Novels are probably the most popular source material for big screen adaptations. But it's not always easy to capture the plot of a 400-page book in a 90-minute run-time. Not everyone is Peter Jackson. Luckily, screenwriters have lots of other options when it comes to adaptating screenplays. In fact, some of the best movies of all-time are actually short story adaptations.
There are literally thousands of novellas and short stories that have been made into spectacular films. And thousands more waiting for someone to adapt them. Here are 13 of the best short story adaptations and why these little stories work so well on the big screen.
Best Short Story Adaptation Screenplays
Denis Villeneuve’s first foray into the world of literary adaptation was a critical and box office smash. Based on the short story, “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, Arrival proved to be a quick favorite in the film community for its challenging story structure, heady themes of linguistics and determinism, and a one-of-a-kind score from the late Johann Johannsson.
- Read the original short story: "The Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang
- Download the script (PDF): Arrival
Believe it or not, Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film Rear Window is based on a 1942 short story by Cornell Woolrich called, “It Had to Be Murder.” However, like several other entries in this list, Hitchcock crafts a unique identity for his film by using his famous mastery of cinematic language to explore the typically Hitchcockian notions of voyeurism and deception.
You might think a movie from 1954 would be stuffy today, but if you haven’t seen it I promise you’ll be absolutely thrilled by the end. It's more relevant than ever, and a great example of how to adapt a short story or novella for the screen.
- Read the original short story: “It Had to Be Murder” by Cornell Woolrich (PDF)
- Download the script: Rear Window (PDF)
Based on “The Sentinel” a science-fiction short story written by none other than Arthur C. Clarke himself, 2001: A Space Odyssey is a modern classic. This film takes the core ideas of the original novel and uses the unique language of cinema to explore complex modern themes like evolution, predestination, artificial intelligence, the growing power of technology.
Thanks to this timeless material, this short story adaptation has remained a favorite among film communities since its release over 50 years ago. 2001: A Space Odyssey is a must-watch for anyone who wants to learn how to adapt short stories or novellas into screenplays.
Fun Fact: The original Arthur C Clarke short story that inspired 2001: A Space Odyssey is only six pages long!
- Read the original short story: “The Sentinel” by Arthur C. Clarke (PDF)
- Download the script: 2001: A Space Odyssey (PDF)
Based on the Clive Barker short story of the same name, Candyman tells the story of an urban legend’s power over an inner-city Chicago community and the increasingly fraught racial relations within. While the original short story was based in Liverpool, England, and focused on class conflict, this adaptation effectively reconceptualized the core conceit of the story and repurposes it for themes that may be more directly relevant to an American audience.
Joseph Conrad’s short story Heart of Darkness has captured the imagination of many a reader since its serial publication in 1899. While his story took place on a river voyage through the Congo, Francis Ford Coppola reinvented the core premise of the story to take place in the more contemporary and relevant setting of Vietnam. This setting changed recontextualized the British colonial anxieties of the late 19th Century into parallel Cold War anxieties in America suggesting that both are not as far apart from each other as it may first seem.
- Read the original novella: "Heart of Darkness" by Jospeh Conrad
- Download the script: Apocalypse Now (PDF)
The Call of Cthulhu (2005)
Sticking very close to H.P. Lovecraft’s source material, this low budget 2005 film decided not to worry too much about the potentially massive budget needed for the cosmic-scale being of Cthulhu. Instead, they decided to film it like a 1920s silent film that would have been around when the story was first written, providing an interesting synthesis between the text and the culture in which the text was first written.
Aside from direct adaptations like the film above, "The Call of Cthulu" has been the source material for dozens of adaptations for films, TV, and even podcasts like Welcome to Night Vale. The most recent adaptation of this genre-defining horror novella is Underwater, starring Kristen Stewart.
