Michael Chabon on Film: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly

Michael Chabon has said, "I wanted to give readers the feeling of knowing the characters, a mental image." Though Chabon is certainly successful in bringing his characters to life on the page, it's not always the case when it comes to the movie adaptations. Let’s look back on how well his books have been translated to the big screen so far, and then on to rumors of who is attached to the other two books in his collection.

The Good

To start off on a positive note, let's talk Wonder Boys. Chabon’s sophomore novel follows Grady Tripp, a struggling novelist and reluctant writing professor in the midst of his midlife crisis and crumbling marriage. Since the novel focuses almost entirely on characterization over plot, screenwriter Steve Kloves (whose credits include the Harry Potter series) knew what material deserved more screen time than others. The film also thrived under the direction of Curtis Hanson, whose experience in book-to-film adaptations (James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential and currently filming Andrew Ross Sorkin’s Too Big to Fail) was put to good use. Wonder Boys is a smart, funny and endearing experience whether you are reading or watching.

The Bad

Michael Chabon made his literary debut at the tender age of twenty-five with Mysteries of Pittsburgh, a charming coming-of-age story about Art Bechstein’s summer adventures after graduating college. It is beautifully written and successful at evoking the universal insecurities of youth, search for identity, and relationships that tie them all together. True fans of the book like to pretend that the film version never happened. The movie received a brief theatrical release in 2008 and was almost overwhelmingly blasted by critics. Rawson Marshall Thurber, who’s most notable film credit is "Dodgeball," pulled double duty by directing and penning the screenplay. Aside from the characters and the title, the movie "Mysteries of Pittsburgh" is nothing like the novel. Thurber commits the cardinal sin of moviemaking early on, as the first scene opens with the main character's voiceover speaking passages lifted directly from the book. Perhaps young Chabon signed away the movie rights without realizing the consequences.

The Ugly – Development Hell

Our top two Chabon novels, The Amazing Adventure of Kavalier and Clay and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, have been marked by roadblocks on their journeys to the silver screen.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Chabon’s 2007 murder-mystery, takes place in an alternative reality in the town of Sitka, Alaska, which serves as a temporary homeland for two million European Jewish refugees in 1945 after Israel is destroyed in theArab-Israeli War. Part Dashiell Hammett and part Jewish noir, Union went on to win a slew of science fiction awards, including the Hugo. In 2002, legendary Hollywood producer Scott Rudin (“No Country for Old Men”) scooped up the film rights for this as well as The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay with only a brief proposal in hand. The Coen brothers were attached as of 2008, with Union said to be their next project after “A Serious Man.” Then, of course, “True Grit” hit theaters. It was just announced this month that the brothers Coen are also considering going the horror genre, aside from forthcoming project “Gambit.” There’s been no news of the Chabon adaptation for three years now, but we’re holding onto hope that the making of this film will eventually get off the ground. Chabon has been gunning for the Coen brothers, saying that they are "among [his] favorite living moviemakers … What's more, I think they are perfectly suited to this material in every way, from its genre(s) to its tone to its content."

Now, things start to look ugly. Let’s get back to The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, which is looking as though it might soon be eligible to join the ranks of unfilmable novels. Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is set during the 1940s golden age of comics, and follows Jewish cousins Joe Kavalier and Sam Clay as they create their own comics. When K&C was first published in 2000, a film version was on Hollywood’s radar. Scott Rudin acquired the film rights and brought Chabon on as the screenwriter. However, after six unsuccessful drafts, the project was eventually shelved, despite directors Stephen Daldry and the late Sydney Pollack both expressing great interest in making the film. Since 2007, news on the project has been uncomfortably quiet. We don’t see how it’s possible to adequately condense this epic tale into a two-and-a-half-hour film without compromising important parts of the story. We’re hard-pressed to list many scenes we would part with willingly. All in all, a miniseries would serve as a better vehicle to successfully tell this story. As far as directors go, Stephen Daldry is a great choice, as his work (“The Hours” and “The Reader”) perfectly invokes the dark underbelly of America during the 1940s and 1950s. We nominate Todd Haynes as a possible director, whose body of work includes “Far from Heaven” and the soon-to-be-released miniseries “Mildred Pierce.” Haynes’ films brilliantly and subtly explore the themes of human identity and sexuality, which is a crucial part of Sam Clay’s character development.

Chabon fans – what are your thoughts about the two projects suspended in limbo? Do you think we’ll ever see The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union satisfactorily brought to screen, or is there a chance they will go the adaptation route of Mysteries of Pittsburgh?

  • Erica

    Wow, I had no idea there were film adaptations in the works for Policemen's Union and Kavalier & Clay. Michael Chabon is one of my favorite authors and Kavalier & Clay is in my top 5 fav books of all time, so for me, the movie would have a lot to live up to. I would love to see it done sort of the in the style of The Aviator. I think that's a good example of an epic, emotional, action-packed film that took on some deep subjects successfully. Anyway, I will be checking back for more info - thanks for this article!

  • kanoe

    I've been waiting for a film adaptation of Kavalier & Clay for years and have honestly given up on it ever happening. That being said, the miniseries format sounds like a surprisingly appropriate idea for the novel.

    The thought of it being so abridged and altered as Mysteries of Pittsburgh turned out to be is simply awful.

  • Leah

    Chabon is one of my favorite American writers. Kavalier & Clay is one of my favorite modern literary classics. It seems too vast and complex for a movie - a mini-series would be spectacular. I'd be so afraid of ruining the story, though.... I'd vote for Daldry.

  • Bryce

    I love Yiddish Policeman's Union and as soon as the Coens were tied to the film some four or five years ago, I was really excited. As Chabon says, they are perfectly suited to the style of the novel. I happened upon here after searching the internet for ANY news on the development of this project and there was nothing. It's a real bummer because it would have been brilliant and unlike Kavalier & Clay, it's extremely filmable.

Live a Life Well-Read Get the best of news, culture, and books delivered weekly. Join the Signature newsletter