‘Adaptations’ a Collection of Short Stories That Became Cult or Classic Films

Adaptations: From Short Story to Big Screen. 35 Great Stories That Have Inspired Great Films. Edited by Stephanie Harrison. New York: Three Rivers Press. 2005. 619 pages including very brief author bios and publishing permission pages. ISBN: 1400053145. Available from Amazon.com for $10.85.

Don’t confuse this book with the similarly titled Adaptations: From Text to Screen, Screen to Text, edited by Deborah Cartmell and Imelda Whelehan, which is a collection of essays dealing with “how popular texts …are transformed into an entirely different medium, including novel and comic book-to-screen and an innovative look at screen-to-novel.”

This Adaptations is an anthology of short stories – the stories that were the basis for 35 movies – some classic, some cult.

Why do filmmakers adapt from literature, anyway? Editor Stephanie Harrison quotes film theorist George Bluestone: “Film feeds off literature like sharks off a marlin.” She continues: “When stories (or authors) have entered into popular mythology, both critics and public alike resist their being tampered with…For this reason…the short story has a distinct advantage over the novel: few short stories are embedded in the public’s consciousness in the way that popular novels often are.”

Harrison groups the stories into eleven sections, from science fiction to westerns to suspense, and for each section writes an essay on the creative process of expanding a short story into a movie. Earnest Hemingway’s short story “The Killers”, for example, takes up about 15 minutes in the film of the same name. The rest of the film is pure invention on the part of the screenwriter, giving the background behind the main character’s final moments (which Hemingway hadn’t explained.)

Many of the movies will be familiar to the average reader, but Harrison has also included some less well known, for a pretty good cross-section of short story styles and genres. I’m not a horror fan, so I skipped “Spurs” – the inspiration for Tod Browning’s Freaks, and “Herbert West – Reanimator: Six Shots by Moonlight” which was the basis for Re-Animator. Since I’m a fan of actor Vincent Price, however, I did read “The Fly,” which was the inspiration for the movie of the same name. I was impressed with the story and with how closely the original film had stuck to its source material.

I also passed on the graphic stories, the inspirations for American Splendor and Ghost World, but the joy of this book is that it has so many stories, of such varying genres, that there’s quite a bit for everyone.

I like my favorite books to be faithfully adapted, which rarely occurs, but as the filmmakers here anticipated, I am not so enamored of faithfulness when it comes to short stories, and it is a hoot to read the originals and use my imagination to think how I would have expanded them had I been in the screenwriter’s chair or the director’s shoes.

Harrison’s essays are insightful as well. She gives a brief background of the topic/genre in which she has divided the relevant stories, and then gives the history for each story and its author and how it was adapted and expanded by the director or screenwriter.

It is Alfred Hitchcock whom she refers to as a ‘thief’ in her first essay – “..a tireless self promoter from the very beginning” who never gave his writers credit for their work. “While Hitchcock’s quest for a suitable replacement for Grace Kelly has become a part of Hollywood lore, it should also be noted that Hitchcock never found another John Michael Haynes. [Screenwriter/adapter for Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, The Trouble With Harry, and The Man Who Knew Too Much.]

“The Western is the Madonna of film genres,” she says in her essay entitled “Tonto is Spanish for Stupid.” “It has – despite myriad naysayers and death-knellers – stuck around by continually reinventing itself….they’ve attempted time and again to come to grips with the role Native Americans have played in the Western myth.” And she explains the stereotypes that Indians have been victimized with – from “Noble Savage” to just plain “Savage.”

Harrison writes well and knows her subject thoroughly, and she allows flashes of humor. I especially liked the title of “The Good, the Bad, and the Unadaptable”. A play on the title of the film The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, it’s got to be admitted that T”he Swimmer” is unadaptable, for all that the 1668 Burt Lancaster film is now being remade by Alec Baldwin! The marlins are getting a bit scarce these days, apparently.

Insightful essays, good stories. Good book.

The Directors: Translators, Magicians, Collaborators and Thieves
1) “Jerry, and Molly and Sam” by Raymond Carver, turned into Short Cuts by director Robert Altman.
2) “Blow-Up” by Julio Cortazar, turned into Blow-Up by Michelangelo Antonioni.
3) “Your Arkansas Traveler” by Budd Schulberg, turned into A Face in the Crowd by Elia Kazan.
4) “It Had To Be Murder” by Cornell Woolrich, turned into Rear Window by Alfred Hitchcock.

