10 must-watch short story-to-film adaptations
We here at Daily Star Books enjoy nothing more than a good short story. Composed to be read in one or two sittings, the short story form lends much to the imagination of its makers, whose creativities, according to many a writer, are only emboldened by the strict word limits intrinsic to the form. The world of film, too, shares in this admiring, as can be seen in over a century's worth of adaptations—some faithful, some not; some insipid, some inspired—that all have been fuelled by the few thousand words set first to page. In this list is a collection of 10 unmissable adaptations.
10. 45 Years (2015); adapted from "In Another Country" by David Constantine
45 Years is among the barest, most harrowing films any pair of lovers can see. Kicking off the events of the film is the 45th anniversary of married couple Kate and Geoff Mercer, and what occurs on the eve of that celebration. Geoff, played by Tom Courtenay in his career-best, is shocked by an unsettling news—the body of Katya, an ex-lover, has been discovered in a melted glacier in the Swiss Alps, where she had fallen in over five decades ago when on a trip with the young Mercer. Playing his wife, Kate, is cinema-great Charlotte Rampling, who firms the film in her hands. Constantine's original 2001 short story, inspired by true and personal events, first appeared in the British magazine, The Reader.
"What worried Mrs Mercer suddenly took shape. Into the little room came a rush of ghosts. She sat down opposite him and both felt cold."
9. Rashomon (1950); adapted from "In A Grove" by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa
Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon is the stuff of legend. Much has been written and spoken of the innovative film, from casual cinemagoers to obsessive scholars. The central hook of Rashomon is this: a terrible crime has occurred in the forest of 8th century-Kyoto. The four witnesses are: the perpetrator himself; one of the two victims; a passing woodcutter; and the ghost of the slain victim, as told through a spiritual medium. What we get are the four very-detailed, very-contradicting accounts of these four characters, with the concept of objective truth itself coming into question.
The film is adapted mostly from "In A Grove" (the title and a few elements are taken from "Rashomon" by the same author) by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, "the father of the Japanese short story". The early modernist story only complicates matters for those looking for straight answers and an analysis that sticks. (Although several critics hold the theory that Rashomon is a post-war allegory of WWII-ravaged Japan, Akutagawa's two stories, which the film largely follows, were published in 1915 and 1922).
8. The Fall of the House of Usher (1928); adapted from the story by Edgar Allan Poe
This haunting silent film is the Poe adaptation par excellence. Belonging to the pioneering French Impressionist Cinema (or First Avant-garde) movement, The Fall of the House of Usher (La chute de la maison Usher) packs unbearable horror in the long shadows of its 65 minutes. Director Jean Epstein partnered with apprentice and fellow surrealist Luis Buñuel (who, with Salvador Dalí, shot the infamous Un Chien Andalou that same year), and the experimental, jump cut-y, ethereal nature of the gothic film is as much personal quirk as it is feature length production. Epstein's German- and Soviet-inspired House of Usher manages the almost impossible feat of the perfect Edgar Allan Poe adaption, and it does so with translating purely into sight (the first sound film wouldn't grace French theatres until at least a full year later) where once was wordy prose.
"During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher," reads only the first line of the master of horror's 1839 tale.
7. Don't Look Now (1973); adapted from the story by Daphne du Maurier
Taking cues more so from Hitchcock, Proust, Nietzsche, and Italian giallo (crime novel) films, Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now arrived in theatres two quick and excruciating years after Daphne du Maurier's eponymous short story hit bookshelves in 1971's Not After Midnight and Other Stories (soon to be retitled Don't Look Now and Other Stories). The story concerns a grief-stricken couple holidaying in Venice sometime after the death of their young daughter. The film follows the short story faithfully enough; the filming, on the other hand, was a matter in itself—involving near-deaths, arguments, fluctuations in weather, improvisations, last minute changes, and seances. What resulted out of this is one of the absolute finest horror, thriller, independent films ever produced.
Don't Look Now is an unforgettable piece of cinema, with its opening, ending, and so much of its middle lingering and festering in its audience's minds for years. Among its admirers and influencees are Steven Spielberg (his Schindler's List's most striking scene owes a large debt to Roeg's film), Danny Boyle, David Cronenberg, Christopher Nolan, and Steven Soderbergh.
