The 19 Greatest Movies Never To Be Made

They may be the most compelling stories ever written but thanks to prima donna authors, dying directors and the occasional world war, some of the greatest books of all time such as Catcher in the Rye, A Confederacy of Dunces and The Dice Man just never get made into movies by Hollywood. Here's why...
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They may be the most compelling stories ever written but thanks to prima donna authors, dying directors and the occasional world war, some of the greatest books of all time such as Catcher in the Rye, A Confederacy of Dunces and The Dice Man just never get made into movies by Hollywood. Here's why...

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Nothing quite whets the appetite of a movie producer like the scent of the latest literary sensation. Since cinema began, film execs have preyed on the literary world in search of their next blockbuster. Recently, four of Hollywood’s biggest fish fought over the film rights of "The Raw Shark Texts" by Steven Hall after having only seen initial drafts of the debut novel. Despite the feeding frenzy, Hall would be wise to hold off on the Cristal. The process of adapting a book into a movie can be a painfully slow process that is littered with pitfalls and frequently fruitless. Seasoned movie execs know from bitter experience that just because you’ve bagged a winning book doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve got a winning movie. They may be the most compelling stories ever written but thanks to prima donna authors, dying directors and the occasional world war, some of the greatest books of all time just never get made.

1. The White Hotel by D.M. Thomas

Streisand was set to star in this 1982 erotic drama which centres on a young woman who recounts her violent sexual fantasies while being analysed by Sigmund Freud. The first of many problems began when the director proposed inserting glass fibre optics into Babs vagina during the filming of the sex scenes. The project was briefly back on track when Yugoslavian auteur Emir Kusturica agreed to direct but then Nato bombed Serbia and he pulled out, refusing to make a film for American producers.

2 The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger

Ranked as America’s 13th most controversial book by the American Library Association and bursting with teenage angst, you would think The Catcher in the Rye is ripe for picking by the movie industry. Even the reclusive author has expressed a desire to see it adapted for the big screen but yet still refuses to license the film rights. Bizarrely, it’s the book’s fictional protagonist’s Holden Caulfield and his disdain for ‘phony’ Hollywood that’s causing the hold up. “I would like to see it done,” says Salinger, “but Holden wouldn't approve.”

3. A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

Many have ascribed a curse to this New Orleans based tale of an overweight mummy’s boy and his battle for personal justice. Not only was the book published 11 years after the author’s suicide but the actors John Belushi, John Candy and Chris Farley were all touted for the lead before their deaths. Jinx or no jinx, Hollywood has consistently failed to make this movie for the last 25 years. Among the many, Stephen Fry has attempted the screen play without success. Currently Steven Soderbergh and Will Ferrell are attached. Don’t hold your breath.

4. The Alienist by Caleb Carr

Carr’s 1994 hit novel tells the story of a19th century New York police psychologist on the trail of a serial killer with a penchant for transvestite rent-boys. Two years were spent writing the screenplay with Philip Kaufman (Invasion of the Body and Quills) attached to direct. Paramount eventually pulled the plug after deciding that, actually, the plot was far too gruesome for the big screen.

5. The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Tartt’s gothic bestseller about a group of murderous classics students baffled a string of notable screen writers until it finally got the green light in 1998. The project then promptly hit the skids when producer Alan Pakula (All The President’s Men) was killed in a car accident. Fancying herself for the lead, Gwyneth Paltrow rescued it from development hell but her demand that little brother Jake gets to direct has continued to prove a deal breaker.

6. The Disappearance by Philip Wylie

This startling sci-fi tale predicted the rise of the feminist movement and eastern religion when it was published in 1951. The human race wakes up one morning, so the story goes, only to find the world’s male and female populations have vanished from each others’ presence. Society collapses as men start behaving like animals and women fail to operate machinery, instead preferring to party all night in lesbian nightclubs. Paramount and MGM tussled for the book but, in the end, neither had the nerve to tackle its provocative messages.

7. The Dreyfus Affair by Peter Lefcourt

Long before Brokeback Mountain, this gay baseball romance was hot Hollywood property. Penned by a former ‘Scarecrow and Mrs. King’ script writer, this 1992 novel tells of the loving relationship between sports idol Randy Dreyfus and his second baseman, D. J. Pickett and the subsequent scandal that sweeps across America. Despite Barbra Streisand, Jodie Foster and Garth Brooks all showing interest, Disney got cold feet.

8. Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler

In perhaps the daftest move in cinema history, Gone With The Wind producer David. O. Selznick announced in 1941 that he planned to film Hitler’s opus - and that Alfred Hitchcock was set to direct. This was an unusual proposition considering that America had declared war on Germany just four days earlier. Somewhat predictably, the US government torpedoed the idea immediately.

9. Airframe by Michael Crichton

If box office success was measured in sheer money wasted than this one would have been a smash hit. Crichton’s 1996 thriller about an airline investigator cost Touchstone Pictures a cool $10million – a figure they topped up by throwing several million more at a couple of leading scriptwriters to develop the project. Six months later, having announced that Demi Moore and Matthew McConaughey would star and John McTiernan (Die Hard) was set to direct, the studio decided to can the whole thing. Bravo indeed.