Science Fiction: Kubrick and Spielberg, Spielberg and Kubrick
1) “The Sentinel” by Arthur C. Clarke, turned into 2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick
2) “Supertoys Last All Summer Long” by Brian Aldiss, turned into A.I. Artificial Intelligence, directed by Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick
3) “The Minority Report” by Philip K. Dick, turned into Minority Report by Steven Spielberg

Horror: Cue the Gore
1) “Spurs” by Tod Robbins, turned into Freaks by Tod Browning
2) “The Fly” by George Langelaan, turned into The Fly by Kurt Neumann in 1958, and David Cronenberg in 1986
3) “Herbert West – Reanimator: Six Shots By Moonlight”, turned into Re-Animator by Stuart Gordon

Westerns: “Tonto” Means “Fool” in Spanish
1) “Stage to Lordsburg” by Ernest Haycox, turned into Stagecoach by John Ford, starring John Wayne
2) “A Man Called Horse” by Dorothy M. Johnson, turned into A Man Called Horse by Elliot Silverstein, starring Richard Harris
3) “This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” by Sherman Alexie, turned into Smoke Signals by Chris Eyre

Graphic Stories: Flying Under the Radar
1) “The Harvey Pekar Name Story” by Harvey Pekar, turned into American Splendor by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini
2) Ghost World – Chapter 5: “Hubba Hubba” by Daniel Clawes, turned into Ghost World by Terry Zwigoff

Five All-But-Lost Stories
1) “The Wisdom of Eve” by Mary Orr, turned into All About Eve by Joseph Mankiewicz, starring Bette Davis
2) “A Reputation” by Richard Edward Connell, turned into Meet John Doe by Frank Capra, starring Gary Cooper
3) “Mr. Blandings Builds His Castle” by Eric Hodgins, turned into Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, by H. C. Potter, starring Cary Grant
4) “Cyclist’s Raid” by Frank Rooney, turned into The Wild One, by Laslo Benedek, starring Marlon Brando
5) “Tomorrow” by William Faulkner, turned into Tomorrow by Joseph Anthony

The Good, the Bad, the Unadaptable
1) “Bringing Up Baby” by Hagar Wilde, turned into Bringing Up Baby by Howard Hawks (and starring Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn)
2) “Babylon Revisited” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, turned into The Last Time I Saw Paris by Richard Brooks
3) “The Swimmer” by John Cheever, turned into The Swimmer by Frank Perry

Suspense = Style
1) “The Killers” by Ernest Hemingway, turned into The Killers by Robert Siodmak, starring Burt Lancaster
2) “The Basement Room” by Graham Greene, turned into The Fallen Idol by Carol Reed, and starring Ralph Richardson
3) “Memento Mori” by Jonathan Nolan, turned into Memento by Christopher Nolan

Family Film: Nostalgia For An Unlived Past
1) “Red Ryder Nails the Hammond Kid” by Jean Shepard, turned into A Christmas Story by Bob Clark
2) “My Friend Flicka” by Mary O’Hara, turned into My Friend Flicka by Harold D. Schuster
3) “Shoeless Joe Jackson Comes to Iowa” by W. P. Kinsella, turned into Field of Dreams by Phil Alden Robinson and starring Kevin Costner

World Films: Now You See Them, Now You Don’t
1) “In A Grove” by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, turned into Rashomon by Akira Kurosawa and starring Toshiro Mifune
2) “The Lady With the Pet Dog” by Anton Chekhov, turned into The Lady With The Dog by Josef Heifitz, and Dark Eyes by Nikita Mikhalkov

The Independents: Money Changes Everything
1) “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” by Joyce Carol Oates, turned into Smooth Talk by Joyce Chopra
2) “Auggie Wren’s Christmas Story” by Paul Auster, turned into Smoke by Wayne Wang
3) “Emergency” by Denis Johnson, turned into Jesus’ Son by Alison Maclean
4) “Killings” by Andre Dubus, turned into In the Bedroom by Todd Field

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