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Hard-to-Adapt Work

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"The bible was written by Bruce and Reed Shelly. Reading it, you could tell that they were still struggling to get a handle on the show. I mean, the core problem was obvious: There are no real characters or stories in a Nintendo game, so how do you turn one into a TV series? [...] There was little indication about the kinds of adventures our heroes would have, and a lot of unanswered questions about how we would incorporate elements of the game. I had no clue how to solve those problem and didn’t see how that show was going to work at all! But DiC had an order for 52 episodes and deadlines were looming. We had to make some decisions fast or fall behind schedule, which would be a disaster. So at the beginning there was a lot of urgency to solve those problems and get on with it."
Perry Martin on the Super Mario Bros. adaptation The Super Mario Bros Super Show!

Some popular works never get adaptations, or if they do they have long and difficult production processes. It's not for lack of trying, however. Some works are just hard to adapt into certain mediums.

One common reason for this is an Audience-Alienating Premise. What might be popular for one medium is not for another. For example, xenofictional literature works are rarely ever adapted. Most are too dark for kids shows or films, but most older audiences aren't interested in serious works about talking animals or non-humanoid anthropomorphic aliens. This often coincides with differing writing and content standards between mediums.

This can lead to No Adaptations Allowed if a work is deemed too difficult to work with. This is also a major reason adaptations fall into Development Hell.

Compare to Polygon Ceiling, i.e "hard-to-be-3D game".


Examples by Original Medium:

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    Anime & Manga 

    Comic Books 
  • This was the main reason given why it took decades for Wonder Woman to get her own feature film or animated series. She's a part of the "Big Three" at DC (alongside Batman and Superman) but, except for a 1974 film starring Cathy Lee Crosby, the 1970s series, and the 2007 animated direct-to-video film that sold worse than expected, she never starred in her own work until 2017. Wonder Woman has been relegated to co-starring alongside other Justice League members. Wonder Woman doesn't have a concrete personality, lore, Rogues Gallery, or supporting cast compared to Batman or Superman, so she was considered hard to work with. The Girl-Show Ghetto also didn't help. In 2017 Wonder Woman (2017) finally came out and was very successful, paving the way for more material starring Wonder Woman.
  • For Supergirl, it's been difficult (outside of the 1984 movie and 2015 series), for Kara Danvers to make any stand-alone appearances in other mediums, and she hasn't even had a DC Extended Universe movie made, unlike Batman, Superman and The Flash. The fact her character varies Depending on the Writer and the fact that Alternate Self Power Girl version exists contribute to this.
  • For decades, Watchmen was considered impossible to adapt due to its highly visual-oriented nature and the large amount of supplemental material that was connected to the plot. Zack Snyder eventually managed to create a film adaptation in 2009 that covered most of the plot points and adhered as closely to the comic as possible within the limitations of live-action film (right down to copying the broad majority of the comic's panels verbatim, similarly to his earlier adaptation of 300), but neither author Alan Moore nor the book's devoted fans were happy with it. An eventual Watchmen series came to HBO in 2019, though this one was a loosely-connected sequel rather than a straight adaptation of Moore's work.
  • Warner Bros. does not plan on adapting Kingdom Come to animation, viewing Alex Ross' style as incomparable.
  • Frank Miller actually made Sin City with the intention of making it impossible to adapt to film, since he'd had bad experiences working in film previously. Robert Rodriguez eventually proved it could be done.
  • The Spirit is one of the fundational titles of modern comic books, but also demonstrated to be hard to adapt to other media and even to new comic book titles, being DC Comics' Darwyn Cooke run one of the most successful intents. Being hard to adapt, there're only 3 intents to be adapted to other media, all with bad results: the 1987 Direct-to-TV Pilot Movie with Sam Jones as The Spirit, the known (and Box Office Bomb) Frank Miller's 2008 version, and recently the discovered 1980 animated project by Brad Bird that was cancelled before it saw the light.
  • There have been multiple attempts to adapt The Sandman into a TV show or movie but they all ended very early in production due to the very nature of the series. To produce the series in live action would require a lot of expensive CGI, a lot of lore and exposition, and a large cast.