6. Broken Blossoms (1919); adapted from "The Chink and the Child" by Thomas Burke
D W Griffith holds a precarious position in film history. Credited for pioneering narrative films (that is, films that tell a story), Griffith's importance cannot be underplayed nor overstated. There is, however, a considerable stain in his legacy in the form of 1915's The Birth of a Nation—a film that while immeasurably innovative on a technical level ("His cinematic techniques [have] influenced the visual strategies of virtually every film made since; they have become so familiar we are not even aware of them", wrote Roger Ebert), when viewed today, can only be seen as terribly and terrifyingly racist. The Birth of a Nation, to say the least of it, glorified and brought about a revival of the Ku Klux Klan. The film broke box office records for decades to come, making an astounding-for-the-time USD 100 million gross. Griffith, though, maintained over the years his innocence in the face of racism accusations, while simultaneously defending his right to have made such a film. His 1919 effort, Broken Blossoms, however, shows the director's more compassionate side. In every way The Birth of a Nation was terribly racist (it was 1915 America, after all), Broken Blossoms was decidedly anti-racist. Showing a simple and hearty story of a young girl and a Chinese man, the film balances several different themes of abuse and neglect, both parental and societal.
Undoubtably the director's best work, the film was adapted from the unfortunately titled short story "The Chink and the Child", which Griffith bought for unprecedented 1,000 UK pounds (equivalent to about 58,000 pounds today). Changing much of the negative caricature of the Chinese man, turning him rather into a three-dimensional failed Buddhist missionary, Griffith presented a film at the height of the infamous Yellow Terror period, that pleaded the case for East Asian's equal treatment in the Western world.
5. Grave of the Fireflies (1988); adapted from the story by Akiyuki Nosaka
Studio Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata has left behind a filmography that rivals the greats'. From Only Yesterday (1991) to The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013) to Heidi, the director has covered a whole host of stories, rich equally in delight and melancholy. The latter, of course, is what you'll get in the heart-wrenching classic Grave of the Fireflies (Hotaru no Haka). There is both much and little to say about the film. It is simply an experience—a trip through the lonely boroughs of humanity that the world collectively looked, and still looks, away from. War-torn siblings Seita and Setsuko wander through 1945 Japan, and from the very first scene we are intimated that this is going to end horribly for the two innocent characters.
Nosaka's 1967 short story is painfully autobiographical in part. The author, as a result of the 1945 bombing in Kobe, lost his adoptive father and two sisters—and the youngest, Keiko, to malnutrition. Nosaka penned the story as an apology to Keiko, and for two decades refused film and television adaptations for the work. "Honestly speaking, there was also relief that she died and my burden was gone", the writer once said. "I'm very sorry to say this about my sister, but I did have those feelings too. That's why I haven't gone back to my [story] to re-read, since I hate that. It's so hypocritical."
4. A Touch of Zen (1971); adapted from "Xianü" by Pu Songling
1971's A Touch of Zen (Xia Nu) is a breath-taking, breathless display of Chinese wuxia (martial hero) cinema. At over three hours, the feministic action-adventure film follows fugitive Yang Hui-zhen, as she makes her way through Ming dynasty China. A Touch of Zen is the best entry to the wuxia genre, which, though it gets its name from 20th century coinage, dates back in tradition, through literature and theatre, for at least 2,000 years. Influencing future classics like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and House of Flying Daggers (2004), there is perhaps no greater film as influential and as underappreciated.
The tale mixes spirits with gore, tradition with modernism, the martial arts film with the western—evolving perfectly from the "Xianü" (literally, "chivalrous woman") short, from the revered Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio (1740) collection, which birthed several other adaptations, like the fast-moving and era-defining A Chinese Ghost Story (1987).
3. Jalsaghar (1958); adapted from the story by Tarasankar Bandyopadhyay
Satyajit Ray's Jalsaghar (The Music Room), telling the tale of a zamindar in decay, is the Bangla language-Citizen Kane (1941). The 1958 film marked the first true collaboration between cinema icons Chhabi Biswas and Satyajit Ray, and the fourth ever film Ray had directed (this was the second film the director released in 1958, squeezed in between 1956's Aparajito and 1959's Apur Sansar). Following the box office failure of Aparajito (the second, and arguably most guttural, of his stunning Apu Trilogy), Ray was in dire need of commercial success. For nearly the entirety of the Godfather of Indian Cinema's career, he had received no financial backing from state-sponsored institutions, and the box office performance of his films hence played a pivotal part in securing private backers. Aparajito, while internationally acclaimed, felt a more lukewarm reception domestically. There were some bureaucrats within India who wished for Ray to not broadcast internationally the "unvarnished portrayal of Indian poverty", and among the Indian audience there was a shared sense of disapproval for the irreverent portrayal of family life.
