Short Fiction on Film

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The short story seems to lend itself extremely well to movie adaptations. But why?

Short stories often make great film adaptations. Many critically acclaimed films are based off of short stories, from Daphne Du Maurier’s 'The Birds', which became an Alfred Hitchcock film of the same name, to 'Story of Your Life' by Ted Chiang, which was adapted into the Academy Award winning film Arrival.

 Arrival (2016), adapted from Ted Chiang's 'Story of Your Life' (1998)

Arrival (2016), adapted from Ted Chiang's 'Story of Your Life' (1998)

Certain films surpass the original text in terms of popularity, such as the ground-breaking Stanley Kubrick film 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was based on the Arthur C. Clarke film The Sentinel.

But why does the short story in particular tend to work so well as a film?

One of the restrictions filmmakers often face when adapting novels is satisfying the original book readers while knowing that they can never fit in all of the details into the film. The storylines often have to be condensed to accommodate for a film’s run time, as well as things such as special effects budgets.

Short stories, on the other hand, by necessity of their form, are often plot-focused and have less expansive, complicated world-building. This makes it much easier for filmmakers to adapt these stories and stay faithful to them in a way that isn’t possible with longer, more complex novels.

In the same way, short stories also leave more room for expansion and creativity on the part of the filmmakers. With a focus often primarily on the plot and a key theme, it’s much easier for filmmakers to expand and adapt short stories to fit into their filming style, as well as adjust it to what they think will best appeal to the audience in a way that it still feels familiar.  

 The  Sherlock  series, adapted from the famous novels by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Sherlock series, adapted from the famous novels by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

This ability for expansion means that short stories make for great adaptations, and work well in different interpretations by filmmakers. This is exemplified by Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. Sherlock Holmes is one of the most adapted literary characters on screen, and many of the stories on which they are based were originally short stories, such as A Scandal in Bohemia and The Final Problem. The works have enough of a basic plot to work around, but they also leave room for potential expansion and adaptation. 

Of course, among authors most famous for their short stories being turned into films, Philip K. Dick and Stephen King come out on top. Both were and are very prolific authors, and as such have had many of their short stories adapted onto film, with stories like Dick’s We Can Remember it for you Wholesale becoming Total Recall, and King’s The Body into Stand By Me. Both men have produced hundreds of short stories in their lives, mostly for magazines, and this high-volume output could also account for their frequent adaptation, simply because there are so many of them to choose from.

King is an especially relevant example on this subject because of his Dollar Babies. These are short stories that he lets students and amateur filmmakers access for a dollar, as long as they are never commercially distributed. Frank Darabont, the director of The Shawshank Redemption, another Stephen King short story, was one of the first to make use of the dollar deal. He adapted King’s story The Woman in the Room in 1983, and King liked it enough that he let Darabont commercially distribute it. Darabont has since gone on to adapt a number of King’s stories; as well as Shawshank, he’s also adapted The Green Mile and The Mist.

Short stories play a key role in the filmmaking world. If you're a fiction writer thinking about branching out, you might consider adapting on of your favourite short pieces into a screenplay!


by Seren Livie