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Short Stories and Short Films

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright March 2013


This is about two topics: The first is adapting short stories into films, including feature length films. The second is about making short films. These topics are related but not the same.

When people think of screen adaptations, adapting novels is what first comes to mind. But in truth, it is a much easier undertaking to adapt short stories. It turns out that short stories and movies approach story telling in more compatible ways than movies and novels. Novels, especially big, thick, modern ones, are way too long and too convoluted for easy script adapting. With a novel you always have to do a lot of hacking away to get it to fit into movie format.

So if you can, start your adapting adventures with short stories.

And by the way, these short story adaptations can be quite successful. Philip K. Dick has had eight short stories (and four novels) adapted into successful movies: Total Recall, Screamers, Minority Report, Impostor, Paycheck, Next, and The Adjustment Bureau. Admittedly, he is king of this heap in SF, but it shows that short stories can be fertile ground for feature length movies.

Beginning, middle, end

A movie and a short story have a beginning, middle and end, and not much else in between. The plot twists and characters developed are sparse. This is why the adaptation is straightforward. Novels, on the other hand, can bring in a lot more characters and develop a lot more back story for all of them. There is too much to pack into 90 or 120 minutes of visual story telling. So adapting novels to movies is an advanced art.

A contemporary example of a novel getting adapted well is Peter Jackson's adaptation of the first Lord of the Rings (LOTR) novel: Fellowship of the Ring. I saw that and was happily impressed with how well he had kept the nature of the story in tact. Ah... but the course of true adaptation is rarely a smooth one. Jackson's treatment of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a fine example of doing lots of twisting -- he's using the name but making wholesale changes to the story. Example: The Hobbit novel was not a prequel to LOTR, it stood on its own with a much simpler story being told. Jackson's efforts to turn it into a a LOTR prequel have changed the story from a charming fish-out-of-water story about a resourceful hobbit into an epic story of dwarf revenge and strategic confrontation between Sauron and the White Council.

This kind of dramatic change during novel adaptation is common and the source of the chronic complaint "The movie isn't the same, and the book is better." This complaint is less virulent when adapting short stories.

Concept instead of character

One thing that can make short stories different from novels is the treatment of a concept. A new and interesting concept does not take as long to present as an ensemble of interesting characters does. This is particularly true in science fiction. The concept behind the short story Who Goes There? (inspiration for The Thing, in its three movie incarnations) is that a shape-shifting alien landed on Antarctica and was frozen. An isolated team of Antarctic explorers inadvertently revives this alien and it starts gobbling up the humans. Who will survive? It turns out this is enough material to make an interesting feature-length movie.

Short films

The purpose of a short film is to show one thing: a concept, a neat idea, a song, a twist... but just one. This is why there's such a gulf between short films and feature films. So as you're assembling a short film, keep in mind that you should be concentrating on one concept. Here are a couple of short films I think have done this well. The first is showing off some fun masks and special effects as a back drop for a song: Lip Dub Pop Muzik. The second is showing off stop-motion's potential in a wonderful way by telling a classic tale of love and betrayal: Ten Thousand Pictures of You. And here is my personal contribution: SLCC Mystery Science Theater which employs some innovative special effects to portray the familiar format of late-night TV movie host.

Note that in all these cases there is a lot familiar going on -- in the first a familiar song, in the second a familiar story, in the third familiar banter -- and on top of that familiar base a lot of innovation being applied to show off the familiar in an interesting way. Short films are one of the best ways of unleashing innovation. If you've got a neat new idea of how to portray something, or how to tell a story, start by meshing it with something familiar in the short film format.


Short stories and short films are both a rich treasure trove for movie making. Short stories can be made into short or feature-length movies. Short movies are a great way to show off innovative ideas and techniques.

Working with both will enrich your movie making experience.

Update: Here are some student-recommended short films. I found them all interesting and memorable, and a nice mix of familiar and innovative.
True Skin
Familiar: Bangkok urban scenes, story of secret agents chasing protagonist
Innovative: Tron/Bladrunner-like displays of virtual reality coming soon to our future
The Apocalypse
Familiar: Household setting with conventional college-age people
Innovative: story of people's heads exploding when they get a new idea
Batman Meets the Riddler (from Front Page Films)
‬Familiar: Batman rescuing a damsel in distress from The Riddler
Innovative: Comedy as he can't solve the riddle

The Joker Blogs - Therapy Begins
Familiar: The Joker character, psychiatric session setting
Innovative: the conversation

David Tennant - Traffic Warden‬
Familar: the urban setting, the people, the romance story
Innovative: The romance key (goldfish), the fun use of signage


--The End--

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