A Confederacy of Dunces and the Problem of Adaptation

Ed. Note – I realize most of you could give two craps about this topic. Mail them to me.

Being in the pro bono humor writing business can be a challenge. Getting someone to physically laugh at something they read is a difficult prospect. The most I hope for on any given post is that you, Dear Reader, smile faintly and think to yourself, “That’s funny.” I recently finished reading A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole and have to be in awe at a work of text that got me to laugh out loud several times. The book is a Pulitzer Prize winner and is widely lauded as one of the most important, and overlooked, works of American fiction in the last century. Of course it has garnered lots of attention from Hollywood even though

production seems to be doomed. However, I feel like it is ultimately better to keep it off the screen. So many other great books (Atlas Shrugged, The Watchman, Dune, etc.) have tried to make the jump and failed. I don’t want Confederacy to fall into the same category of those massive Big-Screen busts.

One reason Confederacy will have trouble translating is that the humor in the book is very language-based. The author uses the main character’s (Ignatius J. Reilly) personal journals as a big source for laughs. The reader gets to analyze Ignatius’ long written diatribes against society, an aspect that would almost definitely not translate to big laughs in a movie script. Sitting through a 7 minute voiceover scene would be painful, no matter how great the content.

Another reason that a movie just wouldn’t work is that the novel’s plot isn’t a like most critically acclaimed Hollywood movies. Toy Story 3, for example, was an absolute roller coaster. Every single word uttered by every single character serves to drive the plot forward, up and down. There is not one single scrap of fat or filler in that movie. That’s why it was so good. Confederacy’s plot on the other hand is less like a roller coaster and more like a meandering, drunken bicycle ride through the French Quarter of New Orleans. There are many frivolous distractions that serve no purpose other than to paint Ignatius in an even more ridiculous light. In my opinion, some of the funniest scenes in the book have absolutely nothing to do with the plot whatsoever.

I want to see Confederacy succeed. I just think that it’s precisely the type of literary style that can’t be adapted to the screen. A funny book will never be as good as a funny movie.

The reason that a funny movie or audio track elicits a bigger laugh is because the sensory work is already done for you. When you’re watching Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, you don’t need to imagine what Jim Carey would look like talking with his butt. It’s there. When you listen to Chris Rock’s Bring the Pain album, you don’t need to imagine the inflection in his voice. It’s there. The path to humor is already laid out. These types of media will always dominate the “Big Laugh” category. Reading requires extra mental energy. That allocation of focus makes the path to laughter more arduous so the reaction isn’t as big. Here is an example. Please select the option that makes you laugh hardest.

1) Little Andy toddled through the garden. He knew that silly kitty was out there somewhere. Andy waddled around the bush and his face was suddenly struck by a furry meat sack. He glanced at the sky as he tried to right himself and he heard the padded thumps of that silly kitty’s feet scurry off in the distance.


In closing, this entire post is to serve the purpose of informing you, Dear Reader, that I read a book. Aren’t you impressed?