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8 Films You Didn’t Know Were Based on Short Stories

by Alex Edge on September 10, 2021

Ideas for writing screenplays can often come from a variety of places, such as songs, pictures, fleeting moments, or books.

Although you may not always know it, many stories that we see on the big screen today are in fact adaptations of short stories, or even remakes of films that were based on them.

Below we have compiled a list of films that you probably didn’t know were adaptations from short stories. Enjoy!

Arrival

Short Story: Story of Your Life, written by Ted Chiang, published in 1998
Film: Arrival, directed by Denis Villeneuve, written by Eric Heisserer, released in 2016

The 2016 Oscar-winning feature film Arrival was adapted from the short story ‘Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang.

The film received 8 nominations at the 89th Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Adapted Screenplay, and won the category for Best Sound Editing. 

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Short Story: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, written by James Thurber, published in 1939
Film: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, directed by Ben Stiller, written by Steve Conrad, released in 2013

This short story was originally written by James Thurber in 1939. It was so well received that the term "Walter Mitty" became a part of popular culture as a slang term for an "ineffectual dreamer."

Upon the theatrical release in 2013, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty generally had mixed reviews. As a unique film, it was certainly received as a little more art-house than what the public is used to. Eventually, the film received high praise from Empire Online, which dubbed it "the new Forrest Gump."

Flubber

Short Story: A Situation of Gravity, written by Samuel W. Taylor, published in 1943
Film: Flubber, directed by Les Mayfield, written by John Hughes & Bill Walsh, released in 1997

A Situation of Gravity written by Samuel W. Taylor was a short story from 1943 that inspired both The Absent-Minded Professor and Flubber. Both films were adapted by Walt Disney Studios and arguably went on to inspire many other similar iconic characters like Doc in Back to the Future, as well as many other films such as The Nutty Professor (1963 and 1996).

Despite some bad reviews, Flubber grossed over $178 million worldwide. The popular crazy professor archetype was born from the 1943 original and kept alive by both film adaptations and many films to come.

The Fly

Short Story: The Fly, written by George Langelaan, published in 1957
Film: The Fly, directed by David Cronenberg, written by Charles Edward Pogue & David Cronenberg, released in 1986

Originally published in the 1957 issue of Playboy Magazine, the short story The Fly, written by George Langelaan, was picked up and adapted into two hit films, both with sequels.

The Fly (1986) received great reviews for its incredible special effects, inspired, no doubt, by the 11-page long short story.  

It's a Wonderful Life

Short Story: The Greatest Gift, written by Philip Van Doren Stern, published in 1939
Film: It's a Wonderful Life, directed by Frank Capra, written by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, & Frank Capra, released in 1946

Recognized as one of the greatest films of all time, It’s a Wonderful Life has solidified itself as a classic. The hit feature was adapted from the short story The Greatest Gift, written by Philip Van Doren Stern in 1939. The original short story was loosely based on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

The Christmas classic was nominated for 5 Academy Awards, though surprisingly upon its initial release, wasn’t as well-received as it has been today. The film has gone from just about doubling its production budget to being regarded as the best Christmas film of all time. Once the film came into the public domain in 1975, it finally received the recognition it deserved through many other cameos in other films and by broadcasting services showing it at no cost.

Brokeback Mountain

Short Story: Brokeback Mountain, written by Annie Proulx, published in 1998
Film: Brokeback Mountain, directed by Ang Lee, written by Larry McMurtry & Diana Ossana, released in 2005

The New-Western Romantic Drama Brokeback Mountain not only won countless awards, including Oscars for Best Directing and Best Adapted Screenplay at the 78th Academy Awards, but it also dared to bring an LBGTQIA story to the forefront at a time when they weren't often told.

The credit and praise should not just lie with the filmmakers, however, as this was an adaptation of the original short story of the same name, written by Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Proulx.

Memento

Short Story: Memento Mori, written by Jonathan Nolan, published in 2001
Film: Memento, written and directed by Christopher Nolan, released in 2000

The success of Memento really kickstarted Christopher Nolan’s career, solidifying his place in the film industry. Not only did he break through with one of the top-rated films on IMDb, but he also did so with an unconventional narrative structure.

The film is an adaptation of the short story Memento Mori, written by Chris’ brother Jonathan Nolan. The original story was later published in Esquire magazine in 2001.

Rear Window

Short Story: It Had to be Murder, written by Cornell Woolrich, published in 1942
Film: Rear Window, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, written by John Michael Hayes, released in 1954

This Hitchcock classic is labeled as one of his best films by many critics and fans. The suspenseful masterpiece was adapted from the short story It Had to be Murder, written by Cornell Woolrich, which was originally published in a magazine called Dime Detective in February 1942 before it made an iconic impression in the history books of cinema.

Alfred Hitchcock, known as the Master of Suspense, really made an impression with this film, even changing the way filmmakers look at creating suspense in their stories.

Finding Short Stories to Adapt

There are many more books out in the world than there are screenplays, and great way to find a short or feature-length film idea is to read lots and lots of them -- novels, short stories, whatever interests you. Eventually, you will find an idea that jumps out at you or resonates with your creative desires.

But before acting on developing ideas further, you must first contact the original author and publication company to make a contractual agreement that gives you permission. Some writers would be honored to have their literature adapted for the screen, others may want a say on how it is adapted, or they may charge a high fee or commission rate to do so. 

Otherwise, if you're stuck for ideas, there are many short stories that are in the public domain which are completely free for you to adapt however you wish. 


Alex EdgeAlex Edge has worked for companies such as MTV, Nickelodeon, and Comedy Central. His roles and specialties in these companies lie in production and script consultancy. He currently works at Screenwriters Network as a director. Reading and writing scripts whenever he can!

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