Short Story to Big Screen

by E.J. Hagadorn 9 months ago in list

The Short Stories Behind Some of Our Favorite Films

Short Story to Big Screen

It's remarkable that a few words on the printed page, no longer than your average term paper, can be the cornerstone of a blockbuster film. Sometimes we find the movie before the story, sometimes the story before the movie, and sometimes we don't even know about the story at all. Here are a few memorable films that started out as short stories. Some you may already know, but others may surprise you.

'The Day the Earth Stood Still'

This 1951 sci-fi film stands above others as a milestone in cinematic history and pop culture, but the plot deviates in several ways from the short story that is its source, Farewell to the Master by Harry Bates. Published in Astounding Science Fiction in 1940, it tells of a pair of extraterrestrial beings, one humanoid, one giant, that land on the National Mall, and are met with an unsavory welcome. A picture reporter studies the pair, and makes a crucial discovery about them. The 2008 remake told a slightly different story, and did not fare as well as the original.


This 1968 film was adapted from Flowers for Algernon, an award-winning short story by Daniel Keyes written in 1958 and published in 59. Later expanded into a novel, it is the diary of a mentally disabled man named Charlie, who takes care of a lab mouse named Algernon. After Algernon undergoes surgery to become smarter, the same operation is successfully performed on Charlie. As his intelligence grows, his diary becomes more and more elaborate and profound, raising many ethical questions about his treatment, until he realizes that his newfound intelligence is only temporary.


Hellraiser stands out in the minds of horror buffs as a landmark film of gore and special effects. The film is a very close adaptation of a novella called The Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker. Just like the film, it tells of a hedonist named Frank who, in pursuit of sensual experience, opens a puzzle box and releases a horde of sadomasochistic creatures that wreak havoc upon him and his family. The film led to the creation of an entire franchise, with sequel films and comic books.

'Rear Window'

It Had to be Murder was written in 1942 by Cornell Woolrich, one of the founders of the noir genre of literature. Just like the film, it tells of a home-bound man who has nothing better to do with his time than watch the "rear-window dwellers around him." Through this somewhat perverse hobby, he notices something wrong with one of the neighbors, and stumbles upon a murder. In the hands of master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock, it became one of the most-watched films ever made.

'The Birds'

The horror story of the same name by Daphne du Maurier was first published in her short story collection The Apple Tree in 1952. It tells of a farmhand in Cornwall, who, after a sudden change in the weather, notices gulls and birds behaving very strangely. This behavior escalates into a full-on aerial assault from birds of all kinds. Locked within his house, and with only a failing radio connecting him to the outside world, the man listens as the disaster quickly overruns the British Isles. Horrific on all levels, Alfred Hitchcock moved the story to the coast of California in his 1963 film.


All You Zombies was written in 1958 by Robert A. Heinlein, no stranger to science fiction, and published in Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine in 1959. Time travel is always a headache in fiction, what with all the paradoxes like stopping your parents from meeting or becoming your own grandfather. This story takes the concept of the paradox to its utmost, telling of a character who is their own mother, father, abductor and recruiter. Predestination, the 2014 Australian adaptation by Michael and Peter Spierig, actually takes it a step further, making the time traveling protagonist responsible for their own birth and death.

'Lady and the Tramp'

Though the Disney film had been in the works for years before the short story Happy Dan, the Cynical Dog was published in 1945, Walt decided to buy the film rights from author Ward Greene, and incorporated it into the germinating narrative of his 1955 film. The story is that of a dog who marvels at his own ability to manipulate humans into giving him free meals. Disney later called on Greene to write a novelization of the film.

'Mr. Deeds'

Clarence Buddington Kelland wrote and serialized his short story Opera Hat in The American Magazine. It tells the story of a simple and contented poet living in suburban New Hampshire, who out of the blue inherits a massive fortune from a distant relative. Hilarity ensues. The story was adapted into a 1936 Frank Capra film, which was later remade into Adam Sandler'sMr. Deeds in 2002.

