Vulture reports tonight that James Bobin, co-creator of Flight of the Conchords and director of The Muppets, will be bringing an adaptation of John Kennedy Toole’s great American comedy, A Confederacy of Dunces, to a theatre/illegal torrent/eventual Netflix queue near you. Phil Johnston, who wrote the well-received Fox Searchlight comedy Cedar Rapids, has been named as the writer, and Bobin believes he has found an actor to handle the role of the lumbering, quixotic madman at the novel’s beating heart, Ignatius J. Reilly, in Zach Galifianakis.
The news will likely please / outrage fans of the book (and of comedy at large) who have been waiting to see / dreading Dunces translated to the big screen, but not so fast—the novel, itself a comedy wrapped in personal tragedy with a larger-than-life character at its center that may prove ambitious for even seasoned comic talent, has had a long and extremely bumpy road to the cinema, and may, some say, be more haunted than an above-ground New Orleans cemetery.
For your references, a brief timeline of the novel and its proposed and alleged adapations:
1706 – Irish satirist and modest proposer Jonathan Swift writes Thoughts on Various Subjects, Moral and Diverting. In it, one will find the iconic line, "When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign: that the dunces are all in confederacy against him."
1980 – John Kennedy Toole’s iconic satire of 1960s New Orleans and the heartwarming saga of one Ignatius J. Reilly is published more than a decade after the author’s death. A year later, the book wins the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and the book maintains a following today.
1982 – Harold Ramis becomes the first writer-director attached to a film adaptation of the novel. Comedy icon John Belushi was the first actor cast in the role of Reilly, with Richard Pryor as the vagrant-turned-custodian Burma Jones. Belushi passed away shortly after being cast in the role. Belushi’s death, coupled with those of other actors, including John Candy and Chris Farley, who have been attached to the role, not to mention Hurricane Katrina and the author’s suicide, have all contributed to the theory that the work itself may be cursed (at least, according to Stephen Soderbergh). Later, John Waters also mentioned interest in adapting the novel, with his Pink Flamingos muse Divine as the lead.
1995 – In the mid-to-late ’90s, British actor and writer Stephen Fry (who is very much alive and well, thank you) was working on a screenplay for an adaptation of the film and even traveled to New Orleans for research. Nothing really ever happened with this one, though.
2005 – For a while, this seemed like the one that was going to make it. Scott Kramer and Stephen Soderbergh adapted Toole’s novel into a screenplay with David Gordon Green, whose works include the beautiful cult classic George Washington and stoner comedy Pineapple Express, at the helm. The cast included Will Ferrell as Ignatius, Mos Def as Burma Jones, Lily Tomlin as Mrs. Reilly and Paul Rudd as Mancuso. However, between Hurricane Katrina and a lack of interest from the studio, the adaptation stalled.
2012 – Word breaks of Bobin’s proposed adaptation of Dunces, starring Zach Galifianakis. And we shall see.