Death or Deification by Metafiction: Writer-Director Joe Cornish to Adapt Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash

Joe Cornish/Photo © Featureflash/Shutterstock
Joe Cornish/Photo © Featureflash/Shutterstock

The list of novels considered unadaptable has radically shortened over the past few decade or so, thanks to dark arts (aka the cinematic marvels) of CGI and motion capture animation. The works by literary giants from J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis to Roald Dahl and Yann Martel would continue to gather dust on a special bookshelf designated for the works filmmakers fantasize most about making. But thanks to the wonders of digital technology, directors are now free to raid the recesses of the literary canon, lined with fictions involving ungodly creatures, time-travel, and fantastic journeys into alternate universes previously considered unfilmable.

Now all that remains in that section of the library are a few of the most outlandishly baroque fantasias and those works of fiction whose intricate plot structure, esoteric modernism or stream-of-consciousness literary inventiveness would seem to make for one hot mess on movie screens. Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash checks off all the above boxes and has been considered cinematic contraband because of its sheer cerebral complexity. But apparently none of those mitigating factors was enough to deter Joe Cornish, best known for his off-beat alien invasion film, "Attack the Block," from taking on the tall task of ushering the 1992 cyber-punk bestseller for the big screen.

Cornish has boldly signed on to write and direct the Paramount-produced adaptation of Stephenson's future-shock novel about an everyman hacker, meta-named Hiro Protagonist, charged with saving the post-millennial world as we will one day know it from a virulent digi-plague known as Snow Crash. This places him among the elite ranks of a growing cabal of intrepid cinematic vision-questers determined to crack the code to translating labyrinthine written narratives into a visual language that will make sense to moviegoers.

First among this new breed of kamikaze filmmakers are the Wachowskis, who have spent the better part of the past two years mounting a massive production based on Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell's collection of interweaving stories spanning genres, continents, and time periods. And, most encouragingly, at this year's Cannes Film Festival, David Cronenberg unveiled his big-screen version of Don DeLillo's Cosmopolis, about the paranoiac fever dreams of a Wall Street tycoon, played by Rob Pattinson of all people. Object lesson: Knotted plotlines, unimaginable inner landscapes, and wooden acting are no match for the right filmmaker.

It's still too early to say whether Cornish has the right stuff to render the esoteric mythology at the heart of Snow Crash's metafictional cautionary tale into a film worthy of its celebrated source material, which was named one of Time's 100 all-time best English-language novels. His filmography is nothing if not work of a genre-busting adventurous storyteller: He played a zombie in "Shaun of the Dead" before going on to direct his own comic take on the apocalypse with "Attack the Block," which compelled Steven Spielberg to enlist him to write "The Adventures of Tintin." With that kind of range, we're willing to bet that Snow Crash will less likely be a kamikaze mission for Cornish than a catapult onto Hollywood's A-list.

In fact, with this spate of challenging material making its way to the big screen, we wouldn't be surprised if producers don't start sorting through the stacks of other tough reads previously branded unadaptable. Heck, now that Zach Galifianakis is now rumored to be attached to star in the recently revived adaptation of A Confederacy of Dunces, we wouldn't be surprised if some enterprising young director doesn't decide to tackle Infinite Jest or Finnegan's Wake.

The novel that tops our list of unfilmable masterworks is DeLillo's White Noise. What dense classic works of fiction are you most eager (or terrified) to see an ambitious young auteur bring to life on the big screen?