Short stories can often be the best place to mine for film adaptations as material doesn’t need to be cut left and right, the way it does when adapting a novel. At the same time, short fiction can be nearly impossible to get right in an adaptation. The general structure of short stories is very different from the traditional three-act structure of a novel. It’s much tougher to get right in terms of adaptations and changes always have to be made. Here are five examples of short story adaptations that only loosely adhered to the source material.
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Credited as “H.P. Lovecraft’s” over the title, it really isn’t. It has almost nothing to do with the short story. Nor – for that matter – does its sequel Unnameable II: The Statement of Randolph Carter. The second installment is titled after two separate Lovecraft stories and really adapts neither. The Unnamable is about a group of college students who dare each other to stay overnight in a haunted house. You know, the sort of 1980’s cliche Lovecraft wrote about all the time. The students don’t last all night, as they are pursued by a monstrous creature. They soon learn that the monster is the daughter of the man who built the house. The film awkwardly tries to shoe in Lovecraft staples like the classic Necronomicon and recurring Lovecraft character Randolph Carter. Here, Carter is billed as the protagonist of the film, but it’s pretty much in name only.
There have been a few adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe’s classic story over the years. Stuart Gordon’s 1991 film is one of the best but it doesn’t have all that much to do with the story on which it is based. It’s mostly just a tale of the the Spanish Inquisition. But it works fairly well as that. Lance Henriksen’s performance as Grand Inquisitor Torquemada is actually quite good. The short story doesn’t lend itself to a feature film particularly well. It’s a man alone in a room, practically one extended scene focused mostly on his inner turmoil. Both the pit and the pendulum do appear in the movie, but that mode of torture is hardly the focus. In this instance, veering off topic a bit proved to be a smart choice.
The Fly (1986)
Although it is one of the most insightful horror movies ever made, David Cronenberg’s The Fly has even less to do with the original short story than it does the first feature film adaptation. It still features the teleportation aspect of the story, and of course the transformation into a fly, but it’s all very Cronenbergian. This transformation is treated much more like a disease. It’s incredibly powerful on its own but it has little if to do with the short story on which it is based.
Lord of Illusions
Clive Barker wrote and directed this adaptation of his short story “The Last Illusion” but it really doesn’t have much of anything to do with that story. The key points are more or less the same. Occult detective Harry D’Amour is brought in to investigate the death of magician Philip Swann. But just about everything else is different, as the major plot of the film revolves around a magic cult and their resurrection of their Manson-like leader, “The Puritan.” Both stories work perfectly well on their own, but they are more or less entirely unrelated.
There are many Stephen King stories that could have made this list. Even some of the major adaptations, like Children of the Corn, would fit the bill. But nothing compares to The Lawnmower Man, which King actually sued to have his name removed from. The short story is about a man who becomes haunted and stalked by the man who mows his lawn. The movie is about a man developing state-of-the-art virtual reality technology that links up the brain with the technological world. He volunteers his gardener to be a lab rat for the tech and sets him on a path toward using virtual reality to kill all those that stand in his way. Meanwhile an organization called “The Shop” (from several Stephen King stories and ironically the most King-accurate thing in the movie, despite not being in the story) tries to steal the tech back. The two things have nothing to do with each other, other than the name.