A Confederacy of Dunces: Stephen Fry on his decades-long struggle to adapt the most unfilmable book ever written

From The Telegraph, by Alexander Larman. As per the cover art, the edited book Theology and Geometry is in press.


In 1969, the 31-year old, would-be author John Kennedy Toole killed himself. Frustrated and miserable that his magnum opus, a picaresque New Orleans-set comic novel entitled A Confederacy of Dunces, had failed to find a publisher, he gassed himself in his car.

His grief-stricken mother Thelma devoted her life to ensuring that her son’s work would appear in print, and, after enlisting the author Walker Percy in her quest, saw it published in 1980, to great acclaim. It won Toole a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1981, and has sold over a million and a half copies in numerous different languages.

It also began one of the most quixotic, drawn-out quests in cinematic and literary history: the attempt to film A Confederacy of Dunces.

The actor and writer Stephen Fry first read the book around 1982 and was struck by its brilliance, especially the central character: the slothful, arrogant and insanely greedy would-be philosopher Ignatius J Reilly. “I was working on a TV show with Robbie Coltrane who asked me if I had ever read it and did he think it would make a screenplay – he had the part of Ignatius in mind for himself,” Fry tells me. “I read it and was bowled over. I thought he – Robbie – would have been brilliant of course, but I had no real connection with the film world in those days and was too timid to go any further.”

At the time, neither Coltrane nor Fry was especially well-known, and the project had been earmarked for the legendary force of nature John Belushi, who was seeking to diversify into more demanding acting after his acclaimed appearances in The Blues Brothers and Animal House. Belushi asked Buck Henry, famous for his screenplays for The Graduate and Catch-22 – another supposedly unfilmable novel – to adapt Dunces, but Henry refused, saying “the book breaks down into two tones that don’t go together: wild social satire and Southern Gothic.”

Nonetheless, a supporting cast including Richard Pryor and Harold and Maude’s Ruth Gordon was assembled, with a pre-Ghostbusters Harold Ramis lined up to direct. And then, two days before he was due to meet with 20th Century Fox producer Scott Kramer to sign a contract, Belushi died of a drug overdose, and the project returned to the drawing board. It would not be the last time that the apparent curse of A Confederacy of Dunces struck.

An oil magnate named John Langdon acquired the rights to the book after Belushi’s death with the aim of having John Candy play Ignatius, and commissioned his friend Maidee Walker to write a screenplay in 1984. After Candy turned down the role, Langdon thought of various possibilities for the role including the comedian Jonathan Winters (56 at the time, and therefore an unlikely match for a character of around 30) and Josh Mostel, son of the great comic actor Zero Mostel, who was coincidentally playing Belushi’s role in the television spin-off of Animal House.

There was the inevitable expectation that any actor playing Ignatius would have to be gargantuan, both in terms of talent and size. Walker wryly recounted how “I had lunch with every fat actor in Hollywood”.

None of these attempts went anywhere, and the potential nadir came later in the decade when the trash-poetry maestro John Waters was involved, with his long-term collaborator Divine mooted for the lead. After this, too, failed, Waters commented that “It’ll never happen. How can a movie ever live up to that book? So many people have tried to do it. Some of the top directors in the world have tried to make that movie, and I don’t know if it’ll ever happen.” He then struck a cautionary note, saying in a later interview, “maybe it shouldn’t.”

After Langdon, despairing of any chance of making the film, surrendered the rights, they passed back to Kramer, who in turn brought the project to uber-producer Scott Rudin, who had a first-look deal with Sherry Lansing, then head of Paramount Pictures. Rudin, who has been responsible for award-winning adaptations of so-called ‘difficult’ novels such as The Hours and No Country For Old Men, decided that the best way of proceeding with the adaptation was to think outside the box, and so, in 1992, he contacted Fry, then best known for his appearances in Blackadder and A Bit of Fry and Laurie, as well as having published a well-received and scurrilous first novel, The Liar.

Fry found himself in a quandary. “The difficulties I faced with my adaptation were the picaresque and often almost surreal nature of the story, the deeply unusual and often so apparently aggressively belligerent, intractable and ornery character of Ignatius – and the lack of a tidy narrative resolution”, he say. “Ignatius is somehow lovable when you read the book, but can easily come across as what Samuel Taylor Coleridge called a ‘motiveless malignancy’ in the bare frame of a screenplay.”

Nonetheless, he embraced the challenge. Believing that his Britishness didn’t disqualify him from adapting this quintessentially American story – “I think in a sense I’m no more of a foreigner to John Kennedy Toole’s New Orleans and his very particular worldview than any given modern American might be. We’re all foreigners in his world” – he was flown by Paramount to New Orleans for a week to get to know the city; something of a necessity as, as he puts it, “New Orleans is –after Ignatius (and his mother perhaps) – the biggest character of the novel.”

As Fry laboured away on his version of the screenplay – this time with the rotund comic Chris Farley mooted as its lead – he, too, felt as if he was complicit in the novel’s stubborn refusal to be made into a film. “The deaths of John Belushi and John Candy added powerfully to the aura of a curse which the life and unhappy death of its young author had already caused to surround the book,” says Fry. This was not helped by a disagreement over who owned the rights, with both Kramer and Rudin claiming that they should be the film’s legitimate producer, and the project stalled once more.

