Jack Nicholson's Film Adaptation Of Henderson The Rain King Never Found A Home

When you think of unadaptable novels, what's the one that comes to your mind? "Infinite Jest" by David Foster Wallace? "To the Lighthouse" by Virginia Woolf? For a select few of you out there, you might think about Saul Bellow's 1959 novel "Henderson the Rain King," a humorous yet deeply philosophical story about a middle-aged man's quest to figure out the meaning of life. Well, that's the most abstract way I could probably describe it, as he navigates this question after accidentally becoming the messiah of an African village. Yeah.

If you're not familiar with the novel, that may already cause a bevy of red flags to be raised, and we don't blame you for that. While the novel ends in a way that skeptical readers may not have anticipated, it's understandable why studios have been hesitant to greenlight an adaptation of Bellow's work.

That doesn't mean there haven't been attempts in the past. In an interview with Gene Siskel published in the Chicago Tribune, esteemed actor Jack Nicholson revealed that he wanted to adapt "Henderson the Rain King," despite apparently having trouble securing a studio deal.

"I can't get anybody to make it," Nicholson told Siskel. "It's the hardest movie to get made I've ever been around."

An incomplete history

There's not much known about Nicholson's attempts to get "Henderson the Rain King" off the ground. In a separate interview with The Los Angeles Times, he had revealed that he wanted to direct the film but spoke about it in the past tense. Coincidentally, an adaptation of another "unadapatable" book, "Lie Down in Darkness" by William Styron, was among these bygone pitches. Maybe he has a penchant for abstract and philosophical books.

Regardless of how much information is available, it's not that hard to assume why an adaptation of the Bellow novel was a hard sell. The complicated racial politics, unfortunately, may not have played a major role in studios rejecting it at the time, but one other major factor may have. The way the book is written doesn't lend itself to an easy script conversion. It is teeming with symbolism that can only really be interpreted through the act of reading, meaning they wouldn't translate well acted out on screen. If you're looking to see this translation problem for yourself, look no further than 1986's adaptation of his novel, "Seize the Day."

It's unlikely that "Henderson the Rain King" will ever get adapted. However, it is pretty cool that Nicholson got the blessing of Bellow to adapt it, at least according to what he said in the Chicago Tribune interview.

"He said, 'Oh, no, I think you'd play the part [of Henderson] beautifully,'" Nicholson recalled. "Well, just that single statement from him encourages me to play it."