“Apparently I lack some particular perversion which today’s employer is seeking.” – Ignatius J. Reilly

If Ignatius J. Reilly, the protagonist of A Confederacy Of Dunces, is even halfway correct in his assumption, there must be something seriously wrong with Steven Soderbergh, David Gordon Green and John Waters. OK, so that last one’s probably a given but the fact that John Kennedy Toole’s novel remains the preserve of the page and, but for a brief run in 2015, the stage, is surprising. Blaming it on directorial perversion makes as much sense as any other excuse. As our protagonist sagely comments: “I doubt whether any hack, under pressure, could pen such atrocious melodrama.” So here goes…

A Confederacy of Dunces follows Ignatius J. Reilly, a 300-pound waster who lives with his mother and spends his time belching, watching films, and penning frantic letters that lie unread. In another life, he’d write for this site. Over 400-odd pages, we are exposed to the literal gasbag joining the workforce as a clerk for a failing trouser factory before he foments an uprising and is forced to seek alternative employment selling hot dogs. To this, Ignatius applies everything he presumably learnt from the Tony Montana School Of Business: regard potential customers with maniacal suspicion and don’t worry about getting high off your own supply. Around him, in New Orleans, characters with similarly tenuous holds on sanity interact with each other in either the shadow or the fallout of this human tornado.

In the 36 years since its publication, it’s been compared to the work of Chaucer, Charles Dickens and Jonathan Swift (as well as The Big Bang Theory so not everyone’s a fan). But, although the film rights were purchased the same year the book was published, not a single second of adapted footage has ever been filmed. It is quite possibly the best film never made.

A Confederacy Of Dunces on stage

Nick Offerman plays Reilly on stage at the Huntingdon Theatre, Boston.

There isn’t any set criteria to justify the “unfilmable” mantle, but by nearly any stretch Dunces doesn’t seem to warrant it. It’s not a sprawling epic, it’s not an exploration of interweaving timelines, it’s not written by Kafka; really, Dunces should perfectly lend itself to the big screen. Toole’s prose revels in the specificity and colour of life, presenting something that comes almost fully-formed. From its bevy of vivid supporting characters to its particular, incidental props, this is something filmable—a very good something filmable. And this is something so good that it’s drawn to it talents as diverse as Harold Ramis, Steven Soderbergh and John Waters. This is filmable. It just hasn’t been.

Just two years after publication in 1980, and one after winning the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, its prospects looked rosy. The adaptation was earmarked as a John Belushi vehicle, the actor all but cast as Reilly, the delusional, slovenly luddite on whom everything hinges. But two days before Belushi could meet with an exec to engage in the ’80s deal-signing tradition of dotting i’s, crossing t’s and snorting lines of cocaine, he died of a drug overdose.

Next to get involved was Harold Ramis but the project, at one time with Chris Farley attached and at another with John Candy, went the same way as its proposed leads. And, when Ramis dropped out, John Waters stepped in with a plan to cast Divine in the lead role. That didn’t happen either. Said Waters in 2010 about the prospect of ‘Dunces finally blundering its way onto the big screen: “it’ll never happen… maybe it shouldn’t.” Not only did Belushi, Farley, Candy and Divine all die having been connected with the lead role but so too the head of the Louisiana Film Commission, Jo Beth Bolton, who had been negotiating rights to film on location. Waters’ words are far from the most pessimistic.

Come the ’90s, the landscape looked at least a little different. It was a decade of flannel, Pogs and producer Scott Rudin holding the film rights in the same hand as a bottle of Pepsi Clear as he made his way to Paramount Pictures. The mega-producer summarily dispatched Stephen Fry to New Orleans to write a treatment; Fry turned in one version and then another, ostensibly collaborating with a bright young thing called Steven Soderbergh. The result, in the famously eloquent Brit’s own words, “was a very complicated business about who had the rights and who would like this, which version, blah de blah de blah.” A Confederacy of Dunces does that to people.

