The Power Of Short Stories Part 1: The Long & Short Of It

Monday 4 November 2019

Having just polished some short stories for a charity anthology called Terror Bites – released 5th November 2019 – the writers involved got to talking about how short stories translate to the big screen and how many of our favourite films are based on or have been inspired by short stories.

But how well do short stories translate and how much of the story lends itself to the images we end up seeing on screen? Is there enough material in a short story that is just a few pages long to sustain a feature length film?
I thought it would be interesting to have a look and figure this out in an entirely unscientific and fun way. 

Have we picked some of your favourites? Let’s find out!

Should go without saying but just in case ***Spoiler Alert***

The Company of Wolves

The Company of Wolves – Angela Carter (1979) published in “The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories”

The Company of Wolves (1984) Screenplay by Angela Carter and Neil Jordan, Directed by Neil Jordan

“Children do not stay young for long in this savage country.”

This simple quote from Carter’s short story beautifully encapsulates the themes behind her tale, the loss of innocence, coming-of-age and the empowering of women. Themes that are reflected in Jordan’s lavish horror.

The Company of Wolves, directed by Neil Jordan was based on the short by Angela Carter who co-wrote the screenplay. 
I remember watching it the morning before one of my 5th year exams, so probably around 1989 (it might have been later, but it was at least 30 years ago, so give me some slack.)

It is a fascinating film, full of imagery and allegory, and, I must confess, I am still not 100% sure I fully understand all of what it is trying to tell us. But, like Carter’s short story, it is layered thickly with subtext. 

Her short story is a beautiful interpretation of the Red-Riding Hood fairy-tale, prefaced by an atmospheric scene-setting account of the world in which Carter’s Red lives, complete with deep-dark forest, grannies and the untrustworthy trickster of the man-wolf. 

Although the girl is “tricked” by the man she meets in the forest and her granny is eaten by the wolf, she herself is portrayed as, ultimately, fearless and almost welcoming of the creature she confronts; of the new, confusing and enticing life she is presented with. 

As a short story, it was inevitable that the film would have to add some additional content to ensure the film’s running time, but it remains surprisingly faithful to Carter’s short. The main difference is the book-marking of the film with scenes set in the present day in which a young girl sleeps (again played by Sarah Patterson) having dreams of wolves and the forest while her sister tries to wake her. 

The film ends with the same present-day scenes invaded by wolves, spilling over from the girl’s dreams and into reality. But, back in the dream, Rosaleen is once again not afraid of the wolf and is empowered to take control and not become a victim; she does, in fact, appear to join the wolf and become a wolf, running off into the forest with the stranger she meets on the road to Granny’s house. 

She welcomes the changes that are over-coming her and this new stage in her life. The same themes of sexual awakening that populate Carter’s short, can be seen throughout the film.

Or maybe not?

Like all good fairy tales, both the short story and the film are entirely allegorical and open to interpretation. There are a lot of toads in the film, for example. Symbolic of new awakenings and rebirth they are another nod to the themes of sexual awakening. 

However, on the Blu Ray commentary, Jordan admits that he is not entirely sure of the meaning behind everything they added to the film. Despite having to stretch the story a little to make a feature running time, the film is fairly faithful to Carter’s vision which may not be surprising as she wrote the screenplay with Jordan. 

There are also lots of little touches, ‘blink and you’ll miss them’ nods to the themes of the story and the links between reality and the dream-world of the film. As we pan through Rosaleen’s modern day bedroom, we see a model car that matches the one the devil drives through the forest. 

There is a doll of Granny, similar make-up to that found in the stork’s nest and even a copy of the magazine, “My Weekly” with a headline story, “The Shattered Dream.” Is this Rosaleen’s shattered dream in the film, or the shattered dream of adulthood, the reality of adult life, crashing into all those dreams we have as children where we rush to mature and become like our parents.

You tell me?

Whether or not that is what you take from the short or the film, is probably up to the individual, but what is clear is that Jordan directed a film that captures the wonder and mystery of a fairy-tale, while remaining faithful to the themes and beauty of Carter’s short and is all the better for it. Read and watch them, you will not be disappointed.

The legend of Sleepy Hollow
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow – Washington Irving - 1819

Sleepy Hollow (1999) – Screenplay by Andrew Kevin Walker, Directed by Tim Burton

I am a big fan of Tim Burton and tend to enjoy his films regardless of their critical reception simply because of the delightful, fairy tale-esque way the majority are presented onscreen. So, a film version of folktale “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” was always going to be a good choice for him. 

I do, however, have a confession. Until a couple of weeks ago, I had never read the Washington Irving short story upon which Burton based his film. Everyone knows of the tale and Ichabod Crane and the headless horseman but I was not prepared for how “short” it was. “Based on” is probably a generous way to describe the film – perhaps “inspired by” would be more accurate.

While the short story is a glorious piece of prose that conjures up the time and place of the story, there is little that happens other than an introduction to Ichabod, mention of the ghostly rider, Ichabod’s infatuation with Katrina van Tassel, their falling out and disappearance of Ichabod; his fate rumoured to be down to the headless horseman, but most likely scared off by Katrina’s other suitor Brom.