'The Blob'

Slime by Joseph Payne Brennan was the cover story for Weird Tales in March 1953. It tells of a protoplasmic entity, born in the darkness of the deepest ocean, that is thrown to the surface by a volcanic explosion. This eternally hungry monster is now set loose upon 1950's America, free to kill and eat at will. When The Blob, starring Steve McQueen, was released in 1958, Brennan sued Paramount for copyright infringement. Though not officially recognized by the court as the source of the story, he received a small settlement.

'Conan the Barbarian'

Conan the Barbarian is one of Robert E. Howard's most iconic characters, created during the golden age of the pulp magazines. His tales of Cimmeria have been adapted into films, books, comics, and D&D games. The 1982 film starring Arnold Schwarzeneggar is less a direct adaptation of a single story and more an amalgamation of the Conan canon. Though the screenplay is original, it derives several key elements from such stories as Rogues in the House, Black Colossus, A Witch Shall Be Born, and The Tower of the Elephant.

'The Curious Case of Benjamin Button'

The 1922 short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald is similar to several other books in terms of plot. It describes a boy who is born at the hospital, but instead of a baby, he is a 70-something year old man with a fully developed vocabulary. We walk with him as he lives life in reverse, and grows younger as the years pass. The milestones of life, such as college, marriage, war and business, are lived in reverse-chronological order. The 2008 film starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett focuses more on the human side of his life, and how his condition affects his relationships with his parents, wife, and children.

'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty'

The short story by humorist James Thurber was published in The New Yorker in 1939. Like many of Thurber's stories, it features an unassuming, ordinary man who lives inside his own imagination. Walter Mitty drives his wife into town, imagining himself a pilot, a surgeon, and numerous other things, while his wife goes shopping. Both adaptations, first the film in 1947, and the more widely known 2013 remake, tell vastly different stories.

'Eyes Wide Shut'

This atmospheric and suspenseful film was based on the German novella Traumnovelle, or Rhapsody: A Dream Novel, by Arthur Schnitzler. Written in 1926, it tells of a doctor who has a falling out with his wife. Frustrated, he faces several sexual temptations before infiltrating a high-society sex orgy. When discovered he is thrown out, but the secretive group holds a grudge, and seems to dog his every step. The 1999 Stanley Kubrick film Eyes Wide Shut was meticulously made to follow the plot, with lots of symbolism lurking in the background.

'Brokeback Mountain'

Annie Proulx's short story was published in The New Yorker in 1997 and went on to win several awards. Two ranch hands, Jack and Ennis, spend a summer together in the wilds of a Wyoming mountain, and develop a strong emotional and sexual connection. Their time together ends, but their connection does not. It was made into a movie in 2005, which became a commercial and critical success, and went on to receive numerous Academy Awards.

'2001: A Space Odyssey'

The Sentinel by Arthur C. Clarke was published in 10 Story Fantasy in 1951, and was initially a commercial failure. It tells of a man who discovers an artifact on the surface of the moon. Seeing its strange properties, this man ponders what purpose the artifact serves, and who or what left it behind. In 1968 Stanley Kubrick and Clarke collaborated to create the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, creating an entirely different story.


Paycheck by Philip K. Dick was published in 1953 in Imagination. The story is that of an engineer who, having forfeited a large paycheck, and wiped his memory, must use a collection of seemingly worthless items to escape capture from a dangerous government. It ponders questions of identity between present self and past self, and the differences between them. The 2003 film starring Ben Affleck follows the same basic plot, but with more chase scenes and shootouts, much to the disappointment of critics.


The Golden Man is Philip K. Dick's 1954 novella, published in If magazine. In a post-apocalyptic world, mutated humans are seen as a growing threat, and are systematically hunted by the government. Two agents track down and capture a feral golden-skinned man and attempt to study him, but his ability to see the future, and his ability to seduce one of the agents, enable him to escape. The 2007 film waters the story down to that of a clairvoyant Vegas magician played by Nicholas Cage, who is "requested" to help the government prevent a nuclear explosion.

