Most of the time, when a novel achieves legendary status, we can assume that it will eventually be turned into a film. In some cases, there are novels that should have never been turned into films. For instance, Homer’s epic poem The Iliad should have never served as the basis for the subpar Brad Pitt-led movie Troy. On the other hand, there are a few classic novels that have never made it to the big screen for some reason or another. One such novel is John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces.
John Kennedy Toole was born in the city of New Orleans in 1937 and later attended Tulane University where he would receive a degree in English. While in college, Toole would hang around the French Quarter and the Irish Channel and, occasionally, would fill in for his friend selling tamales out of a cart. All of these experiences would become the basis for scenes in A Confederacy of Dunces.
Unfortunately, Toole, who had been afflicted by paranoia and depression all his life, killed himself in his car in 1969 at the age of 31. Prior to his death, none of his novels had ever been published. However, his mother Thelma was determined to share her son’s writing with the world. And, after being rejected by countless publishers, Thelma was finally able to get the book published by the Louisiana State University Press in 1980. A Confederacy of Dunces became an instant success and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1981, making John Kennedy Toole just one of three authors to ever win the prize posthumously.
Obviously, both Toole’s writing acumen and the macabre circumstances surrounding this novel have made it a cult classic. So, it’s surprising that it has never been made into a movie. It’s almost as if this novel is cursed…
The First Try
If you haven’t read A Confederacy of Dunces, first and foremost, the novel follows its main character Ignatius J. Reilly as he wanders (fairly aimlessly) through New Orleans, a city that he detests yet is too much of a hypochondriac and a bum to leave. There isn’t much of a storyline or a moral imperative. The book follows the daily life of Ignatius and a few other characters as they meander through amusing situations for 400 or so pages until it ends.
The genius of this novel is in Toole’s nuanced comedic writing style and, of course, the fact that Ignatius J. Reilly may very well be the most eccentric, odd, useless, and hilarious character to ever appear in print. He’s highly educated and incredibly well-spoken yet he suffers from delusions of grandeur and he works as a hot dog vendor. He has a female counterpart in which he claims to have no sexual interest yet everything he does seems to be either to spite her or to impress her. Ignatius is enigmatic, to say the least.
So, over the years, as prospective filmmakers have set out to make a film adaption of A Confederacy of Dunces, the first question they had to answer was: “Who will play Ignatius?” Well, right around the time that the novel won the Pulitzer Prize, the answer to that question was John Belushi.
Yes, after the smashing success of Animal House, director Harold Ramis announced plans to once again link up with John Belushi, one of the biggest comedic actors in the world at the time, to create a film adaptation of A Confederacy of Dunces. On top of that, the film was also set to feature comedian Richard Pryor in the role of Burma Jones. Unfortunately, when Belushi died in 1982, all plans to create this film came to a halt.
More From the ‘80s
After Belushi’s death, the film rights to the novel were sold to an oil magnate named John Langdon, who wanted to make a version with John Candy in the lead role of Ignatius. Candy, however, passed on the role, forcing John Langdon and his team to go on a wild goose chase for a new leading man. However, this project seemed to peter out and oil magnate John Langdon never broke into the Hollywood scene.
Later in the 1980s, director and actor John Waters, the mind behind incredibly strange-yet-intriguing movies like Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, and Polyester, reportedly had a film version of the novel in the works. His version would star Divine (who starred in all three aforementioned John Waters-directed movies) as Ignatius J. Reilly.
While the duo of John Waters and Divine seemed outlandish enough to encapsulate the writing style of John Kennedy Toole, this film would also never come to fruition. Apparently, part of the reason for this was that John Waters doubted his ability to create something that would live up to the genius of the novel.
The Curse Is Born
More than 10 years after the novel was originally published, no film adaptation had yet been made from A Confederacy of Dunces. However, there was definitely still interest in Hollywood. Screenwriter Stephen Fry was hired to write a screen adaptation of the novel with the iconic Chris Farley as the star. Every indication points to the fact that this version of the film would have made it to the big screen if Chris Farley hadn’t died in 1997.
John Belushi died of an overdose in 1982 while working on a screen adaptation of A Confederacy of Dunces. John Candy had died suddenly of a heart attack after having been attached to the project. And, now, Chris Farley had died of a drug overdose in 1997 while gearing up to play the role of Ignatius J. Reilly. Thus, the idea that this role was cursed began to circulate around the film industry.
Still, many actors and directors alike still showed interest in bringing John Kennedy Toole’s masterpiece to the visual medium. Apparently, John Goodman became attached to the project after the death of Chris Farley. However, at that point, creative differences between screenwriter Stephen Fry and director Steven Soderbergh caused the project to dissolve.
Into the 2000s
A full 20 years after the book had been published, Hollywood elites were still considering making a film out of it. One of the most serious attempts at bringing the novel to the silver screen came in 2004 when a screenplay version of the novel was read Nantucket Film Festival. This version would star Will Ferrell (in a fat suit) as Ignatius J. Reilly, Lily Tomlin as Irene Reilly, and Mos Def as Burma Jones. However, this time, the project was killed because of some sort of in-house legal dispute at Paramount.
After that, it seemed as if Hollywood had put A Confederacy of Dunces on the shelf for good. However, about 8 years later, in 2012, rumors began to circulate that a movie was being made with Zach Galifianakis in the lead role. However, these rumors quickly fizzled out and this version never materialized either.
The Good News
While A Confederacy of Dunces has never been made into a Hollywood movie to this day, it was adapted into a theatre production in Boston in 2015. The role of Ignatius J. Reilly was played by the incomparable Nick Offerman, who you probably know from his role as Ron Swanson in the NBC sitcom Parks and Recreation.
In preparing for the role, Offerman had to master the “Yat” dialect (which is native to the working-class people of New Orleans) and, apparently, eat a ton of fatty meats to bulk up to Ignatius’s gargantuan size.
All in all, while it’s disappointing that A Confederacy of Dunces has never made it to film, it’s still great that a stage adaptation of the novel from the Huntington Theatre Company came to life back in 2015. Will we ever see the hulking mass that is Ignatius J. Reilly grace the silver screen? It seems doubtful.
Long live Ignatius!