"How's East Haven?" "Sucks."

The movie Ocean's Twelve, which came out in 2004, is one of my favorite movies of the last ten years. (Make of that what you will.) I don't know how many times I've watched it -- certainly a dozen, which seems right and just. Part of my affection for the movie stems from a little detail at the beginning of the movie. We see Danny Ocean (George Clooney) talking to a bank employee, talking about safe deposit boxes and retirement funds, and a caption flits onto the screen: East Haven, Connecticut. The moment I saw this, my first thought was: Why would a guy like Danny Ocean be in East Haven, Connecticut? And why does the shot of him leaving the bank and strolling through the center of town, then dumping his flowers into the trash so he can rush back to his wife, Tess, show a quaint, charming, subtly-decorated New England town which bears no resemblance to East Haven, Connecticut? He’s not in any East Haven I’ve ever seen; he’s in Guilford. He’s in Litchfield. He’s somewhere in Connecticut, sure -- but it sure as hell isn’t East Haven. I've discussed this with people who are more capable of nuanced thought than I. My original theory was, "Whoever wrote the movie (George Nolfi) thinks that all of Connecticut is like Westport, and has no idea that East Haven is just this blue collar town where rich people do not go to retire, where art curators are not going to redecorate their beach house and quibble with the housepainters about how much brown to add to the white paint." That it was a mistake borne out of ignorance of the true cultural geography of Connecticut.

But a cooler head suggests that perhaps the explanation is more complicated but also more mundane: that the screenwriter knew what he was doing when he wrote "East Haven, Connecticut," but that the director (Steven Soderbergh) didn't know what was envisioned by Nolfi when he went to film, and so, that segment of the movie wound up being the stereotypical "Connecticut" that people are used to in Hollywood product (with the exception of Mystic Pizza, which does a pretty good job of depicting working class life in Mystic -- at least, it LOOKS like Mystic, and not Westport. Or Guilford). The cooler head suggests that perhaps a town like East Haven would actually be an excellent place for Danny Ocean to hide out: claiming he’s a retired high school basketball coach, he’d have a chance to just blend into the community.

But here's what I'm having fun thinking about now: how lots of people who watch that movie from now on will see that little line of text -- East Haven, Connecticut -- and it's gonna mean something different now because of this hullabaloo with the mayor and tacos and the cops who've been harassing the Latinos who've been making East Haven their homes for the last 20 odd years.

When you factor in Ocean’s pseudonym, which he takes on to blend in to the charming little community of East Haven, is Diaz, the whole thing just becomes more comical. Wrong ethnic group to pick, it seems, if you're trying to sketch a character who's just trying to blend in. But maybe someone knew this would be a problem. When Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt) asks Ocean, “How’s East Haven?” Ocean doesn’t skip a beat. “Sucks,” he says. So perhaps the screenwriter knew something about the real East Haven after all?

I am a sucker for bloopers -- you know, the gag reels they tack onto DVDs as “extras” off the main menu -- and it seems to me that more than ever, those opening scenes of “Ocean’s Twelve” are just one giant blooper. Mr. and Mrs. Diaz, you really picked the wrong place to go if you were trying to escape the attention of local police. Fortunately, in your cases, though, it was just a movie.

Film Adaptations: Short Stories vs. Novels

I’ve had a hypothesis for awhile that short stories lend themselves better to film adaptations than novels do. Of course, as soon as I sat down to make the case in writing, I remembered dozens of novels made into good films. Still, looking at the different ways novels and short stories are treated seems to tell us a little bit about the nature of those literary forms. I came by the original theory through no particularly powerful powers of observation except noticing that whenever a movie is made out of a beloved novel (Beloved, for example, or Lord of the Rings) their fans get very territorial. Meanwhile, when a film is made from a short story nobody notices. For one thing, readers get very anxious about how “faithful” the filmmaker will be to a novel. Will Hollywood will transmogrify the elegiac qualities of the literature into exploding skyscrapers?

Usually, though, readers just say to themselves, “I hope they don’t cut out my favorite part,” often necessary for the obvious reason that novels are long and have too much material to cover in 100 minutes. But apart from length, novels are a form that begs for the sorts of experimentation that other written literature tolerates less: digression; superfluous minor characters and subplots; essays; and, most importantly since Madame Bovary, the dramatization of an evolving internal consciousness.