- Read the original short story: "The Call of Cthulu" by H.P. Lovecraft
The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) & (2008)
Based upon the relatively obscure short story “Farewell to the Master” by Harry Bates, The Day the Earth Stood Still is a watershed moment in film history, not only for fully committing to the science-fiction aesthetic, but also for spearheading a boom in the science-fiction films of the 1950s. This movie launched the anxiety-inducing genre of "the other" and feelings of isolation and strangeness common among Americans at the brink of the Cold War.
- Read the original short story: "Farewell to the Master” by Harry Bates
The Fly (1958) & (1986)
Using the short story of the same name by George Langelaan as inspiration, The Fly marked David Cronenberg’s big break into mainstream film culture. Cronenberg uses the core conceit of a man slowly turning into a fly to explore sexual anxieties, the nature, and ethics of science, as well as his trademark prosthetics work that result in some (very) gross scenes that still shock to this day. This movie stands as a testament that keeping things simple can concentrate a story’s power.
- Read the original short story: "The Fly" by George Langelaan
From Beyond (1986)
You can never get enough of a good thing. Which is why H.P. Lovecraft is on this list twice. Based upon Lovecraft’s short story of the same name, From Beyond follows a team of scientists exploring worlds just beyond human perception which puts them in a whole heap of trouble. Stuart Gordon and Brian Yuzna incredible horror film reinvents Lovecraft’s famous stodginess in exchange for an insane romp through sexual perversion and gruesome body horror.
- Read the original short story: "From Beyond" by H.P. Lovecraft (PDF)
A Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
What else can you say about this movie that hasn’t already been said? This adaptation of Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” is a delightful romp through Victorian England jam-packed full of heart, wit, and belly laughs galore. Starring Michael Caine as Ebeneezer Scrooge and The Muppets as basically everyone else, this adaptation actually follows the source story very closely. What's really interesting is how it still manages to craft a distinct personality of its own.
Fun fact: The actual title of the beloved Charles Dicken's novella is "A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost-Story of Christmas."
The Invisible Man (2020)
I’m usually hesitant to put such a recent movie on lists like these. But Leigh Whannell’s interpretation of “The Invisible Man” by H.G. Wells is going to be remembered for years to come. By effectively recontextualizing the idea of the invisible man through the lens of gaslighting, a manipulative and sadistic psychological ploy, Whannell’s movie explores and empathizes with how being gaslighted truly feels and how isolating it can be. The Invisible Man is a prime example of how screenwriters can adapt a short story from 1897 to still feel relevant today.
Fun Fact: The complete title of this literary classic is " The Invisible Man: A Grotesque Romance." Now you know.
- Read the original short story: "The Invisible Man" by H.G. Wells
The Mist (2007)
Any list of best short story adaptations wouldn’t be complete without the modern purveyor of all things horror, Stephen King. While the 1980s were the heyday for Stephen King adaptations, Frank Darabont’s version of The Mist in 2007 was remarkable both for the effective scares, but imaginative Lovecraftian world-building.
Make sure you stay tuned for an ending that has lived in near-infamy ever since its release. If you can I highly recommend watching the Darabont-approved black and white version.
- Read the original short story: "The Mist" by Stephen King
The Third Man (1949)
After World War 2, the British author Graham Greene was a force unto himself, churning out bestseller after bestseller. Carol Reed adapted his short story, "The Third Man" a year after publication with a stunning screenplay. The Third Man contains an iconic soundtrack, a moody and expressionistic aesthetic, and a knock-out performance by Orson Welles.
You'll never forget the shot where you first see the infamous Harry Lime with a cat between his legs.
- Read the original short story: "The Third Man" by Graham Greene (PDF)
Best short story adaptations
Hopefully, these iconic short story screenplay adaptations have got you searching for inspiration in different places. Find a short story or novella and see how you can adapt it for the screen. Just make sure your screenplay pays attention to pacing, has an engaging hook, and is centered around an emotional core. Get creative with the source material and find a way to elevate it higher.
If you're really interested in writing short story adaptations for the screen, learn more about screenplay adaptations and enter the ScreenCraft Cinematic Short Story Competition to see if your short story is right for the big screen.