'Minority Report'

The Minority Report, yet another story by Philip K. Dick, was published 1956 in Fantastic Universe. Raising questions of free will and reflecting the author's cold war anxieties, it tells of a future in which three mutant humans called "Precogs" predict crimes before they occur. It is predicted that the head of the Precrime Division will soon murder a complete stranger, thus sending him on the run from his own people. His only hope to exonerate himself is to prove the prediction is wrong, but is it? The 2002 adaptation, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Cruise, deviates from the story in minor and major ways.

'Total Recall'

We Can Remember It for You Wholesale by the ever-adaptable Philip K. Dick was published in 1966 in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Douglas Quail is an ordinary man who dreams of going to Mars. He decides to purchase some false memories of Mars, only to discover that the life he currently remembers is false. Balancing real memories with fake ones, and trying to discover reality between the two, Quail finds himself going head-to-head with some very powerful and dangerous enemies. The 1990 film starring Arnold Schwartzeneggar was a box office hit, and inspired a sequel and many book and comic adaptations. The 2012 remake adheres more closely to the source material.

'House of Wax'

The Wax Works is a short story by Charles Spencer Belden that was never published, though he did produce a play titled The Wax Museum in 1932. Quickly optioned for a film in 1933, it became Mystery at the Wax Museum. 20 years later it was made into the famous Vincent Price film. Though the 1953 picture is itself a remake, as the first ever color 3D film, it is considered a landmark in cinematic history. It was again remade in 2005.

'Secret Window'

Published in the Stephen King anthology Four Past Midnight, Secret Window, Secret Garden is the story of Mort Rainey, a successful author in Maine, who confronts a man accusing him of plagiarism. As the man proves to be more and more violent, while Rainey realizes there's more to him than mere anger. The 2007 adaptation starring Johnny Depp deviates only slightly from the original, and received mixed reviews.

'Children of the Corn'

Written for the 1977 issue of Penthouse magazine, Children of the Corn takes us into the deep corn miles of Nebraska. Burt and Vickey, while on a trip to try and save their failing marriage, come across a corpse in the middle of the road. They follow the road to the town of Gatlin, and there discover a gruesome cult of children controlled by a creature called "He Who Walks Behind The Rows." The 1984 film, which has an altered ending, received average reviews at best. Still, it has spawned eight sequels and maintains a strong cult following. The 2009 TV remake follows the story more closely.


Memento is a collaborative project between director Christopher Noan and his brother Jonathan who wrote it as a short story titled Memento Mori. The short story tells of a man named Earl with anterograde amnesia, who keeps track of information with pictures, notes and tattoos. Confined to a mental institution, he must overcome his lack of memories in order to escape and avenge his wife's murder. The story is told through two separate timelines, one where Earl reads his notes in the institution, and the other describing his movements after he escapes. The film is told in very much the same format, though with a different story. By simultaneously telling linear and non-linear narratives that met at the end, Memento gained a quick reputation as a pioneer in film aesthetic and storytelling.


Few people know that the most iconic superhero in history began as a villain. In 1932, Jerry Siegel wrote a short story titled The Reign of the Superman, which was illustrated by Joe Shuster. Hoping to escape the poverty of the Great Depression, they published the story in their self-produced fanzine called Science Fiction: The Advance Guard of Future Civilization. It tells of a mad scientist who pulls a random man out of a bread line and offers him food in exchange for help with an experiment. The man takes the experimental potion and develops telekinetic powers. Drunk on his newfound power, he sets out to conquer the world. In 1933, the teenage duo revised the character to be a hero and drew up a comic story, which they published in Action Comics #1. Their creation was eventually made into the iconic film Superman.

E.J. Hagadorn
E.J. Hagadorn
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E.J. Hagadorn

Author, traveler, and artist, I like to visit the places people write about, and write about the places I visit.

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