky talks over the storyboards for “Scene 01 – Crossing the Galaxy,” the descriptions beneath the pictures begin to disappear until the illustrations themselves fill the frame, the camera moving past damaged ships, spice pirates, and space battles in a rush of animation. The filmmakers repeat this trick four more times, animating the movie’s conclusion and a few major set-pieces in between. Lost in La Mancha goes further still in confusing itself and its subject, interspersing its opening credits with the storyboards for The Man Who Killed Don Quioxte’s own opening (“EXTERIOR SPANISH HILLTOP DAY”), enhanced by animated pencil drawings, sound effects, and Gilliam’s and co-writer Tony Grisoni’s spirited readings of the characters’ dialogue. These glimmers of the films in Gilliam’s and Jodorowsky’s eyes raise the perfectly reasonable question of why audiences don’t tend to think about storyboards and scripts as adaptations in their own rights.

Such glimmers also suggest that Lost in La Mancha and Jodorowsky’s Dune may in fact be the adaptations that weren’t there in the first place. Throughout Lost in La Mancha, Gilliam plays the role of Don Quixote, “a man charging into windmills,” as the documentary’s narrator (Jeff Bridges) says at the outset; Grisoni speculates that Quioxte appeals to Gilliam because it’s about a man “gleefully battling in the face of all odds and logics and reality”; and production designer Benjamin Fernandez describes the director as “a little bit the Quixote” in challenging his crew to “visualize the story through his eyes.” Gilliam accedes to the resemblance by the film’s end, which fades out on a drawing by the director depicting the militarized “Windmills of Reality” strafing Don Quioxte with gunfire, bullet holes and all. Just moments earlier, we see Gilliam defeated, pulling the plug on production: “Listen to that wind. It started with a deluge, and now the great wind is sweeping it clean, blowing Quixote away, out of Spain, forever.” Jodorowsky takes on a no less heroic role in Jodorowsky’s Dune, stating up front that he wanted “to create a prophet” with his ambitious project. He describes the final scene of his Dune, in which the messianic Paul dies, dispersing his energies on a desert planet and turning it green in the process (“I changed the end of the book, evidently,” says Jodorowsky, “It was my Dune”). This description quickly gives way to a list of films that followed in the wake of Dune’s demise—Alien, Flash Gordon, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Masters of the Universe, Prometheus—that borrowed the project’s art and/or crew, directly and/or indirectly. Gilliam is Quixote; Jodorowsky is Paul. The documentaries become adaptations of Don Quixote and Dune—just not the ones the directors intended to make.     

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Could any film ever match Gilliam’s or Jodorowsky’s visions? Could Kubrick’s ever match Crowther’s? Maybe, in adaptation, the film is never there, is always elsewhere, and maybe this is actually adaptation’s appeal—that what seems settled isn’t, that the wind is always blowing, that the prophecy always goes unfulfilled. Lost in La Mancha and Jodorowsky’s Dune are their own provocative sorts of films, exercises in speculation, adaptations-in-waiting, not all that different from the imaginings of a reader who ponders a beloved book’s move to the big screen, who casts the characters in her head, who makes the movie in her mind many, many times. In this sense, the two documentaries are about private visions of adaptation going public—about failed IPOs, so to speak. They’re about the sharing economy of adaptation, an economy that will always promote inequity because different readers see books differently and will want to see them differently on screen. The paradox of adaptations is that they pretend sameness while promoting this very difference, the very infidelity that Lost in La Mancha and Jodorowsky’s Dune celebrate.

Only the thinnest of metafictional lines separates Lost in La Mancha and Jodorowsky’s Dune from unmaking-of features like Spike Jonze’s Adaptation. (about a movie of Susan Orlean’s book The Orchid Thief gone wrong) and Michael Winterbottom’s Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (about the difficulty of adapting the sprawling eighteenth-century novel to screen)—films in which adaptation’s impossibility is cause for comedy rather than concern. In the end, Lost in La Mancha and Jodorowsky’s Dune are less about adaptation’s impossibilities than its possibilities, its probabilities, its infinities. Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is back in pre-production, and Jodorowsky rewrote much of his Dune book in a series of sci-fi comics (he thinks an animated version of his proposed film would be “fantastic”). But the documentaries are more lively and striking than any finished adaptation could ever be precisely because they brim with all the potential of a dream (or two) deferred. As Jodorowsky says, “Dune is in the world like a dream, but dreams change the world also.” Every adaptation is unfinished, the semblance of some half-remembered dream. Every adaptation springs not from some collective unconscious but from Jodorowsky’s and Gilliam’s and Kubrick’s and Crowther’s and yours and mine. They never made a movie of Dune or Don Quixote or Lolita because every adaptation, finally, is an adaptation in the making.