1The ‘special relationship’ between cinema and the short story is one that has not gone overlooked. Fans of the two media have often commented on the disproportionate number of feature-length films that confess to being ‘based on a short story’, considering the far greater success and availability of the full-length novel in the literary world. Indeed many writers who are far better known in print as novelists, still fare better on celluloid as short story writers (Stephen King, Daphne du Maurier, Clive Barker, etc.).
2Much anecdotal evidence has been amassed to demonstrate, or even explain, this affinity between the two forms. Before moving on to a more structural approach to the relationship, it is worth noting some of these observations. Certain staples of modern cinema and television can clearly be traced back to nineteenth-century short-story writing. Whole cinematic genres can be traced back, in fact: detective and science fiction either first appeared in the short form, or found their audience through it. But very specific story elements can also be tracked back to individual stories, sequences of ‘short story DNA’, if you like, that have wormed their way into cinema and television, as a virus might before inserting its own code into the genome of the new host. The screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce once offered two such examples in a talk at Version Festival (Manchester 2009). The pretentious office clerk, Akaky Akakievich, in Nikolai Gogol’s 1842 story, ‘The Overcoat’ has been reincarnated countless times in small- and big-screen funnymen, he argued, from Charlie Chaplin’s The Tramp to Ricky Gervais’ David Brent. Guy de Maupassant’s ‘Boule de Suif’ (‘Little Ball of Fat’) is another virulent piece of short-story DNA, according to Boyce; as a microcosm of society at large (and its social inequities) it can be seen in the ‘thrown-together survivors’ ensemble formula that dominates almost all disaster movies – Earthquake, The Poseidon Adventure, Sunshine… you name it. John Ford’s Stagecoach is ‘patient zero’ in this particular outbreak.
3Amid all this anecdotal evidence, there is one early contender for an explanation. Screenwriters often speak of the importance of the ‘elevator pitch’ in the film industry. This is the harsh truth that when it comes to speaking to the kind of person who might be able to green-light a movie (i.e. an executive producer with a major studio), the screenwriter or director will probably only have the shortest space of time in which to pitch the film – literally the time it takes to ride in a lift with them, from the ground floor to whichever floor their office is on. Screenwriters have argued that the elevator pitch is so vital it is one of the reasons why movie plots have, over the years, generally stayed compact, so as to be deliverable in a short, neat, oral way; in other words it is why they have remained pocket-sized.
4Rather than build on this albeit persuasive anecdotal argument, I prefer to base my exploration of the cinema-short story relationship on my own personal experience – as an editor of short fiction primarily, and more recently as an occasional script developer, working in short film. Rather than begin with their similarities, I suggest we start with the difficulties of translating a text for the big screen, the ways in which cinematic story and prose fiction in general are incompatible. As my primary source, I shall refer to a film adaptation I commissioned and developed, whose failings perhaps illuminate the challenges of adaptation. ‘Letters Home’ (directed by Ronald J. Wright) was an 18min short film produced in 2009/10, based on a short story by the thriller writer Martyn Bedford. The story was originally commissioned by Comma as part of its ‘Reading the City’ series designed to explore the interaction between urban fiction and the real-world landscapes (and historical contexts) it uses as its backdrop. ‘Letters Home’ tells the story of an asylum seeker awaiting a decision on his asylum application, living in Leeds in 2002 against the backdrop of an infamous court case in the city – the Lee Bowyer/Jonathan Woodgate trial. This was a case in which four men, two of them Leeds United football players, were charged with affray and grievous bodily harm after being involved in a racist attack on a Pakistani student (Sarfraz Najeib) outside a nightclub – a fight which left the student unconscious with a broken leg, nose and cheekbone. Martyn Bedford’s story takes place in the weeks and months after this case, and in it his protagonist experiences repeated racial taunts from local youths – including having the name of one of the accused footballers, Lee Bowyer, chanted at him. The presumption of this character’s ethnicity by the taunting locals is key to the story. They think he is Pakistani – like the attacked student – but the only thing we do know about the ethnicity of the character, from the text, is that he not a Pakistani, nor is he a Turk. Clues are sewn, apparently offering ways to deduce his ethnicity, to unlock his racial anonymity – but they prove to be red herrings, dead-ends. In a way, the whole point of the story is that you cannot sleuth out his racial identity.
5In approaching this case study I would like to begin by proposing a simple maxim:
M1: The withholding of vital information is the motor that drives all story.
