From Short Stories to Films

By Jake Gloth

There is nothing quite like a short story. Their brevity allows for a digestible tale that teaches and entertains the reader in just a few minutes. Some of these concise narratives tell stories so compelling that filmmakers have stretched and morphed them into 90-minute feature films. In fact, there are hundreds of movie adaptations that take classic tales like Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol and turn them into fantastic films. While it isn’t crystal clear which are the best, here are some of the glittering gems amongst the short stories that became films. 

Since it’s the Christmas season, you may have watched It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) to get into the spirit, but did you know that this lovely film actually comes from a short story by American author Philip Van Doren Stern called “The Greatest Gift” (1943). Stern’s story follows a man named George Pratt who is contemplating suicide on New Year’s Eve. Pratt like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life is shown what his town would be like if he had never existed. With a new lease on life, Pratt rushes home to be with his family.

While Stern’s story was nailed the first time around, some short stories have several film adaptations that try to capture the wonder of the original story. Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game” (1924) has led to the creation of over 20 films. Not all of them follow Connell’s story strictly, but they do focus on his central idea: humans hunting humans for sport. One film that did adhere to the original story was The Most Dangerous Game (1932), which follows Bob Rainsford as he tries to survive on an isolated island while being hunted by the deranged Russian Count Zaroff. 

Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game” has had a profound impact on story-telling, but he faces tough competition when compared to a little story by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster called “The Reign of the Superman” (1933). This tale is about a poor man named Bill Dunn who is given telepathic powers by an evil scientist named Professor Ernest Smalley. Dunn uses his powers for evil and kills Smalley, but he finds out the potion was temporary and is left powerless with no way to recreate the serum. While this story may not seem all that familiar, Siegler and Shuster used it as a base for their new hero Superman. This extremely famous hero has gone on to be the face of numerous films, but his most recent solo appearance on the silver screen comes from Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel (2013) in which British actor Henry Cavil donned the red cape. 

If superheroes aren’t your thing, you may be more fond of a story by Annie Proulx called “Brokeback Mountain” (1999). This short story is about two cowboys named Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist who develop a relationship that they are unable to fully commit due to societal and family pressures. The story was reproduced on the big screen by Brokeback Mountain (2005), which followed the original tale very closely with Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal as del Mar and Twist respectively.  

You’ve likely heard of Brokeback Mountain, but have you seen Scandal Street (1938)? This film tells the story of a librarian who is scandalized in a small town for retaining a friendship with a married man. This twisted tale combines the treachery of small-town gossip with trumped-up murder charges to create a truly dramatic viewing experience. This intriguing film comes from a short story by Vera Caspary called “Suburbs” (1930).

If you want something a bit more mysterious, “Don’t Look Now” (1971) by English author Daphne du Maurier is certainly a mystical and winding tale. This short story, about a couple visiting Venice after the death of their daughter, takes a turn for the strange. The couple runs into two psychics who warn the father about his approaching death. This harrowing narrative is reproduced in the film Don’t Look Now (1973), which religiously follows the storyline of Daphne du Maurier’s story.  

In the 1940s, legendary storyteller and entrepreneur Walt Disney read a tale by Ward Green in the magazine Cosmopolitan called “Happy Dan, the Whistling Dog” (also referred to as “Happy Dan, the Cynical Dog”). Disney hired Green to turn the story into a film, which resulted in the 1955 animated musical romance Lady and the Tramp. This wonderful tale tells the love story of a lonely stray mutt and a beloved pet cocker spaniel. A live-action remake of the film was released in 2019, but based on the reviews, audiences seem to prefer the animated original. 

Is Lady and the Tramp too childish or happy for you? Well, “Barn Burning” by Japanese writer Haruki Murakami may be a strange and nightmarish tale for you. Murakami’s story revolves around a married man in his 30s who has dinner with his former lover and her new boyfriend. The boyfriend reveals to the man that he burns barns once every two months for moral reasons. As you can probably guess, things only become stranger: the man’s former lover suddenly disappears without a trace. A recent film adaptation in South Korea called Burning (2018) kept some of the main pieces of the short story while turning it into a mystery thriller. 

If you liked that, you may enjoy another thrilling story called “Memento Mori” by Jonathan Nolan. This short story is about a man with a strange new form of amnesia trying to find his wife’s killer. Jonathan Nolan came up with the idea while on a cross country road trip in 1996 with his brother (a name you might already know) Christopher Nolan. His brother liked the story so much that the pair began writing a screenplay which eventually evolved into Memento (2000). The film was nominated for two Academy Awards and propelled Christopher Nolan into a stellar directorial career. 

If thrillers aren’t your style, you may enjoy a short drama called “The Wisdom of Eve” (1946) by Mary Orr. This story follows a young actress and an ageing starlet on Broadway as they compete for the limelight. In 1950, Hollywood legend Joseph L. Mankiewicz directed All About Eve which brought Mary Orr’s story to the big screen (though she was not given credit for it at the time). 

Though not every short story has graced the silver screen, film adaptations have allowed these narratives to thrive and reach new audiences. They have helped uncover these hidden gems.

If you enjoyed this list of short stories that became films, you may also like “An Alternative Christmas“.