Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice is slowly unleashing itself in a few theaters to sneak into the 2014 awards race before its wide release next year. Joaquin Phoenix stars as Doc Sportello, a strange, drug-taking private eye investigating the disappearance of an ex-girlfriend and finding himself in the middle of an insane mix of missing persons, police investigations and strange business ventures.
This is the first Thomas Pynchon novel to the make it to the big screen (save for “Gravity’s Rainbow” inspiring the German docudrama Prüfstand VII). It’s a film that will never be a blockbuster success, though it boasts a cast ranging from Jena Malone and Owen Wilson to Jeannie Berlin and Eric Roberts; it’s just too weird. It is, however, a breath a freakish fresh air in a film landscape that’s gotten oppressively predictable.
If this could start a trend where Hollywood embraces weird texts, there are no shortage of possibilities ripe for the picking ‐ ones that evolve from our obsession with post-apocalyptic worlds, the dangers of multi-national corporations and scientific experimentation, and worlds where a can of pork and beans can set off on an epic journey to salvation.
Here are seven delightfully unique tomes that should be made into movies. Success or failure, at the very least they’d give our eyes and mind some new cultural food to graze on.
Et Tu, Babe by Mark Leyner
Mark Leyner’s kinetic writing is the power behind Et Tu, Babe, but his particular mix of pop culture references and absurdities could thrive in a world where Inherent Vice is hitting screens. He is his protagonist, except he’s more powerfully fierce in fictional form ‐ typical macho egotism thrives in extremes as fictional Leyner boasts bionically enhanced bodyguards and tattooed internal organs. It’s self-indulgent fantasy morphed into satirical extravagance that plays with societal and cultural norms.
His hero is worshipped by everyone for being remarkably muscled, and he lives in a world where the 83rd president doesn’t have a mouth and feeds off pollution, and the music from Psycho’s shower scene has become the national anthem.
Leyner was one of the scribes of War, Inc., but none of his novels have been adapted for the big screen. That said, the novel was once turned into a script in the ’90s with S.F.W. director Jefery Levy. IMDb lists it as a released film in 1998, but as Leyner told Whit Stillman in 2012, “we did a script, and that didn’t really go anywhere.”
The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon
Where one Thomas Pynchon film thrives, others might follow? If we get Doc Sportello, we must get the embodiment of Oedipa Maas ‐ a housewife who becomes the co-executor of her ex-lover’s estate and finds herself in the middle of an international conspiracy involving an underground postal system, Trystero. It’s a strange and dynamic mystery, one fueled by pop culture like most ultra-strange postmodern texts. “The Crying of Lot 49” is seen as one of the best English-language novels, and its influence is everywhere from the worlds of Yo La Tengo and Radiohead to The Simpsons and Angel.
Though not optioned, actress Natasha Lyonne told the Wall Street Journal in 2010 as they scoured a NY bookstore: “I would love to option “Crying of Lot 49” and turn it into a movie. […] You’ve got to do something with all the books you’ve read, so you might as well imagine you’ve optioned them.”
Skinny Legs and All by Tom Robbins
As Tracy Johnson once encapsulated Tom Robbins’ book at Salon, “Skinny Legs and All” is about “war and sex and religion and joy” ‐ almost everything that riddles the news landscape these days. The book takes a strange, almost pulpy Pynchon-esque journey and adds a good case of the absurd just begging for some Hollywood CGI. Inspired by the Dance of the Seven Veils, a couple crosses the country in an Airstream welded into the shape of a turkey to hit New York, and they are followed by a painted stick, conch shell, dirty sock, silver spoon and a can of pork and beans who have been brought to life by the couple’s lovemaking ‐ just in time for what they think is the second coming.
Only one Robbins novel has made it to the screen thus far ‐ the 1993 adaptation Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. A vague IMDb link says “Still Life with Woodpecker” is in development, and Johnny Depp expressed interest in adapting “Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates” before “retiring” three years ago, but nothing substantial has come from either yet.
Rock ’n’ Roll Babes from Outer Space by Linda Jaivin
We love to explore music and new worlds full of alien creatures, but the two never really meet. Writer Linda Jaivin could fix that. Her 1998 novel focused on aliens who steal a spaceship and head to Earth to find sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll. They shapeshift into sexy women who look mostly human (they can’t get rid of their antennas), adopt names like Baby Baby (you know, lyrics from her favorite rock song), and become mega-stars while trying to avoid the aliens who want to bring them back home.
The book’s cover frames it as a mix of Kurt Vonnegut and Douglas Adams, but adapting it could also be a jump from the otherworldly superhero fare we’re oversaturated with, to something similar, but fun and far from cataclysmic. It’d be Guardians of the Galaxy meets The Runaways.
House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski
Many have called it unadaptable, including author Mark Z. Danielewski. But after the rise of ebooks and apps that offer multimedia versions of reading, the author has softened to the possibility. Adapting House of Leaves would be a Herculean feat ‐ the book is a labyrinth of competing stories with a structure of embedded footnotes and spinning text as important as what the text relays. It’s the story of Johnny Truant, a narrator scouring through the belongings of the recently deceased Zampanó and his study of “The Navidson Record” documentary about a house that grows and changes.
As an app, the book could certainly lead books and films to merge a bit ‐ following the texts and videos of Truant’s experience. The music is already set ‐ Danielewski’s sister (the singer Poe) already offered a “parallax view” with her cd “Haunted.” But at the very least, it would be great to see the inner story of the Navidson’s stretched into a larger story as a family struggles to live in a house that continues to change. That alone could give Hollywood a taste of new adventure.
The Book of Frank by Simon Black
Many weird forays merge science and fiction to tell their tale, but in “The Book of Frank,” the creative brain is all that’s needed. Frank is a legend in his own mind; an aimless man who one day gave up the grind and now lives on the streets as an artist, prostrating himself to paint the “canvas” of his decline ‐ a fall that only he will notice. Yet, for all the weirdness of his life, his world becomes utterly typical when he falls for a girl sickened by female street performers who dance over glass until they bleed. With all the depth of an infatuated pre-schooler pinching his paramour, he makes his private canvas public, torturing himself to win her affections.
Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
You can tease out the American past in post-apocalyptic narratives like The Hunger Games, but the links are not explicit. With Margaret Atwood’s “Oryx and Crake,” the connections make the narrative ‐ just camouflaged into a slightly different world with similar names. Snowman (taking his name from the Abominable variety) is a hermit remembering his life as a boy named Jimmy in a world of large corporations, who now fields tiresome questions from children who don’t know what a computer mouse is, or a bottle of bleach. He returns to the compound of his youth (now overrun by hybrid animals) and remembers his past of genetic engineering, his friendship with bioengineer Crake, and his love of a woman named Oryx.
Though mostly known for “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and the film it spawned, Atwood’s “Oryx and Crake” might challenge the legacy for modern dominance. The novel is part of the MaddAddam book trilogy, which Darren Aronofsky is currently scheming up as a drama series for HBO.