Filming the Unfilmable
Sep 12 2013
This seems a good time to gauge the filmic prospects of The Turner Diaries. I bought my copy—out of raw, morbid curiosity—at a Virginia gun show in the mid-90s. Back then, the novel’s Banana Time fanaticism seemed tailor-made for the antigovernment mania of the Clinton era. It even inspired a half-dozen real-life crime sprees, including the Oklahoma City bombing.
Written by Andrew Macdonald (the pen name of neo-Nazi activist William Pierce) in the late 70s, The Turner Diaries is a look back at the great global race war of the 90s, told from the perspective of a diary found in the far future. The book follows Earl Turner, a Joe Sixpack-type who gets radicalized after jackbooted government thugs bust into his house and confiscate his guns. Turner joins a shadowy organization (imaginatively called “the Organization”) and wages war on America.
It’s a genuinely reprehensible novel, one which uses blunt racism as wallpaper. The conspirators infiltrate the "cosmopolitan racial goulash" in wigs and disguises. When the Organization eventually captures Southern California, it stages "the Day of the Rope,” hanging race traitors from trees and telephone poles across the Southland. It's Hollywood imagery in the service of an unfilmable story.
But is it unfilmable? Cinema has a long history showing us things we don't want to see. Just in the last ten years, audiences have championed trends both technical (3D-CGI, forays across the uncanny valley) and social (torture porn, Star Wars films that are sucky instead of fun) that would have baffled moviegoers of the 80s. Cultural goalposts only feel fixed in the moment: Lolita, Naked Lunch, and Lord Of The Rings were each considered unfilmable in their day.
Politically, what passed for far right in the 90s is basically centrist by today's standards. Tea Partiers are a demographic, not a fringe, one that could reward a Turner film handsomely at the box office or Netflix queue. Surely, somewhere deep in the bowels of Hollywood, shadowy executives are spitballing ways to bring Macdonald's work to the big screen.
The fact that it’s an awful idea doesn’t mean it won’t happen—it just requires certain conditions. Here are five ways an adaptation of The Turner Diaries could go down.
AMERICAN PSYCHO STYLE
Bret Easton Ellis' American Psycho featured graphic sexual carnage every bit as repulsive as Turner. It also earned far more outrage than Macdonald's novel, which was banned instead of protested. A brave studio could score an elegant workaround by hiring Mary Harron, of I Shot Andy Warhol, to direct. One could view the hiring of a female director as either coincidental, pragmatic, or cynical (especially now that Christian Bale turned down $50 million to play Batman, while Harron just shot a TV biopic about Anna Nicole Smith). The feminine touch will spare the film the full brunt of the public’s outrage. Similarly, there'd be no shortage of non-Aryan directors to helm a possible Turner Diaries adaptation. Although the plot would need tweaking.
CASTING: Ethan Hawke as Turner, an FBI agent deep undercover in the Organization. Obviously, Morgan Freeman is the president. At this point, he could probably just be President Freeman.
ODDS OF A FILM: Plausible.
WORLD WAR Z STYLE
This option (formerly known as The Lawnmower Man Style) is deceptively simple: buy the rights, flush the plot. In The Diaries Of Turner, Turner is a divorced/widowed dad who's given up on love... Until Katherine Heigl walks into his life.
CASTING: Ben Affleck has to be Turner.
ODDS OF A FILM: Low, but seriously: much, much crazier shit has happened.
TRISTAM SHANDY STYLE
2005's Tristam Shandy: A Cock And Bull Story took the granddaddy of unfilmable novels—Laurence Sterne's 1760 gutbuster Tristam Shandy—and reworked it into a nimble Steve Coogan movie-within-a-movie. Likewise, such a version of The Turner Diaries could dress up its despicable core subject with so much black comedy, zippy dialogue, and ironic jabs that audiences won't know what the fuck they just watched.
CASTING: Willem Dafoe as both Turner, and a version of himself who spends most of the movie wondering aloud what he's doing with his life.
ODDS OF A FILM: Slim, not impossible.
Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief posed its own unfilmability issues, being a nonfiction peek into the world of horticulture enthusiasts. Director Spike Jonze jazzed up the narrative in 2002 with Adaptation, a story about the perils of adapting such a story into a film. This is one level more meta than Tristram Shandy style.
CASTING: Wesley Snipes as both Turner and Macdonald.
ODDS: This probably will not happen.
THE TURNER DIARIES STYLE
Target sells The Human Centipede on Blu-ray. Civilization is on the downslide, depravity is big business, and the antiguvmint far right doesn't even bother to speak in code anymore. Do you really think a Turner movie can't be made?
CASTING: Mel Gibson as Earl Turner (and director, producer, and financier).
ODDS OF A FILM: This may happen.
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