Adapting a screenplay from a short story must be a challenge. A shorter work has less room for explicit plot and character development, leaving a lot to be inferred and read between the lines. The writer of the screenplay often must expand the story, while keeping the original spirit of its source of inspiration.
Many well-known films, including Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, David Cronenberg's The Fly, Field of Dreams, the classic All About Eve, Ghost World, and Octopussy are derived from short stories.
Here are my 10 favorites, among the films I've actually seen, along with some interesting behind-the-scenes tidbits. ;-)
10. Secretary (Steven Shainberg, 2002) based on "Secretary" by Mary Gaitskill
This bizarre BDSM romance was recommended to me by my friend Paige and by Trisha at Eclectic Eccentric. A timid and troubled young woman (Maggie Gyllenhaal), taking her first tentative steps toward independence after hospitalization, accepts a job as a secretary. She is able to come into her own, and break her self-mutilation habit, only after slipping into a kinky affair with her dominating boss (James Spader).
The recipe for a healthy relationship? It sure doesn't sound like it. But can this work for two people? Can they find happiness this way? Does anyone have a right to judge? This film doesn't answer these questions, but it definitely invites you to consider them with an open mind. I ended up liking this movie a lot more than I'd expected. This was largely because of the strong performances by the two leads and the intriguing chemistry between them.
9. Minority Report (Steven Spielberg, 2002) based on "The Minority Report" by Philip K. Dick
In this noirish futuristic fantasy, a criminal can be identified and apprehended before the crime is committed. This is accomplished through exploiting vulnerable individuals with precognitive abilities: the "PreCogs."
Precrime Captain John Anderton (Tom Cruise) finds his career disrupted when he is wanted for a crime he is allegedly about to commit. Hoisted on his own petard.
I am not a fan of Tom Cruise. His only performances I've really liked were in Rain Man and Magnolia. However, while it's been a long time since I've seen this movie, I remember being drawn into its unique premise and suspenseful storytelling. Most of all, I was hooked by the wealth of intriguing themes here. In addition to exploring alternate realities, it delves into myriad questions of ethics, the rights of the individual vs. the needs of society, and the nature of free will.
This movie is loosely based on a story by Philip K. Dick, who is perhaps best known for the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, strongly recommended to me by Chris, which was adapted into the film Blade Runner. Widely regarded as one of our most brilliant science fiction writers, Dick had a difficult life. He was paranoid, agoraphobic, and possibly schizophrenic, and he is believed to have had a drug problem. Perhaps that's why, in addition to alternate realities and multiple time paths, his themes include the special sensitivity of people who are considered "abnormal."
8. It's a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1939) based on "The Greatest Gift", written by Philip Van Doren Stern
Like most Americans, I have a soft spot for this film. I like the strong storytelling; I even like its unapologetic, sappy sentimentality. And I love the simple notion that the simple things we do, as we go about our quotidian lives, can have far reaching effects -- I find it inspiring.
7. A Christmas Story (Bob Clark, 1983) based on "Red Ryder Nails the Hammond Kid" by Jean Shepherd
Watching this classic is an annual Christmas tradition in this house, even though we can pretty much quote the script verbatim by now. "You'll shoot your eye out!"
6. High Noon (Fred Zinnemann, 1952) based on "The Tin Star" by John W. Cunningham
Newlywed Will Kane (Gary Cooper), the longtime marshal of Hadleyville, New Mexico Territory has chosen to turn in his badge and leave his hard life behind. However the return of Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald)—a criminal he'd brought to justice—pulls him back and tests the loyalty of his pacifist Quaker bride (Grace Kelly). The situation becomes more dire as Kane scrambles to find someone in town with the courage to stand beside him in his hour of need. This classic film combines suspense with themes of love, loyalty, and courage.
Some people in Hollywood, including conservative actor John Wayne, felt this movie, with its story of being forced to stand alone in the face of an unjust attack, was an allegory for blacklisting during the McCarthy era. For this reason Wayne, who actively supported blacklisting, called High Noon "the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life." He also said he'd never never regret having helped blacklist liberal screenwriter Carl Foreman from Hollywood.
I always knew there was something I didn't like about "The Duke." ;-)
5. Duel (Steven Spielberg, 1971) based on "Duel" by Richard Matheson
In this film by a director who was little known at the time -- Steven Spielberg -- a commuter is pursued and terrorized by the driver of a massive tractor-trailer.
