14 Great Movies Based on Short Stories

Precog Samantha Morton

It is well known that novels provide a wealth of literary fodder for filmmakers. Or as film theorist George Bluestone put it: “Film feeds off literature like sharks off a marlin.” 🙂 I think of it more as a transformative act, taking a written work and turning it into another art form — another form of storytelling — creating something entirely new. These adaptations sometimes open opportunities for authors–such as when Gillian Flynn wrote the screenplay for Gone Girl–and boost sales. However, when the inspiration for a movie is a short story, the author of the original work is likely to go unnoticed.

Adapting a screenplay from a short story must be a challenge. A shorter work has less room for explicit plot and character development, leaving a lot to be inferred and read between the lines. The writer of the screenplay often must expand the story, while keeping the original spirit of its source of inspiration.

Many well-known films, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Fly, Million Dollar Baby, and Octopussy are derived from short stories.

Here are 14 favorites, along with some behind-the-scenes tidbits. 😉

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14. Secretary (Steven Shainberg, 2002) based on the short story “Secretary” by Mary Gaitskill

A timid and troubled young woman (Maggie Gyllenhaal), taking her first tentative steps toward independence after hospitalization, accepts a job as a secretary. She is able to come into her own and break her self-mutilation habit only after slipping into a kinky affair with her dominating boss (James Spader).

The recipe for a healthy relationship? It sure doesn’t sound like it. But can this work for two people? Can they find happiness this way? Does anyone have a right to judge? This film doesn’t answer these questions, but it definitely invites you to consider them with an open mind. I ended up liking this movie a lot more than I’d expected. This was largely because of the strong performances by the two leads and the intriguing chemistry between them.

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13. Duel (Steven Spielberg, 1971) based on the short story “Duel” by Richard Matheson

In this film by then-little-known Steven Spielberg, a commuter is pursued and terrorized by the driver of a massive tractor-trailer. Being a fan of character-driven films rich in dialogue, I didn’t expect to like this movie as much as I did. It is very spare — we know little about the characters and few words are spoken. We don’t understand the villain’s motives. What we do see is a brilliantly crafted, suspenseful film, focused on a battle for survival. I guarantee you won’t be able to look away.

By the way, Richard Matheson, who penned the short story, has written various novels that were adapted into movies, including What Dreams May Come, Somewhere in Time, I Am Legend, and A Stir of Echoes.

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12. Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954) based on the short story “It Had to Be Murder” by Cornell Woolrich

Photojournalist L.B. Jeffries (Cary Grant) is homebound with a broken leg, trapped in his tiny, stifling courtyard apartment. From the beginning, there is something mesmerizing about this movie, which is one of my favorite Hitchcock films. I could feel the sweltering heat, the claustrophobic sense of confinement, and the oppressive boredom. Armed with a pair of binoculars, Jeffries spends his time spying on the neighbors. When he becomes convinced he’s witnessed a crime, we see the tightening vise of doubt and heightening suspense at which Hitchcock is so masterful.

In the mid-1940s, Cornell Woolrich was one of the most successful suspense writers in the US. However, his life was eerily reminiscent of one of Hitchcock’s most famous characters — Woolrich lived with this mother in a hotel, for 25 years, until his mother died. According to Francis Nevins, who wrote Woolrich’s biography, they were “trapped in a love-hate relationship which dominated his external world.” Yup. I kid you not. Thank God he didn’t keep her corpse in a fruit cellar, at least as far as I know.

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11. I, Robot (Alex Proyas, 2004) inspired by the short story “I, Robot” by Isaac Asimov

In a futuristic world, anthropomorphic robots are widely used as servants. For reasons that are eventually revealed, Chicago detective Del Spooner (Will Smith) deeply distrusts them. When Dr. Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell), the co-founder of U. S. Robotics (USR) and its main roboticist, dies after falling out his office window, his death is presumed to be a suicide. However Spooner, who knew Lanning, believes otherwise, and he looks closely at the robots who are thought to be incapable of harming humans. This is a solidly entertaining film that poses interesting questions about what makes us human.