  • Perhaps the most famous example of this trope is with James Joyce's landmark novel Ulysses, which makes heavy use of lengthy internal monologues, incredibly surreal and postmodern-before-postmodernism imagery, highly experimental chapter structures built strictly around breaking literary conventions, and a plot that attempts to follow multiple different characters over the same series of events. As a result, the book is typically considered the archetypal example of a work that is impossible to effectively adapt into any medium other than the one in which it was originally published. That said, adaptations of the book have been attempted to varying degrees of success, including a 1967 film that earned BAFTA, Golden Globe, and Oscar nominations for for Best Adapted Screenplay.
  • A child-friendly animated Tailchaser's Song adaptation was greenlit, however nothing has been heard of it since its announcement. The fantasy book is rich in lore, has Loads and Loads of Characters, and has quite a bit of violence, but it stars perfectly normal, non-Funny Animal cats. As a result, it's hard to adapt without severely watering it down into a Lighter and Softer adaptation. Kids aren't interested in it because it's more Watership Down than Garfield, but adults don't want to see a film about talking cats.
  • Adaptation. is an adaptation of the Susan Orlean book, The Orchid Thief. It's hard to adapt a story that basically has no plot and is mainly about flowers.
  • Isaac Asimov's short story "Gold" is an In-Universe case. A writer requests from a movie producer to make one out of his work, which is recogniseable as the second part of Asimov's own The Gods Themselves. Starfish Aliens are involved, to those who don't recognize the context.
  • For the longest time, The Lord of the Rings was considered this. We did have an animated version headed by Ralph Bakshi, but it was considered "the book series that could not be filmed" for the longest time. However, it took Peter Jackson and his visionary work and a rather high budget, but the label was eventually cast off, turning LOTR from an impossible-to-film work into arguably the single greatest adaptation of a literary work onto the big screen.
    • The Hobbit is still considered to be this by many, despite three attempts to adapt it to film. Some difficulties are that the most of the dwarves are quite literally comically under-devolved and the book has multiple points that could be considered a climax. There are several scenes that contradict later parts of the Middle-Earth canon, like talking animals, a talking bag, and the existence of giants.
  • The works of H. P. Lovecraft; have a reputation for being uncinematic and exposition-heavy. Mainly due to their reliance on Eldritch Abominations that can drive anyone who merely looks at them insane, which is hard to put to film without it becomming Narm, Special Effect Failure and Nightmare Retardant. Doesn't stop filmmakers from trying though.
  • Being very monologue-centric, along with the fact its author J. D. Salinger forbids it, is why there have been no screen adaptations of The Catcher in the Rye.
  • Despite being a popular children's book, for the longest time A Wrinkle in Time was considered "unfilmable" because of the fantastic elements and philosophy in what is ostensibly a children's story. Two attempts to adapt the work to live-action have been made, one a TV movie in 2003 and the other a theatrical release in 2018, but neither were successful with either the book's fanbase or general audiences.
  • In-Universe example in Sherlock Holmes: Sherlock often reproaches Watson for using cheap tricks like environmental descriptions verging on Scenery Porn or deliberately retaining information from the reader to make for a more interesting story, which he feels makes the actual scientific part of the case (i.e., his deductions) less important. In the two cases narrated by Holmes, he finally admits that Watson had a point, and that presenting the story in a compelling manner is harder than he thought.
  • A Warriors film has been greenlit, however a film adaptation has previously been in Development Hell for this reason. The series has over two dozen books and over a thousand named characters. This alone makes it difficult to produce a self-contained film based off of even the first arc due to its length and the number of characters. However, the major issue is that the series is about feral cat colonies. With its crap ton of Family-Unfriendly Violence and Family Unfriendly Deaths (with the first book more-or-less beginning with a cat being murdered), it's impossible to get a kid's film out of the series but it's unlikely the film would appeal to the mainstream teenage demographic. Warriors already had adaptations in the case of Comic Book Adaptations, but they are heavily toned down compared to the books and go for the Bloodless Carnage route.
  • Dune has proven difficult to successfully adapt to the big screen due to its length, complexity, and significant amounts of spice-induced psychedelia. The director's cut of David Lynch's film is over three hours long and still has to cover large portions of the book in narrated Time Skips. The Sci-Fi Channel had a little more success by adapting Children of Dune as a miniseries.
  • This is the reason that House of Leaves has been declared No Adaptations Allowed: the footnotes and appendices, multi-tiered Nested Story, and symbolic use of formatting clues such as the different font colors create an experience that simply can't be translated to any other medium without sacrificing its bite.
  • Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel are considered "unfilmable," which is pretty remarkable considering that they're also Adaptation Overdosed. The reasons given for this is that the books' verbal charms can't quite translate to a visual medium, and their episodic structure can't quite be reconciled with the three-act structure.
  • The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie is notoriously difficult to adapt to other media, as the Twist Ending that is famous amongst mystery buffs relies heavily on several quirks of the First-Person Perspective narration. Poirot did an adaptation (as the series adapted every Poirot story), but the mystery was considerably weakened by having to show what was happening, rather than relying on the narrator's interpretation of events.
  • Life of Pi is a Defied Trope example. Life of Pi (the book) was considered "unadaptable" because of the strange narrative, but the film pulled it off to rave reviews, albeit by using enough high quality CGI to bankrupt the animation company.
  • Tristram Shandy is an incredibly metafictional novel about a man trying (and failing) to write his own autobiography, now regarded as a precursor to Postmodernism. It's widely considered to be unable to work as a film adaptation. A 2006 adaptation, A Cock and Bull Story, was favorably received—but rather than a straight adaptation, it added another layer of metafiction, thus becoming a film about two actors trying (and failing) to adapt Tristram Shandy.
  • The Land of Oz series is a children's classic but few adaptations adapt more than the first book. It suffers from this for three reasons:
  • George R. R. Martin reportedly made A Song of Ice and Fire under the premise that he was creating a story that had no chance to be adapted into a movie or series. Game of Thrones seemed to take that as a challenge, and being an HBO series was able to throw a lot of money to create an acclaimed show. It still required extensive changes to the original story, as well as surpassing the story of the books due to Martin's Schedule Slip.
  • Despite the countless adaptations of Jane Eyre, to the point of Adaptation Overdosed, Charlotte Brontë's later novel Villette has only had a few radio adaptations. This is most likely because of the novel's Unreliable Narrator, who deliberately hides things from the audience, including never revealing her Darkand Troubled Past.
  • This trope is generally considered to be the main reason why Stanley Kubrick took so many liberties with his 1980 adaptation of The Shining. The original Stephen King novel relies on a good amount of imagery and lore that would be incredibly difficult to effectively convey in a visual medium, as the later miniseries adaptation demonstrated, and Kubrick having to deal with the extensive content of the novel in a single film resulted in him stripping back so much of it that the final product was only followed the most basic elements of the source material, with Kubrick having to add in and rearrange content to compensate. The end result is generally praised as a good movie in its own right and is widely considered to be one of the greatest horror films ever made, but most agree that it's a poor adaptation of the book, leading to a longstanding bout of Creator Backlash on King's part. This incidentally was what led to the miniseries' creation in 1997, and while it was highly praised upon its initial premiere, it's now criticized for trying to be too faithful to the book, generally being considered inferior to the much-beloved movie.
  • One of the most infamous and unique examples ever is Mordecai Richler's The Incomparable Atuk. It's not that it's a difficult book to rewrite into movie; it's a fairly straightforward comedy about an Inuit man who moves to Toronto. Rather, the issue is that everybody who tries to adapt it seem to either fail miserably or die, causing many to declare it cursed. Throughout the 80s and 90s, numerous different filmmakers, studios, and actors would try to make the movie, only for it to fall back into Development Hell yet again for some reason or another. Eventually, everybody just gave up and declared it unadaptable.
  • William S. Burroughs considered Naked Lunch to be this, being deliberately incomprehensible, disturbing, and having nothing in the way of overarching plot. As such, when he allowed David Cronenberg to adapt it into Naked Lunch, the latter compromised by crafting a new story that incorporates many themes from Burroughs overall work. While still pretty Mind Screw-y, it's much less so than the book.
  • Discworld is a series all about storytelling and the abstract nature of language and puns. Terry Pratchett's erratic writing style and wild imagination have made his work seemingly only fit for the medium of the printed word. Adapting the books takes key elements out. Though there have been a few adaptations, none have quite been able to put Pratchett's words together in a satisfying way.
  • Cormac Mc Carthy has seen many of his works put to film, but Blood Meridian is not one of them. The violent nature and complex plot would make it difficult to write. A film perhaps could be done, bout it would take dedication and no regards for censors.