Ray had identified music and comedy as two areas worth venturing in rectifying his current domestic standing. Parash Pathar, the other 1958 release, was the fun, magic-realist feature that embodied the latter, while Jalsaghar, scored by maestro Vilayat Khan, had Hindustani classical music front and centre in its palette. Ray also sought to adapt a popular story, which was decided to be Tarasankar Bandyopadhyay's 1938 short story of the same name. The film ranks high up in the auteur's many-jewelled filmography, and nothing in its 95 minutes suggests a quickly-shot, commercial "cash grab". Instead, Jalsaghar is a pensive, slow-building tragedy, that soon amassed a reputation as one of the greatest films ever made, on this side of the world or that.
2. Sansho the Bailiff (1954); adapted from the story by Mori Ōgai
Kenji Mizoguchi is quite possibly the greatest filmmaker of all time. Hyperboles like this will read more like casual fact for any viewer of his works—which features classics from the 1930s right up to 1956, the year of his final film. While it may be hard to rank the many opuses, there is no denying the beguiling quality of one in particular, 1954's Sansho the Bailiff (Sanshō Dayū). Set in 11th century Japan, the film tells of a family torn-apart; the husband exiled, the wife forced into prostitution, and the two children sold into slavery to the sadistic titular bailiff, the clearest villain of the narrative. Scenes of the film are "one scene, one shot", a trademark technique of the director, which wrings every ounce of emotion to be felt right from out of every frame.
The deeply moving film faithfully adapts and further fleshes out the 1915 short story "Sanshō Dayū" by Mori Ōgai, which puts the leading Meiji-era writer's own spin on a piece of oral lore dating as far back as the 15th century. The original short story is notable on its own, with direct, economic prose; most chilling is the description of a character's suicide by drowning—told to us strictly through the quick description of a pair of straw sandals left behind at the edge of a swamp. The short, and the film, is ghostly and unshakable, with one of the two featuring a happy ending.
1. The Fly (1986); adapted from the story by George Langelaan
There is "The Fly", penned by French-British writer George Langelaan (and its fairly direct 1958 adaptation), and then there is David Cronenberg's The Fly. The former is a perfectly pulp read, with second person narration. "This is not a confession because, although I killed my husband, I am not a murderess", reads a letter its narrator uncovers. Cronenberg's Fly, on the other end, is a grotesque crossing of sexuality, body horror, themes of aging, hubris, and the frequencies of love in long-lasting relationships. "Every love story must end tragically", the director wrote, tellingly, in his Cronenberg on Cronenberg (Faber, 1992).
All versions of "The Fly" centre around, of course, one famous hook: there are two pods; there is a scientist; he makes a discovery; the pods can instantaneously disintegrate and subsequently reintegrate any matter from one pod to the other; the twist in the tale, the fly in the ointment, however, is that as the scientist enters the pod, a housefly, undiscovered, is there with him; the reintegration that then occurs amalgamates the two into one sickening sight.
In Cronenberg's limning, the story is repurposed to scientist Seth Brundle, now made protagonist, and girlfriend, journalist Ronnie Quiaffe, the awestruck audience surrogate. Here, the process of transformation is stretched out over the length of the film; Brundle slowly morphs more and more into a human-fly, or "Brundlefly", creature, with each stage uniquely fantastic. This script, in addition, lays claim to the much-remembered, oft-repeated quote, "Be afraid. Be very afraid."
While the short story is a smooth read, though missing the mark on clear influence The Metamorphosis (1915), Cronenberg's rewriting and reworking exhibits how greater a short story can evolve, and very much become its own detached, barely recognisable thing. Interestingly, Cronenberg was far from the biggest fan of his source material—feeling the prose unengaging—but it was the lingering questions that the story imposed that "in the middle of the night, [buzzed] around [his] ears, [refusing] to be swatted".
Mehrul Bari S Chowdhury is a writer, poet, and artist. His work has appeared in Blood Orange Review, Kitaab, and Sortes Magazine, among others. He is currently the intern at Daily Star Books.