Is The Phantom Tollbooth Unfilmable?

Milo and Tock

This whole interview with Norton Juster, in which he talks about being in an interracial marriage and how that’s reflected in his fiction, his architectural practice, and his friendship with Jules Feiffer, is awesome and worth reading. In between this and Michael Chabon’s new introduction to The Phantom Tollbooth (which is excellent other than asserting that punning is somehow a male thing), I’m glad to see a surge in Juster-love. But this part of the AV Club interview stood out to me, when Juster says:

I wasn’t very pleased with what they did with the Tollbooth [film adaptation]. One of the problems, and this is very unusual, was that Les Goldman and Chuck Jones were treating it like the Holy Grail and wouldn’t change anything. When you transform a book into a film, there have to be changes. You can’t stick with dialogue the way it is written in the book. You have to really adapt it for the big screen. He was too respectful.

I tend to err on the side of believing that almost nothing is unadaptable. The folks who said Watchmen couldn’t be done were ignoring the fact that, if you cut out the Black Freighter stuff, it’s a very clear and useful storyboard for a very complicated story. But so much of what I love about The Phantom Tollbooth is that it’s self-consciously literary, making literal thought processes and word games. The things that in prose and in the spindly illustrations feel delicate and funny might seem ham-handedly literal on-screen: the idea of Milo flying out of his car and ending up on Conclusions has always felt funnier to me as a mental image than it would be if it was something that actually happened.