8 Scottish Books That Are (Probably) Unfilmable

Element of Use of Weapons book cover (Iain M. Banks)
Category: Reading

While successes have been made of Scottish material that one might never have expected to work onscreen – Jonathan Glazer’s hypnotic take on Michel Faber’s Under the Skin springs to mind – not every admired work of literature automatically lends itself to screen treatment. Here, we take a look at books that arguably benefit from NOT being brought to visual life via adaptation. (We await with bated breath and slightly disapproving expressions the fate of Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things, also apparently unfilmable, yet currently in development as a TV series…)


Lanark by Alasdair Gray

A stage adaptation made a splash at the Edinburgh International Festival, and efforts have been made to turn Lanark into a film. But for fans of the book, the literalism of cinema risks detracting from the psychological intensity and ambiguity that makes Lanark the trip that it is.

The Culture novels by Iain M Banks

Because the point of great sci-fi, particularly great sci fi that invents a whole new universe with multiple species and races of creatures dwelling therein, is for the reader’s individual imagination to be engaged in unique ways. Banks himself acknowledged his work would require “a very, very, very big budget.” Whether his unique spirit would survive the Hollywood treatment might not be a risk worth taking.

One of the main characters is an urbane talking alpaca. Without serious advances in either CGI or DNA splicing, it’s hard to imagine this being realised well onscreen.

The Brilliant and Forever by Kevin McNeil

Because as wonderful as this satire on island life and literary intrigue is, one of the main characters is an urbane talking alpaca, and without some serious advances in either CGI or DNA splicing, it’s hard to imagine this being realised well onscreen. Nobody wants a Scottish Jar-Jar Binks.

Marabou Stork Nightmares by Irvine Welsh

There’s a reason why this work of Welsh’s hasn’t followed others to the screen. Could its stream-of-consciousness account of the inner fantasy life of a disturbed coma victim possibly be brought to the screen? And if it was, would anyone be able to stomach it? No one to date has tried to find out…

How Late it Was, How Late by James Kelman

Because the glory of the book that controversially won Kelman the Booker Prize in 1994 is in its evocation of a subjective consciousness, and his rendering that through punchy, rambling, poetic language. It doesn’t need to be visualised. Its words run wild.

There But for The by Ali Smith
The but for the by Ali Smith

The dragonfly mind of Ali Smith specialises in wordplay, pastiche, self-referentiality and multiple differently nuanced character perspectives. Not impossible qualities for cinema to replicate, but a pretty stern challenge, and one that the delicate intellectual ins-and-outs of this dinner party satire might not survive.

The Bridge by Iain Banks

Once more into the mind of Iain Banks - this time without his M – and his personal favourite of his books. Could its mind-bending meld of internal and external reality, myth and real-world politics ever be captured in a form other than words – or would that sacrifice the mystery that sustains it?

Air Cuan Dubh Drilseach by Tim Armstrong

A Gaelic-language cyberpunk road-trip romance set in space! Round of applause - but probably not much chance of a blockbuster movie. Trying to bend this wayward one-off to the hard-headed expectations of the film and TV industry would be a mighty undertaking that could crush its rebellious spirit.


Have you voted for your favourite Scottish Book-to-Screen adaptation

Voting is open until 5pm on Tuesday 22 November!

Hannah McGill

Hannah McGill is a writer, arts critic and broadcaster based in Edinburgh. She is a former Artistic Director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

Follow her on Twitter @HannahJMcGill

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