Enter Steven Soderbergh, now known as the Oscar-winning director of the Ocean’s Eleven series, but back then most famous for his conspicuous success with 1989’s Sex, Lies and Videotape. As he was from Louisiana, he had a natural affinity with the material, and Fry and he briefly collaborated on a screenplay, but, once again, “our version was subject to a disagreement between the two Scotts.” Fry, whose script had taken on a meta-literary quality, including the real-life Toole within his narrative, left the project – “Scott Rudin loved it; Soderbergh didn’t” – and Soderbergh and Kramer wrote their own new version.

After many failed attempts throughout the Nineties to make this adaptation, the closest it got to production was a staged reading of the Soderbergh and Kramer script at the Nantucket Film Festival in 2003, with an all-star cast including Will Ferrell as Ignatius, Paul Rudd, Jesse Eisenberg and Drew Barrymore. The director was to have been David Gordon Green, who had made the acclaimed independent films George Washington and All The Real Girls.

The reading was a riotous success, but once again studio politics frustrated its production, much to Green’s disappointment; he commented that the draft of the script by Scott Kramer and Steven Soderbergh did the novel justice, and also provided a healthy cinematic spotlight for these eccentric characters, but it didn’t cater to a lot of the clichés or conditioning of contemporary American studio sensibilities. So I suppose the difficulty was even beyond the political baggage and paperwork, and stemmed in many ways from the manner in which I wanted the film to be executed.” Wryly, he noted that “The history of the book and various efforts for a filmed version make an epic of their own.”

There was a brief rumour in 2008 that Jack Black had been cast as Ignatius, and then a more substantial announcement in 2012 that the book would be filmed with Zach Galifianakis in the lead, and directed by James Bobin, a British writer-director responsible for Da Ali G Show and Flight of the Conchords. As seemed inevitable by now, the announcement was followed by silence.

Once again, the curse of Dunces had struck. Fry met Pedro Almodóvar one evening and the two discussed the possibility of Almodóvar making his English-language debut with the project – as Fry laments, “I think he would have been superb. Mrs Reilly is such a Pedro kind of character” – but, again, it went nowhere. Was the book simply unfilmable?

Critics and writers disagree. Author and screenwriter William Boyd, himself a well-known adapter of so-called ‘difficult’ novels, has no truck with the idea. “Any book is filmable. Even Finnegan’s Wake. I thought Any Human Heart was unfilmable, but I was wrong,” he says. “The point is that you can film it but it will only be a reduced simulacrum of the novel. The novel will always seem better because of the nature of film’s art form. It’s photography — therefore there is basically one point of view: the camera lens. Film is relentlessly objective. It cannot hope to reproduce the novel’s effortless subjectivity or its incredible nuances.”

Stig Abell, editor of the TLS, believes, however, that it might be best left alone. “The character of Ignatius is balanced so perfectly between hideous and likeable. That sort of ambivalence is possible inside our heads, but so hard to transfer to the screen, where he would be either cartoon or monster. Also, the book is a warped comedy of manners, in which we revel in the awkwardness and the weirdness. Nothing happens that is especially filmic – the film would be a series of horrific quirks.’

He also believes that one of the problems is Ignatius himself. “The central character is unfilmable: too vivid and he becomes grotesque; too soft and you lose the edge that makes the book.” There is also the problem, as Boyd notes, that film is probably the wrong medium for A Confederacy of Dunces from a commercial perspective. “Today, Dunces would be seen as an art-house film. Even if a gigantic [sic] star wanted to play Ignatius it would be a tough call. Art-house movies are not moribund but they are incredibly hard to finance at the moment.”

Fry, however, could see it succeeding in another form altogether, and that its time has finally come. “Many might think that a character like Ignatius railing against TV, pop music and contemporary culture is sorely needed to countervail the infantilism that has washed over us all since the book’s publication. One lone, loud, roaring, eructing voice against the tsunami of comic book heroes and live action movies may not do anything to stem the tide, as indeed Ignatius and Toole didn’t in their own time, but it would be a noble endeavour. It may be that longer form TV is the only way to cope with the structural problems that have obviated a traditional feature film version.”

Rumours continue to circulate that this apparently cursed adaptation will eventually come good. One leading TV and film agent sighed, “Half our clients would love to play Ignatius; he’s the Falstaff of our times. But it’s anyone’s guess as to whether anyone will crack the adaptation.” One version that does exist is a stage adaptation, written by Jeffrey Hatcher, and which starred Parks and Recreation’s Nick Offerman in its original production in 2015.

It is hoped that it will eventually be staged in London, perhaps to commemorate the book’s 40th anniversary next year, although it remains unclear as to whether Offerman will remain as Ignatius, and then, perhaps, it might end up produced by some public-spirited film or TV company, just as Catch-22 has successfully been resurrected by George Clooney and Grand Heslov. Its obvious appeal is the number of superb roles that it would offer for a talented cast – Fry suggests ‘Mrs Reilly could be any of a number of great actresses, Annette Bening, Holly Hunter, Meryl Streep, Winona Ryder’, but admits that ‘for Ignatius, the hunt is on”.

Still, for all the efforts and time expounded on it, perhaps it is time to admit that A Confederacy of Dunces, and the politics of the film industry, have defeated many of Hollywood’s ablest writers, directors and actors. Only someone truly remarkable stands any chance of making it, but we can but hope. As Jonathan Swift wrote, giving the book its title, “When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.”