Fry was correct. The ownership history is… complicated. Originally in the hands of a production company owned by chatshow host Johnny Carson, the rights were bought up by oil tycoon John Langdon. From there they passed to Orion Pictures, 20th Century Fox, back to Langdon and then to Paramount, with Rudin at the fore. Fry was dispatched and found that, from Dunces, he could create a story within a story, inventing scenes and combining Ignatius with his creator, John Kennedy Toole, to produce an entirely new beast. Rudin loved it; Soderbergh didn’t. The sex, lies & videotape director went back to his own version alongside one Scott Kramer.

It was Kramer who had purchased the original option for just $10,000 when the book was first published and had sold it to Carson Pictures; it was he who had been due to meet with Belushi about his interest before the actor’s death; it was he who had been negotiating with Jo Beth Bolton before hers. It was Kramer who had everything to gain when he and Soderbergh turned in their preferred version and it was Kramer who had everything to lose when he and Soderbergh sued Paramount in 1996, with nothing to show for the last few years but a fine layer of dust on their screenplay.

Matters were settled two years later but by then it was too late. Soderbergh walked away, offering by way of explanation: “my enthusiasm had been beaten out of me,” and “I think it’s cursed. I’m not prone to superstition but that project has got bad mojo.”

But mojo could be funky and Austin Powers-like; you just needed the right former SNL cast member and a game supporting cast that included someone who looks just like Lily Tomlin. So Kramer tapped David Gordon Green to direct his and Soderbergh’s script and talked Will Ferrell into the prospect of becoming Reilly through the wonders of modern fat-suit technology. Miramax even put up $1.5 million for the rights to assemble the appropriate cast: Lily Tomlin, Yasiin Bey (né Mos Def) and Drew Barrymore. This time it’d definitely happen. Hell, there was even a public reading at the Nantucket Film Festival that counted Paul Rudd and Jesse Eisenberg as costars.

Will Ferrell Paul Rudd readthrough

Will Ferrell and Paul Rudd read through the Dunces script at the Nantucket Film Festival.

Obviously, nothing happened. Miramax got cold feet and the rights reverted to a soon sans-Scott Rudin Paramount. Any further interest in the next few years was definitively knocked back as Hurricane Katrina decimated New Orleans. To film anywhere but The Big Easy, a city that has Ignatius J. Reilly actually immortalised in bronze (take that, Detroit), was unthinkable. Ferrell eschewed blaming curses and bad mojo and settled for a more predictable Hollywood sticking point: money. “It’s the movie everyone in Hollywood wants to make but doesn’t want to finance.” Sure, but no one wants to make it more than Scott Kramer.

Alice Through the Looking Glass director James Bobin was the last to be attached, back in 2012, alongside Zach Galifianakis, an actor whose general MO has been to dance on the edge of Reilly-levels of obnoxiousness without alienating an audience. Kramer still hadn’t given up hope, but was probably less than surprised when that too stuttered, stalled and disappeared from schedules. Now it exists only as a further curio to be picked over by handsome writers doing retrospective features for successful film websites.

Yet perhaps there’s another idea wrapped up in the Dunces tale? Fry saw a different story within the world of Ignatius J. Reilly, but what if there existed a better one outside it? In the words of Sandy Ignon, the former Carson Studios exec who was responsible for buying the option back in 1981, “I think the movie to make now is Scott Kramer trying to get this movie made.” Imagine Charlie Kaufman’s adaptation of The Orchid Thief crossed with the tragic farce of Lost In La Mancha. Sounds like a laugh. Sounds like the Best Film Never Made.

“When Fortuna spins you downward, go out to a movie and get more out of life.”
– Ignatius J. Reilly

Further reading:

Telling the story of Scott Kramer’s struggle to get ‘Dunces made – A Conspiracy Of Dunces

An incredibly comprehensive narrative of events up to 1999 – Dunces Adaptation Remains Stuck In the Mire Of Rewrites And Handovers