Films can come from anywhere. They can be original ideas or adaptations of stories from other media. When they’re based on literature, they usually have a lot of source material to draw from. But what happens when they’re based on short stories? Then it’s usually up to the filmmakers to fill in the gaps and craft something interesting, using the short story as a springboard for their creativity.
With this in mind, I’d like to share 10 short stories that served as little kernels that germinated into big films. Some films are good, some are bad. But they all show something about how the filmmakers chose to put their distinct mark on the material they were given.
Air Raid – Millennium (1989)
Originally published in 1978, John Varley’s Air Raid tells the story of a woman from a dystopian future who travels back in time to round up a group of passengers on a 707 that is destined to crash land. We briefly learn about her mission and the decrepit state of mankind in the future.
Five years later Varley fleshed out the promising idea of his short story and turned it into the epic novel Millennium. And in 1989 he penned the screenplay for the film adaptation of his novel. However, he took out all of the most interesting parts, such as the time capsules, the robot’s changing face, and the emotional toll that time travel can take on a person. We’re left with an interesting shell of a movie, but one that could have been so much more.
The Fly – The Fly (1986)
George Langelaan’s short story The Fly debuted in 1957 and was quickly scooped up and turned into one of the most memorable horror films of all time the following year. That film sticks to the original story almost beat for beat, except for its ending. It’s a cautionary tale of the dangers of meddling in new realms of science.
In 1986 David Cronenberg took the basic premise of the original story (a matter-transference device) and turned it on its head. The flashback story structure is replaced by a more streamlined narrative approach. It’s every bit as tragic and heartbreaking, but the drama is amped up by the fact that the main character’s love interest is so scared she might be carrying a monster in her womb and she is forced to end her lover’s miserable life at the end.
The Golden Man – Next
The Golden Man is a novella by Philip K. Dick that first appeared in a magazine in 1954. It tells the story of a gold-colored man who is able to predict the future. Despite his precognitive ability, he gets captured, but later escapes from an organization interested in using his abilities for its own purposes. He also has the ability to seduce women, which he uses to his advantage.
A lot of these ideas were used in the 2007 Nicolas Cage film Next, but in very different ways. In the film, Cage plays a regular-colored man who can foresee the future. He’s a hopeless romantic who can see even farther into the future than normal when it concerns the woman he loves. He gets captured by the government and forced to help them stop a terrorist plot. Oh, and there’s a lazy plot twist at the end.
The Lawnmower Man
Stephen King’s The Lawnmower Man made its debut as a short story in 1975. It tells the story of a homeowner who gets more than he bargained for when he accidentally hires some sort of demon in disguise to mow his lawn. When he learns the true nature of the lawnmower devil, he is ritually killed.
The 1992 film The Lawnmower Man has almost nothing in common with the short story it’s supposedly based on. It’s all about a scientist who uses a mentally handicapped lawnmower man in a series of cyberspace experiments that infuse him with psychic powers. The newly intelligent and powerful man then becomes increasingly violent and must be stopped by the scientist. There’s a lawnmower man in both stories, but there’s almost nothing else they share in common.
Memento Mori – Memento
Christopher Nolan’s younger brother Jonathan came up with this nugget of a short story in the form of Memento Mori, which he published in 2001. It’s basically a monologue of a man stuck in a hospital room who has his memory reset every 10 minutes. In the crime thriller Memento, the elder Nolan uses the short story as the monologue his main character gives during the black-and-white interludes between scenes. But then he weaves a brilliant story around it to really make the best use of the concept of a man who’s constantly forgetting what he’s just done.
The Minority Report – Minority Report
Before Minority Report became a Tom Cruise action vehicle, it was another intriguing short story from Philip K. Dick. This one debuted in 1956. The Minority Report tells the story of the leader of Precrime, who one day discovers he’s going to kill a general he’s never met before. He doesn’t understand why until he reads the three possible ways the future could unfold, according to the three precogs (or psychics) who foretell the future. He learns that the best option is for him to kill the general to prevent a lot more death and destruction down the road, even if it means he will be brandished a criminal for doing so.
2002’s Minority Report follows the same trajectory, but it adds a lot more chase scenes and eye-surgery intrigue to the mix. It also provides an unexpectedly happy ending for both Cruise’s character and the three precogs.
The Sentinel – 2001: A Space Odyssey
Arthur C. Clarke’s The Sentinel was first published in 1951, and it famously served as the initial idea for 2001: A Space Odyssey. The Sentinel tells the story of astronauts discovering an object on the moon and wondering if it is meant as a beacon to tell aliens that humans are reaching a new step in their evolution by achieving interplanetary travel. Sound familiar?
Yes, this is just one small piece of the puzzle of 2001, and it only amounts to a single scene in the final film. But it was enough to get Clarke and Stanley Kubrick started on the path to cinematic history.
A Sound of Thunder
A time-traveler goes back to prehistoric times to hunt dinosaurs. But he accidentally steps on a butterfly, irrevocably altering history for the worse. The man responsible for this tragedy is shot by a gun, which produces a sound of thunder, hence the title of Ray Bradbury’s classic 1952 short story.
In 2005 a film adaptation of A Sound of Thunder came out in a few theaters and then quietly disappeared without even coming close to recouping its $80 million budget. The movie is a textbook example of how not to turn a short story into a film. It takes the basic premise and adds all sorts of shenanigans that never add up to a satisfying film. It is a thunderous dud.
Spider-Man No More! – Spider-Man 2
Am I calling a comic book a short story? You bet I am. I could have chosen any number of comic-book adaptations, from virtually any of the X-Men films to Captain America: The Winter Solider and various other Marvel movies. But Spider-Man 2 is one of my favorite films of all time, and it is largely based on a single issue of The Amazing Spider-Man series – No. 50, which came out in July 1967.
The original comic tells the story of Peter Parker giving up his alter ego because of all the trouble it’s causing him. But as soon as he sees a mugging, he springs into action and remembers why he can’t give up his eternal struggle against crime.
Spider-Man 2 takes this simple story to the next level, showing Peter’s constant suffering, tardiness, and inner turmoil. It seems like no matter how hard he tries, he can’t find any balance in his life as long as he’s always on call as a vigilante. But when his angst over losing the love of his life makes him start to lose his superpowers, things really get interesting. Seeing Peter overcome his problems and triumphantly regain his powers is one of the most thrilling moments in a motion picture. This movie earns its happy ending with flying colors.
We Can Remember It for You Wholesale – Total Recall (1990)
If A Sound of Thunder is the wrong way to turn a short story into a film, 1990’s Total Recall is the right way to do it. It takes Philip K. Dick’s short story as its premise and then runs with it into all sorts of outlandish action set pieces, each one crazier than the last.
We Can Remember It for You Wholesale tells the story of Douglas Quail, a seemingly ordinary man who goes to a company called Rekal to implant artificial memories of visiting Mars. However, after the procedure he discovers he was actually a secret agent on Mars and he had his memory wiped by his superiors. They dare not kill him because when he dies an alien race is going to wipe out humanity.
Total Recall uses all of this as its first act, but it makes the wise decision to cast doubt on whether or not anything Douglas Quaid (not Quail anymore) remembers or experiences is real or just in his mind. It fills the rest of the film with exciting chases, gore-filled shootouts, futuristic technology, and a mind-bending ending. I used to dislike this movie, but it’s grown on me over the years.
A Brief Glimpse
This has just been a brief glimpse into this topic. In the future I may write about feature-length films based on short films.
Until then, this is the Deja Reviewer bidding you farewell until we meet again.
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