6It cannot be just any information of course, but vital, explanatory ‘story information’. What is more, the knowledge that this vital information exists – information that will give sense and shape to the events unfolding – but is being deliberately withheld from us is what makes us read on… not simply turn the page, but move from one sentence to the next, one word to the next. Some of these unknowns will become known of course, and our own attempt to ‘sleuth them out’, until they are revealed to us, is part of our engagement with the story. There is comfort in the knowledge that certain unknowns will always have to be revealed. Other pieces of information are not necessarily shown to us, and this is one of the ingredients that make the short story truly unique. When something is left permanently ‘unrevealed’ it invites us to question not just the contents of the story (that have left us foxed), but the assumptions we, as readers, took into the story with us, and that failed us in our attempts to crack it. In Martyn Bedford’s story, we reach for possible solutions to the racial identity question, until eventually we are thwarted. The result is we see the world, finally, through the eyes of the protagonist for whom racial identity is not relevant (or something he does not want to be relevant).
7With fiction, the writer holds all the cards, not least when it is delivered in, or close to, a first-person narrative. Here the author is in supreme control of what information is drip-fed to the reader, and more importantly what is not. Film, by contrast, is a more democratic process; the cards are not held close to the chest of the director, but laid out on the table, face up. The example of ‘Letters Home’ demonstrates that certain types of information can never be withheld in film, certain things can never be kept from being explicit in the first split-second of an establishing shot (e.g. a character’s racial identity). In re-writing the story for the screen, the very first thing we needed to do, then, was make a decision about exactly where he came from. This was not just so that we could know what he needed to look like, for the purposes of casting, but also because we wanted to use parts of the letters he was writing in a voice-over. In order to do this, we needed to decide on the actual language they were being written in (in the story text they are conveniently, and unrealistically, provided in English), so that the voice-over could be presented in an authentic language, with the English translation provided in the subtitles. In other words, we needed to remove all anonymity and pick a nationality. We went from a story where racial identity was deliberately not the issue, to it being decided, seen and heard explicitly in almost the first scene.
8With this experience in mind, I would like to posit a first ‘rule of thumb’ in adaptation:
RT1: Within any particular moment, all information in any way connected to the physical reality of that moment has to be shown, that is to say spoken, acted out, seen, or in some way very clearly externalised.
9The degree of this externalization is sometimes quite shocking for writers making their first transition from prose fiction to screenwriting. For me personally, the transition felt like moving from a tense, professional poker game to a drunken game of Snap. Speed and vociferousness were what you needed in front of the camera, not subtle interpretative skills.
10Why does everything have to be so explicitly externalised in front of the camera, you might ask. Simply because if we do not strictly marshal every piece of potential signposting in each shot, that shot will go ahead and find its own signposts (no matter in what direction these signposts are pointing). Information will always rush into the visual image, engulf the camera lens, whether we like it or not. The scriptwriter’s job is to vet this visual data and make sure only the right information rushes into view.
11This brings us to the second rule of thumb in adaptation:
RT2: Every piece of story information will eventually have to be contained in a shot.
12This carries its own set of challenges. Passage of time, for example, is very tricky to ‘contain’ in a shot, and scriptwriters have to deploy a number of cheats to get round it. Straightforward jumps to later points in time are easy to deal with. Where the text says, ‘later that night’, for example, the film editor simply drops in a brief exterior shot of the setting or building at nighttime (i.e. in the dark) – having deployed an earlier, establishing shot of the exterior in daylight so we know what it looks like! When plot information is tied more intrinsically to a passage of time, it becomes more difficult. A sentence like ‘After two years of living with him, she had grown to hate him’ could never be directly translated into film, for example. Slow, gradual, imperceptible change cannot be caught on camera; instead it has to be gathered up and dramatized into a single, instantaneous step-change with presumably long periods of unseen stasis either side. In short, with a sentence like this you would have to cut to a single, simplified moment in the intervening time and show in it an event, a trigger, a tipping point when suddenly absolute love turned to absolute hatred.
13This is the case with every shot in fact. Gradual changes are replaced with sudden, step-changes. Indeed every shot has to be committed to demonstrating nothing but step-changes. Even the most unimportant shots – ‘cutaways’ or ‘inserts’, as they are called, those brief glimpses of details that add to the context of the main shot (the sight of a glass on a table, for example) – even these have to show the moment when something changes. You cannot show the glass just sitting on the table, you have to show the glass being placed there or, better still, being picked up.