    Live Action TV 
  • Grey's Anatomy is one of those series that has proved harder to adapt outside of Live-Action TV, with a video game adaptation which got poor reviews from critics for being a Minigame Game and Loose Canon at best. As such, it's had no other adaptations since the 2009 game.
  • Police, Camera, Action!, due to being a Documentary has proven to be harder to adapt to another medium (aside from an obscure 1996 book with photo-stills) due to being a Real Life documentary, although a video game based on it would be a difficult exercise, and costly. Outside of parodies, there's been no real adaptations since.
  • Catch Phrase had a Board Game adaptation in The '90s, but it's proved difficult to adapt except for as a smartphone game, where it makes sense.
  • Doctor Who seems to have gained a reputation for this in the decades since its beginnings, cancellation, and revival. Much of it stems from the fact that the series already tends to feature long, drawn-out plots, which in the 1963-1989 iteration of the series already tended to reach or even surpass the length of a feature film. As a result, it would be difficult to create a Doctor Who movie that didn't tell the kind of story that could already be told in the show itself (barring the possibility of better effects, and even then the 2005 revival is generally considered to be close enough in that department). Additionally, the heavy continuity and complex premise of the series would make it difficult to create a film that could appeal to neophytes, as there's so many things that would need to be introduced at once that it would end up bogging down the pace of a film. The show had only been adapted to the big screen on two occasions in the 1960's, and these were adaptations of already-aired serials, adaptations that existed within their own continuity independent of the show. The one time the series got a movie actually based in the show's continuity was a TV movie in 1996 intended to kickstart an American revival of the series, but this ended up flopping as a result of its indecisiveness about whether it wanted to appeal to old fans or new, unfamiliar viewers (to say nothing of its glaring continuity errors) and is generally seen as So Bad, It's Good as a result.

