Real Time Short Stories

Introducing…Reel Time Short Stories

Posted on: July 1, 2011

Gina Rowlands (passenger) and Winona Ryder (driver) in Jim Jarmusch's "Night On Earth" (1991)

I don’t like it when somebody comes up to me the next day and says, “I really dug your message, man; I really dug your play. I cried.” I like it when people come up to me the next day, or a week later and they say, “Hey, man, I saw your play… what happened?”

In Tootsie, Bill Murray, as Jeff Slater, takes it upon himself to speak for playwrights and the relationship they wish to have with their audiences. Short story writers are also addressing “people who are alive on the planet” and we don’t mind the “what happened?” response either. Cinema resides far more squarely within the mass market where an ambiguous resolution can be a kiss of death to a work. Indeed, it’s a medium that seems much happier to have, as a resolution, a kiss. So what happens when the redemptive arcs and neat denouements of cinema collide with the unremarked-upon epiphanies and asymmetrical narrative patterns of short fiction?

Lyle Lovett in Robert Altman's "Short Cuts" (1993). Lovett's character comes from Raymond Carver's "A Small Good Thing"


Of course, this is a false dichotomy. Short stories have always found a role in the development of cinema. When the journey is from page to screen, it’s not difficult to see the value in adapting from a short story: you will generally find a strong story dynamic in the presence of a distinctive central character, relationship or setting; the plot will invariably condense narratives that may be opened up with the virtue of screen time; and the chances are you won’t be dealing with a work fixed in the canon of Great Literature and/or in the wider popular consciousness whereby liberties taken, chunks taken out and necessary compressions are guaranteed to provoke debate.

Short stories are safer ground for adaptation but they’re also instructive to film-makers. When I floated a question about the traffic between short story and film on Facebook this week, the terrific, erudite discussion (thanks to all!) threw up examples spanning the globe and the history of the medium, of films and film-makers drawing from specific short stories. This included films which expanded and substantially re-worked a short fiction original – for example, Hanif Kureishi’s melancholic father-son study, My Son The Fanatic,

Om Puri and Rachel Griffiths in Hanif Kureishi and Udayan Prasad's "My Son The Fanatic" (1997)

which he adapted for the 1997 Udayan Prasad-directed film of the same name but with greater jeopardy and more transgressive romance at the centre of the drama – and films like the Altman/Carver compendium, Short Cuts. A good proportion of the films cited came from longer works – novellas, short novels and frame narratives (by Chaucer and Boccaccio, for example, not to mention the Arabian nights tales) – and some of the stories (Angela Carter the shining example) were themselves adaptations of traditional folk tales.

This isn’t, though, a one-way street. It’s possible to find films which, in varying ways, seek to use cinematic language to compose the equivalent of short stories (if we regard the full-length feature as the equivalent of a novel). The idea is given free air miles by the steadily growing franchise of producer Emmanuel Benbihy‘s so far very patchy “I Love You” films. With Paris Je T’Aime and New York I Love You already completed and Jerusalem and Shanghai versions in production, this is cinema with the short story as the high concept, with several teams of international directors, writers and actors composing moody vignettes relating to love in the city. Comparison may be drawn with the Comma Press Cities in Short Fiction series, with titles such as the one to which I contributed, The Book Of Liverpool (which includes Clive Barker’s short story that provided the basis for the Candyman horror series). Other Comma titles like Re-Berth, Decapolis and Elsewhere, taking stories from towns and cities in different countries, could provide parallels to Night On Earth, the Jim Jarmusch quintet of vignettes taking us on a series of taxi journeys in LA, New York, Paris, Rome and Helsinki. In the cases of these films – as well as the Scorsese/Coppola/Allen triptych New York Stories, Ealing’s 1945 Dead Of Night collection of ghost stories, Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, Abbas Kiorastami’s Ten and Woody Allen’s Radio Days – the device of the shorter narrative is the foundation on which the film is written and directed.

What techniques can we detect in the transition between short story and film adaptation? How does the language of the short story translate into that of the cinema? And to what extent does what is suggested or left to the imagination on the page find exposure on the screen? In the other direction, how successful is cinema when it aspires to the concentration and ambiguity common to short stories? Reel Time Short Stories joins the other occasional series, Cafe Shorts and Real Time Reads, as a platform for discussing the interface between short fiction and cinema, as we look for new ways to understand the mechanisms and mysteries that come with reading and writing short stories. If you have a particular interest in film, keep your eye out for alerts with the Reel Time Short Stories label. Your input is welcome at any time: how successfully do you think these two form interconnect and what are your favourite / least favourite examples of short stories in the cinema?

Harryhausen meets Sheherazade in Nathan Juran's "7th Voyage of Sinbad" (1958)

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7 Responses to "Introducing…Reel Time Short Stories"

We just saw The Fallen Idol…made from a Graham Greene short story…screenplay by GG, directed by Carol Reed. Subtle in many unexpected ways. Surprisingly human. Maybe because it was from a short story they had time to include these little details that made me exclaim out loud, “That’s so human!”

Ah, Steenbeck – you’ve hit upon what I think might be the key dynamic in the relationship between cinema and short fiction. It’s the ability to tell a story not as a convoluted plot but by means of an emotional choreography. The key twists and turns are internal, often unspoken, and the control of imagery and language is part of what distinguishes either form.

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[…] in passing. In this respect, it’s an interesting sidenote to the conversations about short stories and film I hope to have here. Other Liverpool writers have had films made, based on their poetry. They are […]

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[…] are any number of examples, from O Henry to a forthcoming Reel Time Short Stories feature, Woody Allen, of writers with comic timing and turn-of-phrase but with those – and […]

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