14The step-change, I would argue, is the microscopic building block of filmmaking, the fundamental unit of all cinema. And like all fundamental building blocks, it projects self-similarity throughout the structure – that is to say a repetition of its shape or pattern appears at every scale. Thus, we find the step-change (or a slightly slower version of it) in the macroscopic story shape. This brings us to perhaps the first point of affinity between filmmaking and the short story. The short story, unlike the novel, is entirely about change; moreover, as it has to occur in a very short space of time, a step-change. To put it another way, short stories are entirely about endings (whilst novels are very often concerned with the process of returning to the home after a long journey, to a preserved, abiding, unchanging home). Another distinction between the short story and the novel is the latter focuses on the contents of a character, the weight and ballast of a life being lived, and the atmosphere of a time or place being lived in – in other words, the interior of a life. Conversely the short story steps back and looks at the exterior shape of that life, its wider topology. Although apparently focusing on a small detail, it finds in that detail a much wider, instantaneous truth – or rather a pattern that projects outwards from a single moment, to show us a wider, all-encompassing shape. In this sense the short story shows us a moment of fracture, a turn, an ending.
15All endings are also beginnings, of course, so it could also be said that a short story presents a moment of opportunity, a brief window, a once-in-a-lifetime chance to start again – whether that opportunity is taken (in which case it marks the end of a bad time) or not (in which case it marks the last chance to escape a fate, the final nail in the coffin).
16When exploring cinematic parallels to this short story structure we must bear in mind that short films and feature films work quite differently. The short film has a similar structure to the short story in that it marks an opportunity, the main difference being that it is more often front-loaded. The imperative of the short filmmaker is that the plot ‘hits the ground running’, in medias res; typically the window of opportunity to change starts in the opening shot – sometimes very literally with a knock at the door, a visitation from, or an encounter with a ‘mysterious stranger’; the arrival of this stranger poses a challenge to the protagonist that forces him to reconsider his life; the stranger holds up a mirror to that life, and for once its failings cannot be ignored. (Very often the ‘stranger’ is not a complete stranger, they represent a different route, an alternative set of values, but they usually turn out to be connected to the protagonist’s past, in some way an equal, a twin – a character that started from the same place).
17A feature film, by contrast, has more time to assert its characters as fixed entities in its opening scenes; the knock at the door does not come immediately, and it does not usually come in the literal form of another person, showing a need to change. Instead it emerges as a more general threat, illustrating a need to adapt, rather than to re-boot completely. In both cases survival (of the protagonist’s deep-seated sense of identity) is the wider goal, and change is the means to that goal. In both cases the solution to that change lies in a ‘withheld’ back-story. In a front-loaded short film, the back-story comes shortly after the opening scene – in which we learn the relevance of the stranger’s advice very shortly after learning about the current situation they are advising on. In a feature film, the backstory is often withheld or delayed much more, sometimes right up to the point just before the traditional ‘resolution’ (i.e. the climax of the classic Three-Act Structure). This backstory often reveals the true nature of a cast member (not the protagonist), and provides a means to the final resolution. This might occur some time after the ‘escalation moment’ of classic Second Act.
18Clearly there are two sets of structures in place here and we should take a moment to distinguish them. In the bluntest terms of the protagonist’s well-being, the Classic Three-Act Structure certainly applies: these three acts being states of (i) tension, (ii) escalation, and (iii) resolution. But in terms of the protagonist’s means of reaching a resolution there is a very different three-act structure at play in film narrative. This second structure applies to information access and meaning, rather than action and well-being. It goes without saying the protagonist’s point-of-view (or access to information) is not always the same as the viewer’s. But for the purposes of the story, these two only need to be in alignment once for the story to work: that moment is a crucial point of congruence – where the viewer might be seeing something for the first time (viewer revelation), and the protagonist might be either seeing, fully appreciating and/or acting on the same truth for the first time (protagonist revelation). In many ways this ‘congruent revelation’ is more dramatically important than the ‘resolution’ of the Classic Three-Act Structure.
19I will call this second structure the ‘Information Structure’; its three acts being very simply: (i) the brink, (ii) the backstory, (iii) the stepping off. The first act here shows us to be on the verge or onset of an act from which the character cannot return, an act that cannot be undone. The second act reveals to the viewer (and the protagonist) the true context and meaning of this act, why it represents a point of no return, and why so much is at stake with regard to the change on offer. The third, interestingly, is an act whose full consequences are never seen (but understood fully from the second act). The protagonist takes the leap, steps off the ‘sheer verge’, and that is it.