War and Peace, for example, can’t be faithfully adapted not just because of its impossible length but because of the impossibly novelistic nature of it. (I’m ignoring for now that Tolstoy claimed that it wasn’t a novel at all but some other new form he was inventing.) With all the time in the world – or at least control over the Masterpiece Theatre schedule – a film of that book wouldn’t feel too long but too much like a jumble of four different narratives, a how-to video on fox hunting, an essay on the methods of cultural history, a historical documentary and the director’s commentary all at once.

Another way of thinking about the challenge of adaptation is to consider Randall Jarrell’s famous definition of a novel: “A prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it.” Novels by their nature seem to have imperfections that are appreciated as beauty marks. They would perhaps look more like carcinomas on celluloid, so they get trimmed away.

When novels are faithfully adapted, they are usually shorter novels. But more tellingly they are novels that don’t indulge in all the woolly possibilities of the form. Film noir adaptations of Raymond Chandler are good examples. Besides being short, the books have minimal exposition, all of it focused on present action rather than background, and are packed with dialogue.

The novels of Tom Perrotta, which have prompted faithful adaptations, are similar in scope, prompting some critics to snootily characterize the books as “cinematic” precisely because of how ready-made for film they seem to be. But to me that’s like dismissing Frank Baum’s children’s classic The Wizard of Oz because it’s too cinematic.

“Faithfully adapted” and “successfully adapted” aren’t the same things, of course. Little Children is faithfully adapted to a fault. (Perrotta co-wrote the screenplay, too.) In that case, nothing is left out, not even a narrator’s voice that works in the book. It is imposed in the form of a movie voiceover that spoils otherwise emotionally powerful scenes. The voiceover undercuts the natural advantages of working with moving images by telling us what we can see for ourselves.

Given how attractive written literature is as a starting point for film and the challenges of adapting novels, I wonder why Hollywood doesn’t use short stories more. Probably it’s an outgrowth of our behavior as readers. For one thing, directors who are genuinely inspired by the literature they read are probably, like everyone else, not reading many short stories to get inspired by. Two, the novels have more of the name recognition that Hollywood requires for marketing and promotion.

This is why film adaptations of short stories either go by unnoticed or succeed despite their origins. I’m an attentive fan of Alice Munro, but somehow the film Away From Her, based on her story “The Bear Came over the Mountain,” came and went without me ever hearing about it. Approaching from the other direction, I remember the delight many years ago of stumbling on Jean Shepherd’s In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash and recognizing one hilarious chapter as the original source of the movie A Christmas Story. I loved all the other chapters in the book, too, but I’m glad they didn’t try to jam them all into the movie.

I found an anthology of these kinds of forgotten stories called Adaptations: 35 Great Stories That Have Inspired Great Films. Apparently, the films Memento, All About Eve, Rear Window and The Wild One all started out as short stories. One not included is “Home For the Holidays,” which inspired the Holly Hunter movie by the same name, the viewing of which is a Thanksgiving tradition at our house. I can’t say if it’s a faithful adaptation or not, because it’s out of print and difficult to find. Every year, whenever the credits scroll by and I see “based on a story by Chris Adant,” I think to myself, “Man, I’d like to read that.”

The best-known recent example of a short story being adapted into film is Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain.” After the success of the film, a curious little book was published that included the original story, the screenplay, and essays by Proulx and the screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana. They touch on many of the same points I’m discussing here, but I especially like one telling metaphor of Ossana’s – that the story is an “excellent blueprint for a screenplay.”

In other words, short stories, with their economy of language balanced with a depth of emotional complexity, are not thickets that Hollywood has to hack through to salvage a movie from but something that a movie can be built up out of. Rather than existing as machines for churning out saleable product, short stories lend themselves to new creative exploration in film. That probably isn’t sexy enough to get much attention in a blockbuster economy, but once filmmakers give short stories a chance, they get the pleasure of engaging with an intensely felt work.

New Haven resident Robert McGuire is a freelance journalist, copywriter, college writing instructor, frequent traveler, and author of a .