The best stories that have been adapted again and again… and again

Stephanie Harrison Author Of Adaptations: From Short Story to Big Screen: 35 Great Stories That Have Inspired Great Films
By Stephanie Harrison

Who am I?

When I was a kid, I looked forward to Fridays. Not just because it was the end of a school week, but because that’s when the TV Guide arrived with the morning newspaper. While I ate my cereal, I’d circle the movies I wanted to watch the following week. If they were late-late movies, I’d set my alarm and get up and watch them alone in the living room (with the sound turned way down). I was also an avid reader, and it wasn’t long before I started pairing my reading and my viewing. I still do that, with a special interest in short stories and their film adaptations. 

I wrote...

Adaptations: From Short Story to Big Screen: 35 Great Stories That Have Inspired Great Films

By Stephanie Harrison,

Book cover of Adaptations: From Short Story to Big Screen: 35 Great Stories That Have Inspired Great Films

What is my book about?

Memento, All About Eve, Rear Window, Rashomon, and 2001: A Space Odyssey are all well-known and much-loved movies, but what is perhaps a lesser-known fact is that all of them began their lives as short stories. Adaptations gathers together 35 pieces that have been the basis for films, many from giants of American literature (Hemingway, Fitzgerald) and many that have not been in print for decades (the stories that inspired Meet John Doe and Bringing Up Baby).

Categorized by genre, and featuring movies by master directors as well as relative newcomers, Adaptations offers insight into the process of turning a short story into a screenplay, one that, when successful, doesn’t take drastic liberties with the text upon which it is based, but doesn’t mirror its source material too closely either. 

The books I picked & why

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Barn Burning

By William Faulkner,

Book cover of Barn Burning

Why this book?

What I find striking about this story is that Faulkner’s depiction of Abner Snopes—the barn burner—is so uncompromising. He’s an angry, disaffected man who, when he can’t find his footing in society, reacts with violence. The reader is given no reason to sympathize with him, just asked to understand that he has a code: Integrity through vengeance. If that’s hard to understand—(it is for me)—that is, I think, the point. For a story published in 1939 about Mississippi in the late 1800s, it feels dishearteningly relevant. 

The 1958 film adaptation, The Long, Hot Summer, chops this story up and tosses it in with a few other Faulkner works. It’s far less edgy, but it stars Paul Newman.

The Elephant Vanishes: Stories

By Haruki Murakami,

Book cover of The Elephant Vanishes: Stories

Why this book?

Take Faulkner’s story, but move the action from post-Civil War Mississippi to modern-day Japan. Replace all the characters but a sociopathic barn burner. Add a mime. Roughly speaking, that’s the recipe for Murakami’s beautiful, baffling and disturbing meditation on the nature of evil. Each time I read it, I feel the metaphysical mystery is just beyond my ken—but I still love everything about it. 

Burning, the 2018 film adaptation directed by Lee Chang-dong, is just as good. It takes Murakami’s story, transports the action to South Korea, sprinkles in a couple of Faulkner references, adds a nod to Schrödinger’s cat, and changes the ending. You needn’t have read the stories to enjoy it, but it adds to the pleasure.

Forty Stories

By Anton Chekhov, Robert Payne (translator),

Book cover of Forty Stories

Why this book?

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about this story. It’s set in Yalta, a resort town located on the Crimean Peninsula—territory that has been caught up in the Russian/Ukrainian war. Chekhov, who suffered from tuberculosis, had a home there, where he wrote much of his last and best work, including this—his most famous—story. It’s a simple tale about normal people—lovers who are married to others—and thus bucked the Russian trend of big societal themes. Chekhov’s political leanings changed so often, he said, that the “absence of lengthy verbiage of a political-social-economic nature” became the first of his six principles for a good story. (The others: objectivity, truthfulness, brevity, originality, and compassion.) Still, lately I’ve been wondering what this story would be like if Chekhov were writing it today.

A New and Glorious Life

By Michelle Herman,

Book cover of A New and Glorious Life

Why this book?

Part of the allure of Chekhov’s story is the unanswered question, Will they, or won’t they? The answer, I think, may depend on where you are in your own life when you read it. Michelle Herman’s novella, “A New and Glorious Life,” reworks and expands the story, letting you linger a while longer with the lovers before they part. I think this gives them a better chance, but who knows? Joyce Carol Oates also reimagined this story in her collection Marriages and Infidelities. Vintage Oates, it reads like a fever dream.

The first film adaptation, The Lady with the Dog, made under the Soviet censor’s watchful eye, is an almost literal translation of the story. Dark Eyes, a later Soviet-Italian coproduction, stars Italian actor Marcello Mastroianni and strays pretty far from the source.

The Dead

By James Joyce,

Book cover of The Dead

Why this book?

The story is a classic, of course, but what I find poignant is that famed director John Huston, adventurer and rabblerouser, chose this quiet story to adapt as his final film (The Dead), and did so, while dying, with the help of his son (screenplay) and daughter (leading role). It’s an extraordinarily faithful adaptation, even, and especially, in its slowness. (Each time I read the story, I wonder—even though I know the answer—Where is this going?

Joyce Carol Oates, less faithfully, reimagined the story in Marriages and Infidelities, keeping the title, but replacing Irish melancholy with American anxiety, while hewing—with Easter eggs along the way for careful readers—to its theme of intimacy and its limitations. All three versions are exquisitely sad and beautiful. 

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