When adapting literature into film, we most often start with an 800 page novel and reduce it into a 100 page script. A screenwriter must carefully consider what scenes and aspects to preserve, what details must be sacrificed, and what parts of the literary work simply will not translate on screen. Carelessness or a miscalculation could result in a displeasing simplification of a great novel (or “butchering” as angry fans will call it), but the bottom line in the movie business is the question of whether it will lead to poor box office performance and sales. These are common pitfalls when adapting a novel, but what if you were to start with a shorter literary work, how would that differ? Do short story film adaptations work better?
If a novella or short story were to be adapted, there would be an opportunity to further develop characters, and explore themes in greater depth. The screenwriter is allowed more, and easily forgiven for taking more liberties, blending in his/her own interpretations, and adding dialogue and scenes. Though it could be argued that sparser material only serves as inspiration and not an adequate guideline, placed in the wrong hands, the resulting film could lack in plot or veer off far from its source. There are many different ways to approach a short story adaptation, each with varying results.
Vaguely defined as shorter than a novel and longer than a short story, novellas common span from 100-200 pages, which potentially makes them the ideal length for a film adaptation. Many don’t realize, but the book Breakfast at Tiffany’s is “a short novel and three stories by Truman Capote”, the source of the beloved 1961 film was actually adapted from a novella and not full-length novel. The most famous collection of novellas that have been adapted into movies though, is Stephen King’s “Different Seasons”. Three out of four novellas from this anthology were made into feature films, including Apt Pupil (1998) from the story by the same name, The Shawshank Redemption (1994) from “Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption”, and the coming-of-age classic Stand By Me (1986) from “The Body”. The novellas were all over 100 pages, and while some may wonder how King’s signature descriptions that span multiple pages got worked into a script, but let us not forget that he is also capable of some terrific genuine dialogue as well.
There are many options in adapting a short story. When David Fincher decided to turn F. Scott Fitzgerald’s (roughly) 30 page short story “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” into a 2.5 hour film, he and writers Eric Roth and Robin Swicord had their work cut out for them in terms of filling in the plot. The original story covered off numerous events in Benjamin Button’s life briefly, spanning his entire lifetime, which served as an excellent framework for a film. From there backstories and dialogue were added, as well as some changes to the time period, characters and circumstances in which they come into each other’s lives.
Alfred Hitchcock only retained the idea of unexplained bird attacks for his movie The Birds (1963), very loosely based on Daphne du Maurier’s story. Hitchcock had all new characters created, and the story set halfway around the world from the original. In an adaptation of “So Much Water So Close to Home” by Raymond Carver, the film takes the title of the new setting, Jindabyne, a town in New South Wales, Australia, changed from the original that was set in Washington state. Writer Beatrix Christian also works in elements of racism towards the Aboriginals as a contributing factor to the events that take place.
“So Much Water So Close to Home” is actually part of a Raymond Carver anthology known as “Short Cuts”, a book that the late Robert Altman adapted in its entirety in his film Short Cuts (1993). Altman wove together nine short stories and one poem into his celebrated feature-length narrative, him and Carver were a perfect pairing, both fascinated by humankind’s idiosyncrasies and random life experiences. There were 22 principal characters in Short Cuts, with changes made to the stories in order to have characters in recurring roles and moving between stories.
Scottish writer Irvine Welsh has penned tales of all different formats, with a number of them getting adapted into films. One of these is The Acid House (1998) which combines “The Granton Star Cause”, “A Soft Touch”, and “The Acid House” with Welsh adapting his own stories for the screen. Another film that blends together a book of short stories into a single inter-connected tale is Palo Alto, which is still doing the festival circuit with an official release date yet to be announced. It is based on the first book by actor (and writer) James Franco, with an emphasis on the 3-part story “April”. Palo Alto is about youths who find trouble growing up in Franco’s hometown of Palo Alto, with some portions based on events of his youth.
Whether they are properly credited or not, many films are inspired by writing, be their formats long or short. Blockbusters such as Million Dollar Baby, Brokeback Mountain, Minority Report, and Total Recall were all adapted in some shape or form from short stories, proving that the ways in which literary works can be transformed into films are boundless.