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 .