20Needless to say, this structure suggests a very different kind of story to the one going on in the Classic Three-Act Structure, even though the two architectures often occupy the same space – like one set of translucent plans laid on top of the other. For one, the Classic Three-Act Structure places far more emphasis on the last act, the drama of the resolution. In the Information Structure, the final act is almost superfluous; it is much shorter, a final scene more than a final act, and one that offers little more than an ellipsis in which we are left reflecting on what has gone before as much as what lies ahead (for the protagonist). Far more important is the second act, the discovery and interpretation of the backstory. There is also a philosophical difference between the two structures. In the Classic Three-Act Structure, the protagonist is a self-determining agent, someone who struggles to find a means to resolve his or her personal crisis. In the Information Structure, the final act is more of an inevitability, a destiny; the challenge is not to find out what the resolving act must be – because even in Act 1, we are already there, on the verge of that act – but to interpret and understand that act, that destiny, before it is accepted or realised.
21This brings us to the second major affinity between cinema and the short story, indeed a second shared ‘fundamental building block’ alongside the step-change. Namely, the backstory. And once again, as an elementary unit, it provides self-similarity through the wider narrative, a repeated shape occurring at different scales (the microscopic and the macroscopic).
22Let us start with the microscopic. One of the most common terms cinematographers use when dividing up a scene into shots is ‘the reveal’. While literary theorists may only use this term when talking about overall plot arcs – revelations and epiphanies – the cinematographer uses it in almost every scene. To understand why, you only have to combine the first adaptation rule of thumb, RT1, with the maxim M1. If all physical information needs to be shown (RT1), but at the same time some vital information has to be withheld (M1), then the cinematographer has no choice but to set up a kind of on-going dance, one that alternates between satisfying one demand while temporarily delaying the satisfaction of the other. Thus we have a cinematographic rhythm established between the delivery of physically disembodied information, and the delayed embodiment of that information (following shortly after). Thus, when watching a film, we hear a character say something before we see them, or we see them say it before we see who they are saying it to; we hear the sound of a train from the next scene creeping over into the last few seconds of the scene before. This rhythm is like an iambic, two-beat tattoo – ta-dum – the first beat, ‘ta’, being the set-up (the disembodied or uncontextualised information), the second, ‘dum’, being the reveal (of the body, the context, etc.). To these two beats, a third always needs to be added which is the action taken by the now-contextualised agent. We hear a gun fire; we see the holder of the gun, mid-gunfight; we see them take a second shot, this time on target. Ta-dum-ta. In this way, the three-beat pulse of the ‘reveal’ shot (with the emphasis on the contextualising middle-beat) maps perfectly onto the wider ‘Information Structure’ of the whole film: thus we get self-similarity.
23So what about the short story? At this point I need to make one serious qualification. When talking about film’s ‘special relationship’ with the short story, most of the time we are only really talking about one specific type of short story. In my introduction to the anthology Parenthesis, I proposed that all short stories could be fitted into one of three different types: the Epical, the Lyrical and the Artificial story - borrowing the first two terms from the critic Eileen Baldeshwiler.
24To re-cap: the Epical story is the most common, realist short-story form and is defined by the way it withholds, not just a vital detail, but a new, conflicting and further-reaching narrative until almost the very last moment. In the Epical story, this withheld second (and wider) story is both unexpected and in hindsight probably inevitable, being the only thing that could explain previous, almost unnoticeable deviations from the predictable ‘apparent plot’. In order for it to be a true revelation, this second story, when it comes, has to re-illuminate all that preceded it. This Epical structure applies to both external revelations of the traditional, nineteenth-century kind (i.e. revelations regarding plot events, and/or another character’s true nature/identity), as well as internal revelations of the modernist Chekhovian or Joycean kind (revealing the protagonist’s true nature). Whether it is Sherlock Holmes fingering a perpetrator and briefly revealing the ‘second’ story (i.e. what actually happened) in retrospect in the penultimate scene, or a Joycean character having a seemingly inexplicable and highly unexpected last-minute change of heart, in both cases the reader is learning something new and further-reaching at the very last moment.
25If the Epical story has, according to Baldeshwiler, ‘a decisive ending that sometimes affords universal insight,’ the Lyrical story, by contrast, ‘relies for the most part on the open ending.’ Instead of focusing on plot, the Lyrical story is distinguished by its emphasis on a central recurring image or symbol, around which the narrative revolves, and from which it acquires an open and flexible meaning. An obvious example of this open or flexible meaning can be found in Mansfield’s short masterpiece, ‘The Fly’. Here, the image of the fly being tortured by the old man (‘the boss’) can be interpreted in various contradictory ways (symbolising the boss’s previous relationship with his son; allowing him a form of revenge on the world; demonstrating the boss’s lack of grief; betraying the boss’s repression of grief). By being ‘open’, the symbol does not insist on one reading, or meaning, but allows for many. It remains unexplained and unresolved, and continues to burn in the mind of the reader, the way a bright light burns on the retina after its removal. Once established – usually early on in the story – the image may be returned to and re-interpreted several times in the story but it remains, externally at least, static.
