Short Stories: Do They Make the Best Movies?

I have a confession to make: until this past weekend, I had never seen Total Recall.  I know, I know, practically everyone has seen this movie, I must be living under a rock, etc. I have no excuses; it was simply one of those things that slipped by.


Aside from the ubiquitous Ahnold one-liners that make me groan, I really liked the film.  And it got me thinking: in many respects, short stories often make better fodder for films than do novels, especially in the realm of sf.

One of the main problems in developing a sf novel for film has to do with world-building.  A sf or fantasy novel often deals in totally foreign environments that are very specific.   The author spends a certain amount of effort creating a setting; the idea is to envelop the reader in this new world. If the author and the reader don’t share exactly the same vision, that’s okay; no one will ever know. in a short story, words are more often reserved for advancing the plot.

When a filmmaker attempts to create an alien world, they’re often asking for trouble – whether it’s because of the limitations of the technology or budget, or because their vision clashes with longtime readers.  Those who have been convincingly enveloped in their own vision are often jarred when a movie isn’t how they always envisioned it.

Similarly, the pacing of a novel – especially an epic tale of 200,000 words or more – doesn’t always lend itself to the pacing of a good movie, and tough decisions must be made in the adaptation.   Inevitably, someone’s “favorite part” gets left out (Tom Bombadil, anyone?).

When it comes to movies, a short story is more like the broad strokes of a painting, ready to be filled in. That’s not to say that short stories can’t be memorable or evocative, but there’s often less details to quibble about. Whereas a movie might have to condense a few extraneous characters into one or cut a subplot altogether from a novel, there’s usually no such problems with a short story.  A few words of description can become something much more – it might not match with the reader’s vision, but they’re typically less invested in a short story.

In essence, with a short story a movie can typically add, whereas in a novel someone is often forced to subtract.  There are exceptions to everything, of course, as well as the occasional movie that is actually better than the source material altogether (I prefer the movie version of Jurassic Park, though I wish they had left in the bit about the triceratops and gizzard stones) .

I do think it’s strange that short stories are becoming less popular at the same time as Hollywood seems to be needing more and more original inspiration.  Next time I complain about yet another sequel or remake (I hear they’re remaking Footloose), perhaps I should pick up an anthology or a magazine subscription!

Do you have any favorite short stories that you’d like to see in movie form (mine is “The Veldt”)?  Any adaptations, of novel or short story, that strike you as particularly wonderful or terrible?

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