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10. Minority Report (Steven Spielberg, 2002) based on the short story “The Minority Report” by Philip K. Dick

In this noirish futuristic fantasy, a criminal can be identified and apprehended before the crime is committed. This is accomplished through exploiting vulnerable individuals with precognitive abilities: the “PreCogs.” Precrime Captain John Anderton (Tom Cruise) finds his career disrupted when he is wanted for a crime he is allegedly about to commit. Hoisted on his own petard.

I am not particularly a fan of Tom Cruise. His only performances I’ve really liked were in Rain Man, Eyes Wide Shut, and Magnolia. However, I was drawn into this film’s unique premise and suspenseful storytelling. Most of all, I was hooked by the wealth of intriguing themes here. In addition to exploring alternate realities, it delves into myriad questions of ethics, the rights of the individual vs. the needs of society, and the nature of free will.

This movie is loosely based on a story by Philip K. Dick, who is perhaps best known for the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, which was adapted into the film Blade Runner. Widely regarded as one of our most brilliant science fiction writers, Dick had a difficult life. He was paranoid, agoraphobic, and possibly schizophrenic, and he is believed to have had a drug problem. Perhaps that’s why, in addition to alternate realities and multiple time paths, his themes include the special sensitivity of people who are considered “abnormal.”

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9. The Shawshank Redemption (Frank Darabont, 1994) based on the novella “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” by Stephen King

Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) is falsely convicted of murdering his wife and her lover and sentenced to life in Shawshank State Prison. He befriends a fellow inmate, “Red” (Morgan Freeman), receives protection from guards for using his skills as a banker to help them with a scheme, and plans his escape. This well-loved prison drama is sometimes grim but unapologetically hopeful.

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8. Stand by Me (Rob Reiner, 1984) based on the novella “The Body” by Stephen King

This coming-of-age drama is both funny and sad. Twelve-year-old Gordie (Wil Wheaton) hangs out with three friends: Chris Chambers (River Phoenix), who carries the albatross of being from a family of criminals and alcoholics, Teddy Duchamp (Corey Feldman), who is eccentric and physically scarred by his mentally unstable father, and Vern Tessio (Jerry O’Connell) who is overweight, timid, and often picked on. Vern overhears his older brother talking about finding the body of Ray Brower while dumping a stolen car, and the boys embark upon a journey to see if they can find Ray’s body and become local heroes.

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7. It’s a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1939) based on the short story “The Greatest Gift”by Philip Van Doren Stern

Like most people, I have a soft spot for this film. I love the storytelling and its unapologetic, sappy sentimentality. I especially love the simple but powerful notion that the little things we do, as we go about our quotidian lives, can have far reaching effects — I find it inspiring.

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6. A Christmas Story (Bob Clark, 1983) based on “Red Ryder Nails the Hammond Kid” and other short stories in In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash by Jean Shepherd

Watching this classic is an annual Christmas tradition in this house, even though we can pretty much quote the script verbatim by now. “You’ll shoot your eye out!”

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5. High Noon (Fred Zinnemann, 1952) based on the short story “The Tin Star” by John W. Cunningham

Newlywed Will Kane (Gary Cooper), the longtime marshal of Hadleyville, New Mexico Territory, has chosen to turn in his badge and leave his hard life behind. However the return of Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald) — a criminal he brought to justice — pulls him back and tests the loyalty of his pacifist Quaker bride (Grace Kelly). The situation becomes more dire as Kane scrambles to find someone in town with the courage to stand beside him in his hour of need. This classic film combines suspense with themes of love, loyalty, and courage.

Some people in Hollywood, including conservative actor John Wayne, felt this movie, with its story about being forced to stand alone in the face of an unjust attack, was an allegory for blacklisting during the McCarthy era. For this reason Wayne, who actively supported blacklisting, called High Noon “the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life.” He also said he’d never never regret having helped blacklist liberal screenwriter Carl Foreman from Hollywood. I always knew there was something I didn’t like about “The Duke.” 😉

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4. Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick, 1999) based on the novella “Dream Story” by Arthur Schnitzler

Bill (Tom Cruise), a compassionate New York City physician, and Alice (Nicole Kidman), an art curator, are a successful couple with a beautiful seven-year-old daughter. As the film opens, they’re attending a lavish party, and each of them enjoys a relatively harmless extramarital flirtation.

