The novel A Confederacy of Dunces has never had an easy existence. The text wouldn’t have even seen the light of day if the mother of its author, John Kennedy Toole, hadn’t stumbled upon the manuscript after Toole’s suicide. More than a decade later, Dunces was finally published and became a Pulitzer Prize-winning hit. Its struggles to make it to bookshelves provided an eerie harbinger of the enormous and downright tragic challenges that have plagued any prospective film adaptation of this material.
Before we get into the cinematic takes on this book, though, it’s important to understand what the actual story of A Confederacy of Dunces is. The book concerns Ignatius J. Reilly, a thirty-year-old man with a pessimistic outlook on the broader world. While he fancies himself cut off from a world he despises, Reilly’s mother eventually gets into a car accident, which means he must venture out into the world for employment so that he can take care of his mom. From there, his adventures take him across various forms of employment and interactions with outsized characters who could only exist in 1960s New Orleans.
The first inkling of A Confederacy of Dunces making it to the big screen came through a proposed version by director Harold Ramis. This project would’ve seen Ramis once again work with John Belushi (the duo had collaborated on Animal House, which Ramis penned) as Reilly. Another comedy legend, Richard Pryor, was also eyeballed to play the character of Burma Jones. In the early 1980s, having the director of Caddyshack helm an adaptation of a famous book with these leading men could’ve been a guaranteed box office hit. However, Belushi’s tragic passing in 1982 put the production on ice.
Later on in the 1980s, another intriguing version of the project was proposed, though this incarnation would’ve been much more indie than Ramis’s vision. John Waters wanted to make a Confederacy of Dunces movie, with Pink Flamingos lead Divine inhabiting the role of Ignatius. It’s easy to imagine that the off-kilter sensibilities of Waters could’ve been a good match for Toole’s writing and worldview. However, the production never materialized. Waters would later say that partly why this version of Dunces never got off the ground was his belief that no film adaptation could ever live up to Tootle’s writing. The expectations of making something worthy of the original book were so great that Waters even wondered aloud if a film adaptation of A Confederacy of Dunces should even exist.
And yet, despite the collapse of multiple iterations of the reproduction, Hollywood kept on pursuing a Confederacy of Dunces movie into the 1990s. From here, other notable comic legends like John Candy and Chris Farley were attached to the project in various forms. However, none of these made it very far, with the tragic passing of each of those comedians ensuring that the pause button would be pressed on this adaptation. The constant presence of comedy legends who died too young in the role of Ignatius is what began to drum up a perception that this particular character was a cursed role and that, by proxy, the entire idea of a Confederacy of Dunces feature was an idea doomed to failure.
Even with this reputation, you couldn’t stop Hollywood from trying its hand at a Confederacy of Dunces movie. Throughout the late 1990s, John Goodman was briefly tasked with playing Ignatius while Paramount Pictures picked the iconic Stephen Fry to write an adaptation. None of these versions of the film gained much momentum, but in the early years of the 21st century, there seemed to finally be hope that A Confederacy of Dunces would make it to the silver screen after all. Steven Soderbergh and David Gordon Green joined forces by 2005 to serve as screenwriter and director, respectively, of a new take on this material. If there was ever a dream team perfectly qualified to manifest this book as a motion picture, it was this duo, each of whom was well-versed in offbeat storytelling in their indie cinema endeavors.
Rather than whittle away all the unique idiosyncrasies that made Toole’s book beloved, you could bet that Soderbergh and Green would maintain those distinctive touches. This was apparent even in the oddball cast assembled for the feature, which would’ve been anchored by Will Ferrell as Reilly. However, despite having a red-hot comic star in the lead role, this version of A Confederacy of Dunces also went nowhere. Slate would speculate in late 2006 that this was because of changes in leadership at Paramount Pictures, which left the movie without an in-house champion. This was in spite of the movie’s star-studded cast and crew all being openly willing to take significant pay cuts to make the production viable for Paramount Pictures brass.
After this update, Green’s version of A Confederacy of Dunces faded away, never to be made. In the preceding 25 years, it felt like a new version of this movie was constantly in development. After this iteration of the adaptation went astray, though, Hollywood seemed to close the door on ever doing A Confederacy of Dunces. In 2012, it did seem like a new shockwave of life had been injected into the production, when Paramount Pictures got James Bobin and Zach Galifianakis signed on to direct and star, respectively, in the feature. However, this too went nowhere. No wonder people consider a prospective Confederacy of Dunces movie to be a cursed proposition.
The aforementioned piece from Slate made a great point about why A Confederacy of Dunces has always struggled to get made into a movie regarding the challenging nature of the source material. The book doesn’t offer up opportunities for big grand set pieces and the dialogue is intentionally offbeat, which scares away studio executives who’re attracted to the book based on its famous nature. Plus, the production has been set up at Paramount Pictures for the last few decades and that studio has been wrapped up in constant turmoil that’s only begun to shrink away in the last few years. It’s impossible to tell if Warner Bros. or Universal Pictures would’ve been more open to this book, but it’s equally impossible to imagine that they would’ve been worse homes for this material.
And so, A Confederacy of Dunces sits on a shelf. Even streamers like Netflix or Amazon, desperate for “content” and prestige, haven’t touched this book as a potential movie. Given all the prestigious names that have been attached to such a motion picture over the years, it can’t help but feel a tad disappointing that this text hasn’t received the richly thoughtful film adaptation it deserves. But then again, the world will always have Toole’s original words. A movie of A Confederacy of Dunces would be welcome gravy on top of the book’s existence, but it doesn’t solidify whether this tome is a meaningful work of literature or not. Perhaps, as the always astute John Waters put it, the world doesn’t need a movie adaptation of A Confederacy of Dunces. Certainly, the cursed nature of this feature seems to suggest as much.