The Unfilmable Author
Perhaps one of geekdom’s best known authors is Terry Pratchett. His Discworld series has long been a favorite of those who love the fantasy genre, in part because of how he satirizes the established genre and yet keeps drama and heart within his work. He’s even more popular now that several of his books have been made into mini-series, and a full blown TV series is in the works.
This kind of popularity will probably elude fantasy comic writer Jasper Fforde, but really, it’s his own damn fault. Many of his wonderful literary worlds are simply unfilmable. Not only that, they’re almost impossible to describe.
Take his longest running series, for example: the Thursday Next books. I have yet to find a way to succinctly sum up their world in a way that doesn’t make me sound like a raving lunatic.
Let’s give it a shot, shall we?
The Eyre Affair takes place in two different realities – one is an alternate 1985 where the Crimean War just ended, books are more popular than television, people listen to coin operated Shakespeare-bots recite a sonnet, people fly on Zeppelins, dodos still exist thanks to home cloning kits (but pigeons are extinct), and Neanderthals turn out to be pacifists.
Then there is the other reality, the book reality, where the classic books we all know exist and are played out by those within them every time the book is read. They have their own police force, who do everything from pest control (such as controlling vermin that destroy punctuation) to making sure characters in books don’t lose their sanity and try and change the stories.
Thursday Next is part of the Literary Crime unit (SO-13) in the alternate 1985, trying to stop a man who has gotten his hands on a machine that allows people to cross over to the book reality, and may forever change one of the great English novels – Jane Eyre.
It only gets weirder after that.
See? I sound bonkers! But if you actually read the Thursday Next books, all of that not only makes sense, it works in a perfectly coherent – and more importantly, consistent – manner. As the series progresses, more and more oddities are added in, yet you never feel like Fforde is just making stuff up. Everything feels like it has its place.
Someone like Pratchett bases the absurdity of his world on known fantasy tropes as well as things from the real world, to create a fun-house mirror that reflects our reality through comic fantasy; two known quantities are blended together to create something completely new.
Fforde, on the other hand, does only half of this. The other half is often abstract, and done in ways that could never ever be produced as a TV show or movie. How, for example, could you have someone speak in Courier New? Much of the humor is based on the way books work, such as the Footnoterphone, which send messages across books via footnotes.* If you were to put this on screen, the best you could do to reflect it would be to use subtitles, but then you’re playing with film tropes, not literature.
In theory you still could put these stories onto film, but in doing so you’d have to strip out much of what makes the stories worth exploring in the first place.
Yet he doesn’t stop there. Not satisfied with using literary devices to render his work silver-screen-proof, he went ahead and did the same with color as well.
In Shades of Grey (no, not Fifty Shades of Grey, perv), he uses color to create a
new social hierarchy and reality, one that is bizarre, absurd, but is easy to learn and makes its own kind of warped sense. What makes it unfilmable is its use of color, people can only see one kind of color, or at most two. What color that is and how well you see it determines your social standing. Opposite colors are never allowed to marry. Then there are the Greys, who see no color at all, and are of the lowest order.
All of this is before you start getting hints about what actually happened to make everyone colorblind in the first place.
This book takes place over five hundred years after the Something That Happened, an unknown catastrophe in the future which, from the ruins, the current Colourocracy has emerged. Rather than moving forward, this Colourocracy very purposefully regresses technology (and society) backwards in a series of Leapbacks, to the point where a Model T is the most advanced car allowed, and anything better is put “beyond use” with a heavy blunt instrument.
If you think you could make the film black and white and just add splashes of color, trust me, it’s not as simple as that.
Once I start mentioning the absurdities of this world, such as giant man-eating swans, self repairing and self cleaning roads that use rain and leaves for energy, people hunting for ball lightning, color being used for medicinal and recreational drugs, and the fact that spoons are one of the rarest and most important items a person can own, I’ll start sounding crazy again.
But like all of Fforde’s books, it makes perfect sense. You just have a damn hard time describing it.
One of the clever touches Fforde has in his books are DVD-like “Special Features” in the form of a web link, encouraging you to visit his website. It’s that attention to detail that makes Fforde one of the greats out there.
*which actually appear as footnotes in the books.
Originally Published in KODT Issue #202