Afterwards they get stoned and laugh about their antics at the party. Bill piques Alice’s ire with his one-dimensional perspective on men, women, and sex. You know the tired old cliche as well as I do. Women make love because we want love and security. Guys just like to Do It … as often as possible … preferably with lots of women. Because … you know … dudes are like that. (*Snort*) Alice decides to school her husband on a more nuanced view of gender and sexuality. Good for her! But alas, she goes too far.

Later, Bill wanders through the city and roams the streets of The Village. Let’s face it, in that venue you could just stand on any street corner with a movie camera and produce enough material for a surreal movie, right? But I digress. Pretty soon Bill finds himself tumbling down a proverbial rabbit hole, and the movie gets seriously WTF-wacky.

What I found brilliant about this film was the many levels on which it played with the ways reality is filtered through our own perceptions. It starts on a relatively simple level. Bill’s perception of his wife, himself, and everything about sexuality are shifted by Alice’s confession regarding a naval officer. Suddenly the world we see — through his eyes — looks different. Everywhere he looks, on the street, people make out in dark corners, guys talk about lap dances, and intermingled sex and danger abounds. As his perception of reality becomes increasingly skewed, we see the world, through his eyes, as increasingly frightening, surreal, and depraved.

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3. Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2003) based on the short story “Brokeback Mountain” by Annie Proulx

Two young men, a ranch hand and a rodeo cowboy, meet in the summer of 1963. Jack (Jake Gyllenaal) and Ennis (Heath Ledger) connect in a way that reveals parts of themselves they aren’t prepared to face. Their relationship and their fear of the consequences of The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name have complicated, painful repercussions that span a lifetime.

This is a brilliant movie, but I will never watch it a second time. It is just too raw and painful for me. However their tortured relationship, with occasional moments of tenderness and joy, and the agonizing metamorphosis of Ennis’ character will stick with me forever.

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2. In the Bedroom (Todd Field, 2001) based on the short story “Killings” by Andre Dubus

A couple’s college-aged son dates an older woman with two small children and a volatile ex-husband, a situation that’s virtually guaranteed not to end well. I loved this film, especially Tom Wilkinson’s unforgettable performance as Matt Fowler, but this is another movie I won’t watch a second time. Its themes — grief, regret, rage, the consequences of revenge, and lingering parental guilt — are too raw and brutal and too close to my heart.

After seeing this movie, I read the collection of short stories after which the film was named. The short story that inspired the movie, “The Killings,” is very different from the film. It is limited to Matt Fowler’s point of view and is very spare. The screenwriter expanded the story but stayed wedded to Dubus’s central themes, particularly his concern with violence. The movie also reflects the story’s raw, visceral, painful quality.

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1. Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000) based on the short story “Memento Mori” by Jonathan Nolan

Suffering from anterograde amnesia, which renders him unable to form new memories, Leonard Shelby seeks his wife’s rapist and killer.

I have a deep and abiding love for this film.  The brilliant film-making, outstanding performances, and unusual style of storytelling were enough to make me fall in love with this movie. The clincher is that the theme of memory, and the ways it guides or deceives us, has always been infinitely fascinating to me.

This is one of those movies that doesn’t follow a conventional timeline — a concept that has fascinated me ever since I first saw Pulp Fiction. Director Christopher Nolan, who adapted this film from his brother’s short story, has a degree in literature. He has said his love of literature influenced his desire to experiment with chronology. “I started thinking about the narrative freedoms that authors had enjoyed for centuries and it seemed to me that filmmakers should enjoy those freedoms as well.” He also said that, with Memento, he wanted to “create an experience that doesn’t feed into your head, that bleeds around the edges.” I’d say he succeeded. 🙂

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4 thoughts on “14 Great Movies Based on Short Stories

  1. There are some great movies in this list. I feel like I need to watch Eyes Wide Shut again though. I definitely was not impressed with it the first time around, but I highly doubt my college-aged self was aware enough to be able to appreciate it. Mostly, I just remember most of the WTF-ery and nothing good.

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