10. Nostromo by Joseph Conrad

It could have been another Bridge on the River Kwai or Doctor Zhivago but, alas, the Grim Reaper denied us this potential classic. The movie, to be directed by the legendary David Lean, was based on the 1904 novel about an Italian sailor who becomes embroiled in a plot to smuggle silver out of South America. Having assembled his cast including Marlon Brando, Anthony Quinn and Christopher Lambert, Lean was about to begin filming in 1991 when he died of cancer.

11. Bug Jack Barron by Norman Spinrad

Denounced in the House of Commons when it was first published in 1969, this pre-cyberpunk novel caused widespread controversy because of its cynicism, extreme language and graphic sexual scenes. Still relevant today, Bug Jack Barron tells the story of a US TV chat show host who becomes so powerful he controls the nation. In 1982, Universal bought the rights but never got further than the planning stage. “To this date, they have pissed away maybe $2 million on the project,” says Spinrad, “and the film has still not been made.”

12. A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Few books have flummoxed Hollywood quite as effectively as the Tarzan author’s first novel. A piece of true pulp fiction, it tells the story of an American Civil War veteran who goes prospecting in Arizona and, when set upon by Indians, is mysteriously transported to Mars. Published in 1917, it was lined up to be Disney’s first ever animated feature but was beaten to the toss by Snow White. Another attempt was made in the ‘80s with Tom Cruise attached, only for it to end up bankrupting the production company. Paramount recently acquired the rights to this project most troubled and are now going through directors like a kid with a bag of Penny Chews.

13. Geek Love by Katherine Dunn

When Aloysius Binewski’s travelling circus began to fail, he and his wife decide to breed their own freak show. Using drugs and radioactive material, they create a boy with flippers instead of hands and feet, a hunchback albino dwarf and a telekinetic baby. Business promptly booms. Naturally, this 1989 novel has attracted the interest of Hollywood’s favourite freaks, Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam and Johnny Depp. As yet, the movie money men aren’t exactly biting their flippers off.

14. Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke

Long before HAL was even a twinkle in Arthur C. Clarke’s eye, this dark tale of Earth’s alien occupation was meant to be his breakthrough into the biz. Said by many to be his best novel, it begins with giant spaceships appearing over every major city – a scene since stolen by the makers of Independence Day. Published in 1953, a number of screenplays have been attempted over the subsequent decades but with no success. Universal Pictures recently acquired the rights with Kimberly Peirce down to direct, but lift-off still looks a long way off.

15. Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

Ever since the early 80s, David Lynch has been talking about making this film. The twisted mind behind Twin Peaks and Blue Velvet confesses he’s already written the screenplay but the project remains on ice. Based on the 1915 novella about a travelling salesman who wakes one morning to find himself transformed into a cockroach, Lynch’s main worry is the cost of making the transition look believable. A little rich perhaps, coming from the man who spent $45 million making Dune, a $25 million grossing movie.

16. Encyclopedia Brown by Donald J. Sobol

If anything can cool the ardour of a movie exec it’s a litigious author. Sobol sold the rights to his children’s book series about a boy detective to Howard Deutsch in 1979 but since then has slapped a writ on anybody attempting to make the movie. In the 80s, Warner Bros were scared off despite having Chevy Chase and Goldie Hawn already in place for the starring roles. After them, there was Anthony Hopkins in 1989 and Waterworld producer Andrew Licht in 1995. Ridley Scott is currently the man with the bit between his teeth. No doubt, he can expect to hear from Sobol’s lawyers.

17. Stranger In A Strange Land by Robert Anson Heinlein

This 1961 best seller became something of a ‘hippie bible’ thanks to its liberal dose of free love, communes and new religion. A certified cult classic, it tells the story of Valentine Michael Smith, a human raised by Martians, as he returns to Earth in early adulthood. Batman Returns screenwriter Dan Waters was said to have rustled up a screenplay in 1995 for a $160 million movie, but as yet nothing has materialised. With group sex playing a significant role in the plotline, this may be something of a relief, particularly as Tom Hanks and Sean Connery are said to star.

18. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

Since Lionsgate picked up the distribution rights last year, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have been eyeing up the lead roles in the adaptation of their favourite book. Published in 1957, the Russian-born author’s seminal novel revolves around the economic collapse of the U.S. sometime in the future. For years, producer Al Ruddy tried to make it into a movie, attracting the interest of Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway but while Rand was alive she had script approval, complicating the process. Weighing in at 1,100 pages, Rand’s is a hefty tome and shooting may be a long way off. Perhaps it’s too late for Brangelina but adopted children Maddox and Zahara may still stand a chance.

19. The Dice Man by Luke Rhinehart

Loaded’s greatest book of the 20th Century tells the story of a bored psychiatrist who lives his increasingly chaotic life according to the throw of the dice. Despite having been optioned by Paramount Pictures in 1972, this cult phenomenon has yet to roll on to the big screen. At times, Nicholas Cage, Jack Nicholson and Richard Gere have all been desperate to play the lead. In fact, Bruce Willis was so keen he once posted Rhinehart a video of his, near faultless, dice shaking technique.