I recently read a selection of Daphne Du Maurier short stories including Don’t Look Now, which later became a classic horror film. I had never read the Du Maurier original so was pleased to find it was – along with the other stories in the Don’t Look Now volume – utterly brilliant. There are some differences compared with the film, but for the most part the essentials are the same.
This got me thinking about other classic films based on short stories – everything from 2001: A Space Odyssey to The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Stanley Kubrick once remarked that short stories were better to adapt into films than novels, because novels generally contained too much material to do the story justice. Short stories, by contrast, he felt were a skeleton on which he could add cinematic flesh.
That was certainly true of the afore-mentioned Kubrick classic, which followed the plot of Arthur C Clarke’s short story The Sentinel and expanded it into a cinematic landmark. By contrast, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (both the 1947 original and the recent remake) took only the basic premise of James Thurber’s original and expanded into something else entirely. On the page, Thurber’s daydreaming protagonist ultimately fantasises about his own death by firing squad – a much darker conclusion than that of either film version. But the central idea could be developed in any number of different ways, as both films prove.
Blade Runner (based on Phillip K Dick’s Do androids dream of electric sheep?) is another good example that springs to mind. Ridley Scott merely uses the basic story as a hook on which to hang his extraordinarily influential view of the future – one that greatly expands on the original in ways that have been debated ever since. Had Blade Runner been based on a more densely plotted source, the story would almost certainly have collapsed under the sheer weight of Scott’s cinematic vision.
Of course there are many great films based on great novels, so I don’t think Kubrick was right necessarily. In any event, he seemed reluctant to heed his own advice on a number of occasions (his 1975 adaptation of Thackery’s The Luck of Barry Lyndon, for instance). But I do think there is some truth to the notion that it is easier to expand on a good short story idea in a film rather than attempt to convey a much larger narrative.