April 2007

Liz Miller

hollywood madam

The Short Story Writ Big Screen: Stephanie Harrison's Adaptations Collection

What length material makes for the best sort of adaptation source? This question comes up all the time (at least in my line of work). After all, while the novel is a common source for film adaptations, it's hard to condense most novels without losing whatever unique element gives them their spark. Novellas have potential in terms of length -- but who the hell reads novellas? (That is, aside from my distinguished colleague.) I don't mean to slander the format, but it is an awkward length, and not a terribly popular one.

Most of the great adaptations have found their success in adding to the material, as opposed to subtracting. Fiction, after all, is at its best when it is at its least-diminished. So it's little surprise that any number of movies began life as a short story. Short stories are easy to read, and communicate their concepts quickly. It's a format that is nothing but potential and promise, jewels of ideas coming together with sharp efficiency.

I spend a lot of time in search of source material for these columns, but there's one collection that makes my job supremely easy. The best compliation of great short stories in their pre-adapted state, is Adaptations: From Short Story to Big Screen, edited by Stephanie Harrison. Bringing together thirty-five stories from a wide variety of genres and time periods, it's a fantastic survey not only of the possibilities short stories offer, but the breadth of American film inspired by them.

I use the word inspired because that's just what the majority of these stories are -- inspiration. In reading through these stories, it's fun to not only see the differences between text and film, but see where the text is only a small portion of the actual film. For example, the story "Shoeless Joe Jackson Comes To Iowa" only encompasses a small fraction of the actual plot of Field of Dreams: quite literally all that happens is Shoeless Joe's ghostly arrival on the cornfield ballpark. However, the story also contains the film's most famous lines: "If you build it, he will come" and "Is this Heaven?" "No, it's Iowa." Not quite the tearjerker you'd expect from the source of Phil Alden Robinson's feature adaptation, but Robinson has two hours of your time on his side.

Adaptations is organized by genre, and Harrison prefaces each section with an interesting, if slightly overwritten, essay containing context and backstory. Her analysis of the interactions between Stanley Kubrick, Steven Spielberg, Brian Aldiss (writer of "Supertoys Last All Summer Long," basis for the film A.I.), Arthur C. Clark (writer of "The Sentinal," which began the endless conversations with Kubrich which lead to 2001: A Space Odyssey) does a great job of establishing the collaboration involved in translating a story from page to screen -- something absolutely key to the adaptation process.

By far the greatest pleasure offered by the book is the impossible-to-find origin of the film All About Eve, a dry little story by Mary Orr entitled "The Wisdom of Eve." It's fascinating to see how much Joseph L. Mankiewicz's script borrowed from Orr's original text, in terms of both character and tone. With the exception of some slight name changes, each beat of the drama (older actress threatened by a younger and more sinister model) is found within. Adaptations could literally fuel a year's worth of my columns, but instead I invite you to go pick up a copy and start forming your own opinions. See how inspiration strikes filmmakers, how the smallest piece of prose can prove to be the seed of something larger and greater. Go and see. And enjoy some damn fine yarns, while you're at it. A good story is a good story, after all. No matter the length.