Being a fan of character driven films, rich in dialogue, I didn't expect to like this movie as much as I did. It is very spare -- we know little about the characters and few words are spoken. We don't understand the villain's motives. What we do see is a brilliantly crafted, suspenseful film, focused on the battle and on survival. I guarantee you won't be able to look away.
By the way, Richard Matheson, who penned the short story, has written various novels that were adapted into movies, including What Dreams May Come, Somewhere in Time, I Am Legend, A Stir of Echoes.
4. Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954) based on "It Had to Be Murder" by Cornell Woolrich
Photojournalist L.B. Jeffries (Cary Grant) is homebound with a broken leg, trapped in his tiny, stifling courtyard apartment. From the beginning, there is something mesmerizing about this movie, which is one of my favorite Hitchcock films. I could feel the sweltering heat, the claustrophobic sense of confinement, and the oppressive boredom. Armed with a pair of binoculars, Jeffries spends his time spying on the neighbors. When he becomes convinced he's witnessed a crime, we see the tightening vise of doubt and heightening suspense at which Hitchcock is so masterful.
In the mid-1940s, Cornell Woolrich was one of the most successful suspense writers in the U.S. However, his life was eerily reminiscent of one of Hitchcock's most famous characters -- Woolrich lived with this mother in a hotel, for 25 years, until his mother died. According to Francis Nevins, who wrote Woolrich's biography, they were "trapped in a love-hate relationship which dominated his external world." Yup. I kid you not. Thank God he didn't keep her corpse in a fruit cellar, at least as far as I know.
3. Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2003) based on "Brokeback Mountain" by Annie Proulx
Two young men, a ranch hand and a rodeo cowboy, meet in the summer of 1963. Jack (Jake Gyllenaal) and Ennis (Heath Ledger) connect in a way that reveals parts of themselves they aren't prepared to face. Their relationship -- and their fear of the consequences of "the love that dare not speak its name" -- has complicated, painful repercussions that span a lifetime.
This is a brilliant movie, but I will never watch it a second time. It is just too raw and painful for me. However their tortured relationship, with occasional moments of tenderness and joy, and the agonizing metamorphosis of Ennis's character will stick with me forever.
2. In the Bedroom (Todd Field, 2001) based on "Killings" by Andre Dubus
A couple's college-aged son dates an older woman with two small children and a volatile ex-husband. I loved this film, especially Tom Wilkinson's unforgettable performance as Matt Fowler, but this is another movie I won't watch a second time. Its themes -- grief, regret, rage, the consequences of revenge, and lingering parental guilt -- are too raw and brutal and too close to my heart.
After seeing this movie, I read the collection of short stories after which the film was named -- I discussed it here (warning: my review contains spoilers for the movie). The short story that inspired the movie, "The Killings," is very different from the film. It is limited to Matt Fowler's point of view and is very spare. The screenwriter expanded the story but stayed wedded to Dubus's central themes, particularly his concern with violence. The movie also reflects the story's raw, visceral, painful quality.
1. Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000) based on "Memento Mori" by Jonathan Nolan
I have a deep and abiding love for this film, reviewed here, in which a man with anterograde amnesia, which renders him unable to form new memories, seeks his wife's rapist and killer. The brilliant film-making, outstanding performances, and unusual style of storytelling were enough to make me fall in love with this movie. The clincher is that the theme of memory, and the ways it guides or deceives us, has always been infinitely fascinating to me.
This is one of those movies that doesn't follow a conventional timeline -- a concept that has fascinated me ever since I saw Pulp Fiction. Director Christopher Nolan, who adapted this film from his brother's short story, has a degree in literature. He has said his love of literature influenced his desire to experiment with chronology. "I started thinking about the narrative freedoms that authors had enjoyed for centuries and it seemed to be that film makers should enjoy those freedoms as well." He also said that with Memento he wanted to "create an experience that doesn't feed into your head, that bleeds around the edges." I'd say he succeeded. :-)
Honorable Mentions: A.I. Artificial Intelligence (Stephen Spielberg, & Stanley Kubrick, 2001) based on "Supertoys Last All Summer Long" by Brian Aldiss and The Absent Minded Professor (Disney, 1961) based on "A Situation of Gravity" by Samuel W. Taylor
Sources: Adaptations: From Short Story to Big Screen by Stephanie Harrison; Wikipedia; IMDB