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Print to Projector: What is the What

By  · Published on June 12th, 2010

As the only literate Reject, it’s my duty to find the latest, the greatest and the untouched classics that would make great source material for film adaptations. I read so you don’t have to. This week, Print to Projector presents:

What is the What

by Dave Eggers

“I have no reason not to answer the door so I answer the door.”


Two worlds and one man. The (sort of) true story of Valentino Achak Deng speaks of his life growing up in the civil war squalor of Sudan. When his village is reduced to cinder, he marches to a refugee camp with the other orphaned boys of Marial Bai – but his hardships will continue even after he escapes to the United States.


The breath that is infused into this novel is that specifically of the real-life Valentino Achak Deng even if some of the stories are made up and some of the characters aren’t totally real. It is a strange blend of fact and fiction that nonetheless manages to tell a heart-wrenching story of the atrocity that war and genocide can create particularly for those who aren’t old enough to take care of themselves.

That theme is carried through even when our hero is in Atlanta as an adult because we learn that the world is rough all over. His problems are more protracted than when he was in a country whose entirety was on fire, but they are probably still startling to most who would read the book. By the end, he (and the reader) is tired of needing help. Or at least tired of feeling helpless.

Of course, the life of the novel comes from small moments that show what life is living for – laughter, friendship, the love of family. Without those, the book would be a death march through miles of muck and unrelenting inhumanity. It would also not mean as much.

There are trials and tribulations far beyond the scope of our own imagination, they are happening in the world currently, and this book turns them into the dark poetry of a harsh journey that rings in the mind long after the book is put down.

For the film, there are opportunities to display both the sweeping beauty of the country and the horrendous emptiness that it represents to many of the characters. It will take both an intimate and a wide-open eye to create, but the visual opportunities here are diverse and might take on their own life in film form.

The characters are all rich, and of course the drama is felt right down to the bone, so there’s also opportunity here to draw out some truly transformational performances.

Over all, the book is the kind of thing that weighs your nightstand down. It’s difficult and heavy to pick up, but each individual page speeds by with the increasing pull of the story.

Potential Problems

The novel would be easily adapted.

The Pitch

The What.


As with a handful of novel adaptations, it seems as though the original author is the best fit. Dave Eggers has a lot going for him. For one, he’s an expert on the subject of the book and became so through hundreds of hours of research. It would be difficult for someone else to capture the same feel and tone without that knowledge. Plus, Eggers has his fair share of experiences with screenwriting so he could easily handle the format. Of course, a co-writing credit to Deng would be nice.


What “What is the What” is, is a drama that should leave the audience bloodied in the sun. Yet, the ability to tell a human story while remembering what makes us human (and what puts a smile on our faces) seems to be getting rarer these days. That combination is no sweat for direct Marc Forster who has delivered human stories as foreign and wide-ranging as Stranger Than Fiction, Finding Neverland, and The Kite Runner.


The Who:

Normally I’d write a detailed list of the cast, but considering the subject matter and the authenticity needed, it seems clear that the bulk of the cast, including Deng needs to be unknowns (much like in The Kite Runner). There are still opportunities for some side characters of note and for even the older version of Deng to be played by someone like Djimon Hounsou, but for the most part, unknowns would be the best bet.

Who Owns It:

It’s unclear to me who exactly owns the rights, but Tom Twyker is slated to direct so he may be the one who purchased the rights in order to adapt it. He, of course, is a great talent to take on this story considering his breakout Run Lola Run and his more recent Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. He’s a great artist, and I have no doubt that he would churn out a great drama here if it ever got off the ground.


This project is tailor-made for Oscar season. It’s a tough story to tell, a tough story to hear, and it would be tough (or at least tougher than I’ve made it sound) to adapt. There’s a power here in what’s being told, and capturing that, delivering that to an audience, making them see through the eyes of a young Sudanese boy – those would be impressive feats worth attempting. It’s a beautiful book, and it would make a hell of a movie.

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