The Trouble with Short Story Adaptations | The Science of Adaptation

It was very gradually that I realized that “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman was one of my favorite short stories. Studying English, I read it three times in college – once in my Intro-to-Literature class, once in a short story class, and once in American Literature.

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(“The Yellow Wallpaper” can be read here.)

“The Yellow Wallpaper” has been made into several short films – which makes a great deal of sense – AND several feature films, including in 2012 and 2016 – which makes no sense when you consider the fact that the story is only 6000 words long and consists of one character writing in a journal.

The fact that there have been two attempted feature-length adaptations of “The Yellow Wallpaper” kind of boggles the mind. In order to adapt the story to the typical minimum hour-and-a-half of a feature film, you need to stretch out the story to the point where it starts to no longer resemble the source material. “The Yellow Wallpaper” balances important feminist commentary with Gothic horror by telling the story through the lens of a journal written by a woman who might be crazy OR might actually be seeing a woman in the wallpaper. This works perfectly because it’s conveyed over an eerie and concise 15-or-so pages and is told through the frantic and heavily-monitored journal entries of the unnamed narrator.

When you stretch those pages out to more than an hour, it takes out a lot of the ambiguity. In the 15-or-so page story, there may or may not be some woman trapped in the wallpaper. In the hour and a half long movie, by virtue of the length, there must be a monster-woman in the walls, and all the commentary is gone. Instead of focusing on the feminist angle which made the story an American classic that literature students have to read in three different classes, it just becomes a spooky-monster-movie. By over-emphasizing the horror angle, it really underplays the story’s feminism.

I bring this up, because a trailer just dropped for a film adaptation of another one of my favorite short stories, this being “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” by Neil Gaiman. “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” tells the story of two friends from a boys private school – who don’t interact with girls much – going to a party and trying to pick up girls, who turn out to be tourists from an alien world. I’d be remiss to compare this story to “The Yellow Wallpaper” in terms of impact and influence, but it wonderfully balances humor and fear.

If you haven’t read the Neil Gaiman short story this movie is (loosely) based on, it can be found here. Definitely check it out! (Plus, there’s an audio version!)

The movie premiered at Cannes last year, and was met with less-than-stellar reviews. Again, I think that this is largely due to the fact that a short story which is less than twenty pages long is suddenly stretched out to 102 minutes. The thing which gives the story its funny, eerie, and ultimately charming atmosphere is the fact that the main characters are too socially inept to pick up on all the little cues that the girls they’re talking to are aliens. The humor comes from how oblivious the main character, Enn, is. And the spookiness comes from the moment at the end where Enn’s friend Vic runs to him and frantically tells them that they’ve got to leave.

 

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The brevity of “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” adds to the atmosphere in a similar way. Just as the ambiguity of “The Yellow Wallpaper” is heightened by how short it is, “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” manages to be eerie and humorous because it is so short. If you stretch out the story, Enn eventually has to realize that the girls he’s trying to hit on are extraterrestrials, and then there’s some broader plot he must become involved in. And I for one think that that’s bound to take the charm of the original story away.

Does that mean it’s impossible to make a good feature-length film adapted from the general premise of “How to Talk to Girls at Parties”? Absolutely not. But I certainly don’t think that it’d be a great idea. In this case, I hope I’m proven wrong, and I hope that How to Talk to Girls at Parties turns out to be great movie, but I’m prepared for the worst. (But I have to admit – I watched the trailer about three or four times in preparation for this post, and each time, I got a little more excited.)

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In adapting short stories that intentionally leave things ambiguous, you have to answer the story’s questions. And sometimes, answering those questions can take the intrigue, horror, humor, or fun, out of the story. Short Stories like “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” or “The Call of Cthulu” or “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” have enough scope to be turned into a feature length film. But not every short story does. We should appreciate stories like “The Yellow Wallpaper” or “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” for what they are, rather than trying to make them something else.

 

I’d like to pass a few questions onto my readers:

  1. What’s a movie based off of a short story you love/hate?
  2. Are you excited for How to Talk to Girls at Parties to hit the big screen?

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