- 1 It’s worth noting the word ‘artifice’ has been used by other short story critics, particularly, Cha (...)
26Finally, we have the Artificial story. This is not so named because it is in some way inauthentic or inferior, but because it deploys a nugget of ‘artifice’ at its start – that is to say, something that should not be there, something that is very definitely out of place.1 The exemplar text here is, of course, Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’. By inserting something so ‘out of place’, the author actually sets in motion two separate stories that will ultimately run parallel, or rather equidistant, both of them illuminating the other. The absurd storyline of the bug takes on moments of great mundanity, while the realist surrounding storyline is cast in an absurdist light, though in many ways the two stories never quite make contact with each other.
27Thus, put very simply, there are three different short story structures:
28So why the crash-course in short story structure? Precisely so as to limit my claims about the special relationship between film and short fiction. The ‘Information Structure’ of film only has parallels with the first, revelatory short story structure above, the Epical story. The delayed backstory and almost-redundant ellipsis-like final act is entirely in tune with the epical structure.
29The unresolved image of the Lyrical story, however, has a much more problematic relationship with cinema. To go back to my original source material, Martyn Bedford’s text ‘Letters Home’ is a third-person narrative which describes the protagonist composing letters to his wife and son back home, occasionally going into the voice of these letters. The protagonist never writes these letters down, though, and certainly never sends them – if he were to post them, we are told, it might put his wife and son in danger. Here, we have a classical Lyrical ingredient, the image of an unwritten, un-posted letter. This may not be an entirely physical or tangible image, but it is memorable nonetheless and has one intrinsically Lyrical quality to it. It does what all Lyrical images do, namely act as a stand-in where the protagonist is perhaps inexplicably unable to express him- or herself. In Mansfield’s ‘The Fly’, the old boss has ‘arranged’ a time in which he can have a cry about his dead son, but then finds he cannot. The torture of the fly fills that gap. In other classic Lyrical stories the central image again stands where an expression was wanted but never came, or alternatively it represents the inability to express oneself; the pear tree in Mansfield’s ‘Bliss’, the arranged furniture on the lawn in Carver’s ‘Why Don’t You Dance?’, the helmet of ice in David Constantine’s ‘The Loss’. These all represent a desire to say something that the protagonist cannot say, to let tears flow, or joy abound. The un-posted, unwritten letter of Bedford’s story is no different.
30Thus, when adapting this story for the screen, we had to re-wire the original premise and have the protagonist physically write his letters down (so that we could see them – RT2). Then we had to physically show what he did with them. These two ‘externalisations’ became plot points of their own, external acts, and as such moved from being Lyrical elements to Epical ones. In short, they became things that needed to be resolved. The task of showing the protagonist’s uncertain intentions with his un-posted letters was achieved with four separate shots: hesitatingly taking a letter to a postbox and tapping the letter on the lip of the postbox; tapping it almost identically on the lip of a nearby dustbin; stashing it on a mantle piece on top of a pile of similar, un-posted letters; and finally, in a different scene, we see him tearing the letter up and dropping it into a river. These epical-like acts set up a letter-story (a plot-line entirely associated with the letters) which demands its own turn (or twist), to coincide approximately with the more important ‘turn’ in the character’s internal plot-line (regarding his attitude toward the country he finds himself in). In the closing scene, we see him finally post a letter (and we hear, in the voice-over, the positive, upbeat lie that the letter tells his family about how friendly and welcoming they will find England – in contrast to the pessimistic truths he wrote in the letters that he did not send).
31It is not that films need resolution, as such, but that the lyrical image is so externally static it needs to be chivvied into motion if it is to appear in a film. In other words it needs to be deployed in an action (an elementary step-change), and this microscopic step-change will need to eventually be involved in a macroscopic one, an action in the opposite direction.
32The reality is short stories rarely fit purely and perfectly into just one category, and more often contain elements of both the epical and lyrical at the same time. Thus the adaptation process often involves dramatising stray lyrical components and turning them into epical story-points. At a recent book launch, the Polish writer Pawel Huelle, who writes a lot for stage and screen, was asked about the adaptation process. ‘Adaptation,’ he replied, ‘is like the joke about the man in the hospital bed. A doctor comes up to him and says, “It’s up to you. I can amputate your foot or your hand. Your choice!”’ This is certainly the case when adapting novels for the screen, but it seems it is also true, to a lesser extent, when adapting short stories – certainly those with a mix of epical and lyrical components. The screenwriter has to make a choice: to betray something or lose it altogether; the hand or the foot.
33As for the third type of short story – the artificial story – I have yet to see anything like it in film.