So, in a nutshell, guy fancies girl, gets scared off…. The end….

Not much to base a feature length story on.

But much of the flavour of Irving’s work is used to enrich the film, and the visuals in Burton’s movie do wonders to bring to life the New England of Irving’s tale. 

Certain aspects of the story remain in the film, but mostly in relation to characters names (even Ichabod’s mount, Gunpowder) and the underlying humour in Irving’s writing. There is a nod to the end of Irving’s short in a scene where Brom pretends to be the horseman in order to scare Ichabod, but Depp’s character does not flee the scene or leave his beloved Katrina – in fact they end up together – so you even get a Hollywood ending. Ichabod isn’t even a teacher, he is a police constable!
What you do get from Burton is a complex plot of intertwining families, illegitimate children, conspiracy and witchcraft; things not even hinted at in the short. But that is to be expected, it would not have been a very exciting film if it had been directly adapted from a tale that is so short and light on story.

Ichabod even gets his own, mysterious backstory that hints at his mother being a witch and her punishment and murder by his religious father.

However, I don’t think the film is an insult to the source material either. Burton’s film takes the elements of the short and builds on them and enhances them. It takes the setting of the short and brings it to life for the viewer, so that it feels real and tangible. 

Even if the rest of the film bears little resemblance to the short it pays tribute to the finished product, shows a love and respect of the source material and plays on the humour within. I can’t imagine anyone who is a fan of the original Irving tale being disappointed by the film as they still share a commonality of atmosphere and humour. 

The Pit and the Pendulum
The Pit and the Pendulum – Edgar Allen Poe – 1842

The Pit and The Pendulum (1961) – Screenplay by Richard Matheson, Directed by Roger Corman

In the world of short stories turned into films, The Pit and the Pendulum must surely create a new category for films which could be considered to be “Sort of, maybe, slightly inspired by pretty much just the title of….” – it would be hard to create a film that is still linked to a short story but retains almost nothing of the original tale.

That is not to say that Corman’s, The Pit and the Pendulum is a bad film – far from it in fact! With a screenplay from Richard Matheson, the film is a technicolor (or Pathécolor to be specific) gothic marvel of Vincent Price at his scenery chewing best.

There is a pit, of sorts and, of course, a pendulum.

Poe’s short story involves a prisoner of the Spanish Inquisition, trapped in a cell that includes the pit that he nearly falls down, before being strapped to a table below the pendulum. The story unfolds through his experience and fear as he describes his predicament and the motion of the pendulum that drops, inexorably, towards his chest and his impending doom – until, he affects his own escape in clever fashion. So, there is another connection – both Poe’s prisoner and Francis Bernard do, at least, escape the pendulum!

It is a fascinating tale but, to be possibly controversial, like Sleepy Hollow, it is fairly light on “story” in many respects and a direct adaptation of the short would, perhaps, not have been enough to sustain a feature.

However, the majority of the film, having nothing to do with the short, is not particularly scary; until the last few minutes when the pendulum is introduced and those same feelings of dread and fear came rushing back from my childhood. 

Primal emotions are key to great story telling and Corman gets it right (for me at least) in this film, drawing on the fears that Poe so skilfully weaved into his short. 

While it is difficult to decide whether you could class the Pit and the Pendulum as being based upon, inspired by or simply loosely influenced by the short story, they are both cut from the same horror cloth, creating empathy with the viewer/reader and tapping into primal fears of being trapped and powerless. 

What can we take away from this?

Well, regardless of the length of the story, all three examples here show just how much inspiration can be taken from a short; how much emotion and atmosphere can be wrung out of something that runs to just a few pages. 

From The Company of Wolves, the shortest, we get a classic 80s horror that takes all the elements presented in the tale, remixes them with the Red-Riding Hood Inspiration that Carter built on and develops the tale further, adding to and enhancing the short. 

At the other end of the scale, with Poe, we have largely a film that shares just the title and a prop, but that does not make either the short or the film of the Pit and the Pendulum any less intriguing, horrific or entertaining; drawing on those primal fears that pierce the heart of its viewers.

And that is what is key. 

For each film, the “heart” of the short is retained. The main themes and primal emotions that are heightened in the text are repeated in the films. We may not get a faithful retelling of Poe’s Pendulum, but we do get to share the same fears as we share the page and screen with the intended victim. 

Although Carter’s short is more faithfully reproduced, it is the heart and theme of the story that is carried over so successfully into the movie, and that is what makes them work; at least, for me – its all about how they make you feel and what you experience in the event.

In Conclusion

Ultimately, art is subjective, and, writing and films are both art forms. That film-makers use short-stories to inspire their own creations should be celebrated, even where those creations are not necessarily what the viewer might think they want – at the end of the day, as long as we are entertained, what does it matter?

Mark Walker is a writer from Gloucestershire with a long-standing love and appreciation for all things weird and horrific. Find him at

Terror Bites is a charity anthology raising money for Fuck Cancer.

Post a Comment