What’s the ideal length of a piece of writing for a film adaptation? Novels would seem to be the most obvious answer, though in recent years their domain has shifted somewhat from the multiplex to prestige television miniseries. Novellas hit the sweet spot with page counts that align roughly with the length of the average screenplay, but their relatively niche status in the publishing world makes them unlikely to attract major audience attention (aside, perhaps, from Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, which has been adapted at least seven times, once very successfully and others less so). Sean Penn (heavy sigh) crafted an entire film around a song off Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska. And we’ll soon find out if a 148-tweet-long Twitter thread is successful fodder for a feature.
But I found myself mulling over the question recently after watching the 2020 film The World to Come, which was adapted by writers Jim Shepard and Ron Hansen from a short story by the former. As a film it left something to be desired, unnecessarily hindered by its extensive use of voiceover, which appeared to be an unimaginative replication of the story’s epistolary style, as if the authors didn’t trust the actors to convey their inner turmoil with their faces. Its timing was also unfortunate–pandemic-necessitated streaming release aside, it was another in the diminishing returns trend of tragic lesbian period romances. Still, despite its faults, it opened up the world of the story in unexpected and tender ways, and I wondered if it would have played more rapturously for me on the big screen than the small. Many of us are eager to partake of the theatrical experience again as our cities begin to tentatively reopen. But for anyone still looking for some home entertainment, here are six excellent short story adaptations you can comfortably watch now from your couch.
Joyce Carol Oates’s creepy classic “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” has been a classroom staple for decades, so it’s surprising that the 1985 film adaptation has flown so far under the radar. Directed by Joyce Chopra, it won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and stars an impossibly young Laura Dern in one of her first major roles, but made a measly $17,000 at the box office. But the years have been good to Smooth Talk; with its hothouse atmosphere and ambiguous time period, not to mention the sympathetic depiction of its restless heroine’s burgeoning sexuality, it feels all the more electrifying when it takes a turn to the sinister. As with the story, the film’s centerpiece is the frightening encounter between Connie and Arnold Friend, played here with malignant allure by Treat Williams. Connie’s fate is kinder onscreen than on the page, but I promise this one will still linger in your mind for days. Smooth Talk is available to subscribers on the Criterion Channel or to rent from other streamers
The literary pedigree is strong on this one: based on the story by Pulitzer-winning Annie Proulx first published in The New Yorker, the screenplay is by none other than fellow Pulitzer honoree Larry McMurtry with producer Diana Ossana. It was successful upon its initial release in 2005, winning three Oscars, including a history-making award for Ang Lee, the first nonwhite filmmaker to win the Best Director prize. Seeing it again a decade and a half removed from the tired “gay cowboy” jokes and thirteen years from the untimely loss of star Heath Ledger, it stands as a striking work of compassion, not merely for the nature of the central relationship but for its forthright advocacy for love in all its forms, reorienting the story of the American West from untamed machismo to mournful lament. If it’s been awhile since you’ve seen this one, there’s no better time for a rewatch. Brokeback Mountain is available to subscribers on Netflix or to rent from other streamers
Away From Her
Alice Munro’s short stories are more richly detailed than most novels, so it’s odd that so few of them have been the basis for films. Fellow Canadian Sarah Polley rectifies that with her directing debut, an adaptation of “The Bear Came Over the Mountain.” Retaining the writer’s trademark mix of emotional directness and narrative elegance, Away From Her stars the eternally luminous Julie Christie as the “her” of the title, a wife succumbing to Alzheimer’s while her husband helplessly observes his steady erasure from her life as she falls in love with a fellow patient. Equally respectful of the joys and frustrations that come with a long partnership, the film will ring true for anyone who’s had to bid a complicated goodbye to a loved one. But regardless of what life experience you bring, be sure to have some tissues handy when you watch. Away From Her is available to subscribers on Peacock or to rent from other streamers
Le notti bianche
Times are tough for hopeless romantics. Lockdowns have made it difficult to maintain partnerships; Zoom calls are a poor tool for forging new connections. For anyone who wants to seek solace in the movies, you’d do well to check out Luchino Visconti’s 1957 adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s “White Nights,” originally published in 1848. Starring possibly the sexiest trinity of world film stars ever assembled outside an Antonioni joint, Le notti bianche is suffused with the sort of isolating loneliness that afflicts those in otherwise bustling cities, particularly once the winter cold sets in. The perfect intersection of Visconti’s Italian neorealist roots and late-career operatic flourishes, you’ll swoon watching Marcello Mastroianni and Maria Schell dance around their feelings for one another across a fairy-tale reconstruction of Venice, while Jean Marais waits in the wings. Armchair travelers and the emotionally stunted unite! Le notti bianche is available to subscribers on the Criterion Channel or to rent from other streamers
Danish director Gabriel Axelrod spent decades trying to get financing for his adaptation of Isak Dinesen’s story, a quiet and contemplative piece that first appeared in Harper’s Bazaar back in 1958. It was released in 1987 to much acclaim, eventually winning the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. French screen legend Stephane Audran stars as the titular Babette, a mysterious woman who appears on the doorstep of two pious sisters in 19th century Jutland, seeking refuge from her country’s counter-revolutionary crisis. She works as a maid in their home for thirty years before winning the lottery and cooking an extravagant farewell meal for her employers. Without spoiling any of its delights, the film has the circuitous charm of an O. Henry tale, and is one of the few pieces of modern cinema to take religious belief seriously. This one will warm your heart. Just don’t watch on an empty stomach. Babette’s Feast is available to subscribers on the Criterion Channel or to rent from other streamers
Of all the adaptations on this list, Burning might claim the biggest discrepancy between story length (13 pages) and film runtime (148 minutes). Based on Haruki Murakami’s “Barn Burning,” director Lee Chang-dong’s 2018 film is suitably enigmatic, expanding on the bare bones of its source material while remaining somewhat elusive in its true meaning. Featuring a deviously opaque performance from American actor Steven Yuen as a wealthy playboy with possibly murderous impulses, Burning is less flashy than fellow South Korean Bong-Joon Ho’s smash hit Parasite but no less consumed with the resentment fueled by class conflicts. Cool and deliberate in pace, its violence simmers underneath the surface, building to a climax that feels simultaneously shocking and inevitable. You might want to sleep with the lights on after watching, or at least double check your smoke alarms. Burning is available to subscribers on Netflix or to rent from other streamers
Sara Batkie is the author of the story collection Better Times, which won the 2017 Prairie Schooner Prize and is now available from University of Nebraska Press. Her stories have been published in various journals, honored with a 2017 Pushcart Prize, and twice received Notable Story citations in the Best American Short Stories anthology series. Born in Bellevue, Washington and raised mostly in Iowa, Sara currently lives and works in Chicago, Illinois.