  • Genesis' 1974 Rock Opera The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway is generally considered to be the musical equivalent of Ulysses in terms of works that would be impossible to make a good adaptation of, primarily owing to its Mind Screw plot and heavy use of surreal imagery. The album was already hard enough to adapt on stage; the associated tour required a bevy of extraordinarily elaborate effects, and at no point was all of it ever able to work as intended.
  • This trope is often considered a key reason why David Bowie's 1995 album 1. Outside never received the film adaptation that was suggested for it at one point, being perhaps more directly comparable to Ulysses in that it features a heavily non-linear plot and frequent use of internal monologues (most of which are the songs on the album itself).
    • Similarly, Bowie's earlier album Diamond Dogs from 1974 was never the easiest to translate to another medium thanks to its lack of an actual plot— it was written as a Captain Ersatz version of Nineteen Eighty-Four after Bowie failed to secure the rights to making a musical adaptation of the book, but the album foregoes any semblance of a story in favor of simply exploring a general set of themes; it arguably has less of a plot than Ziggy Stardust! The one time Bowie did try to bring Diamond Dogs to another medium was on the stage during the album's associated tour; like The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, it was marred by constant technical issues, and Bowie eventually dropped the whole shtick altogether during the second leg of the tour.
  • This trope is likely the reason why it took until 10 years after Frank Zappa's death for Thing-Fish to see its long-promised stage production. The plot is so convoluted and directionless that it's hard to make any sense of it, even as the triple-album + libretto it was originally released as, to the point where its one stage adaptation in 2003 had to take a number of liberties to ensure that it could even be made at all. At least Uncle Meat was meant to be the soundtrack of a never-released film than a conveyance of the story itself, and Joe's Garage intentionally derailed itself for the sake of humor— Thing Fish, meanwhile, is the story through and through, and attempts to play itself as straight as possible.
  • The Nutcracker has proven to be a challenge to adapt beyond the ballet stage. Since the show has its conflict reserved for the first half, and is mostly a showcase of music and dancing, nobody seems sure of how to add plot to a story which is so...plotless. Though Hollywood has certainly tried, no major film adaptation seems to have captured the spirit of the ballet too well.

  • Cats is a play based on a book of poems. Virtually every song is a poem set to music. There's no dialogue in the play, with the story being told through song. The loose, vague story and characterization makes it hard to adapt into other mediums, which is a reason it took until 2019 to get a film adaptation.


    Visual Novels 
  • Visual Novels tend to be harder to adapt into anime than Light Novels and manga because of the very nature of their works consisting of branching paths, as well as having Multiple Endings. The Fate/stay night adaptations tend to stick with one route out of the dozens of other options as to keep a consistent story, but nonetheless, manages to achieve success, becoming one of the rarer exceptions to the rule. Tsukihime's anime adaptation, on the other hand, suffers badly from a lot of cut content of the original visual novel, and it shows with the inconsistent story pacing (although its manga adaptation fared better by incorporating elements from multiple routes into the story).

  • Andrew Hussie has said that Homestuck was meant to the be the sort of story that could only be told on the internet, as it makes extensive use of Infinite Canvas and multimedia. When asked by a fan how he would hypothetically adapt Homestuck as a film, Hussie answered that he would throw the plot away entirely, and just write something set in the same universe and that conveyed the same themes as the comic.

    Western Animation 
  • One of the staff writer on The Super Mario Bros Super Show! explained that the show's production team found it hard to derive material from the shallow plots and thin characters of the games (which was especially the case in 1989, when the series' presence in the United States amounted to just the first two games— Super Mario Bros. 3 wouldn't be out in the States for another year), which is why most of the episodes are structured around stock movie and historical parodies. Indeed, Nintendo of America themselves had cold feet about the idea of adapting the games into an animated series, and this trope may have been a factor in that opinion. The page quote explains why.


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