The Short Stories Behind 10 Famous Films


We’ve been anticipating the audiobook release of John McManusStop Breakin Down — the short story collection that won him a prestigious Whiting Writers’ Award, for which he was the youngest recipient. “Here is rage on the page,” the Los Angeles Times wrote of McManus’ stories about “people driven to the brink of endurance and survival.” Writer Dane Elcar narrates the audio version, imbuing the tales with a cinematic quality. The release got us thinking about the ways literature is translated from page to screen and the many short stories that have made the leap to cinema. Here are ten of our favorites for your comparison and perusal.

Don’t Look Now

Nicolas Roeg’s 1973 film Don’t Look Now, famous for its realistic sex scenes between stars Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland, looked to Daphne du Maurier’s 1971 short story collection Not After Midnight to inform the emotionally devastating tale. Both versions follow the unraveling of a married couple who retreat to Venice after the death of their daughter, but the causes of the little girl’s demise vary. The Guardian wrote of Du Maurier’s dark story:

“‘Don’t Look Now’ is a deeply unsettling story. Its power arises in part from its few supernatural effects, but is more a function of the slow, inexorable accumulation of incident and feeling that almost imperceptibly acquire a kind of critical mass, to the point that tragedy inevitably occurs — and when it does, it leaves the reader both shocked and relieved, for an intolerable tension has at last been relaxed. This is narrative control of a very high order.

Total Recall

Philip K. Dick’s library has been mined by just about everyone in Hollywood looking for a sci-fi hit. His short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” first published in the 1966 edition of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, centers on a narrative about a protagonist implanted with false memories. Paul Verhoeven brought the story to the big screen in 1990, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as Quaid (changed from Quail). Originally, no one wanted to touch the screenplay, so Verhoeven had a hard time getting things off the ground. At one point David Cronenberg was going to direct the adaptation, but producer and co-writer Ronald Shusett had a particular vision for the film — which Cronenberg related in an interview with Wired:

I worked on it for a year and did about 12 drafts. Eventually we got to a point where Ron Shusett said, ‘You know what you’ve done? You’ve done the Philip K. Dick version.’ I said, ‘Isn’t that what we’re supposed to be doing?’ He said, “No, no, we want to do Raiders of the Lost Ark Go to Mars.”


Christopher Nolan’s neo-noir mind-bender Memento comes from a short story written by his younger brother Jonathan Nolan, “Memento Mori.” The idea was born after taking a psychology class at Georgetown University. Guy Pearce’s Leonard is named Earl in the book and is confined to a mental hospital. Listen to the younger Nolan read his story in the above clip.

Eyes Wide Shut

Stanley Kubrick optioned the rights to Arthur Schnitzler’s 1926 novella Dream Story in the 1960s. According to the director’s daughter Katharina:

He obviously thought that it was a subject matter close to anyone who’s ever been in a relationship of whatever persuasion. I don’t know what his intentions were, I know that he wanted to do it for over 30 years, and that when he first found the story he decided along with my mother that they weren’t old enough or wise enough to deal with such a powerful subject matter.

Both stories capture the rift in a marriage, sparked by insecurities, obsession, and sexual jealousy. Schnitzler’s tale takes place in early 20th-century Vienna, but Kubrick’s version captures a similar decadence — particularly in the masked orgy scenes, which also occurs in the book.


Read Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s “Rashōmon” (which also inspired Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog) and Akutagawa’s early modernist story “In a Grove,” which inspired Akira Kurosawa’s stunning Japanese drama:


In order to somehow get through his “hopeless situation”, the servant might have to set his morals aside. If he refused to do things that he thought were morally questionable, then he would only end up starving to death under a roofed mud wall or on the side of the road. And then he would be taken to this gate, to be discarded, like a dog. “If I am willing to do whatever it takes to survive…” His thoughts had circled through his head a number of times, and they had finally arrived here. But this “if” would always remain a mere hypothetical. For although the servant acknowledged that he had to do whatever he could to get by, he didn’t have the courage to bring the sentence to its foregone conclusion: “I am bound to become a thief.”

In a Grove

Little did I expect that he would meet such a fate. Truly human life is as evanescent as the morning dew or a flash of lightning. My words are inadequate to express my sympathy for him.

2001: A Space Odyssey

Fascinated by the idea of extraterrestrial life, Stanley Kubrick approached science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke about a film collaboration. (There’s a funny story leading up to their meeting, in which Kubrick thought Clarke was a recluse. And Clarke had his own choice opinion about the director.) Kubrick wanted to make a movie that would “arouse the emotions of wonder, awe, even, if appropriate, terror.” Clarke suggested his short story “The Sentinel” as a starting point. Elements of Clarke’s “Encounter in the Dawn” also made it into the movie during the memorable “Dawn of Man” sequence. The men simultaneously developed a novel, which turned into the screenplay. Said Clarke of the collaboration:

I am continually annoyed by careless references to “The Sentinel” as “the story on which 2001 is based”; it bears about as much relation to the movie as an acorn to the resultant full-grown oak. (Considerably less, in fact, because ideas from several other stories were also incorporated.) Even the elements that Stanley Kubrick and I did actually use were considerably modified. Thus the “glittering, roughly pyramidal structure … set in the rock like a gigantic, many-faceted jewel” became — after several modifications — the famous black monolith. And the locale was moved from the Mare Crisium to the most spectacular of all lunar craters, Tycho — easily visible to the naked eye from Earth at Full Moon.

The Fly

George Langelaan’s “The Fly” was first published in a 1957 issue of Playboy (winning a Best Fiction Award by the magazine, too) and has since been adapted for cinema a handful of times. We’re fond of David Cronenberg’s 1986 release, starring Jeff Goldblum. Copies of Langelaan’s story seem to be scarce, but online devotees have published a few.

Rear Window

Cornell Woolrich’s 1942 short story “It Had to Be Murder” caught the attention of Alfred Hitchcock, giving us one of the maestro’s best movies — 1954’s Rear Window. In the film, a housebound photographer (James Stewart) watches his neighbors from his apartment window and becomes convinced one of them is a murderer. Woolwich writes:

I didn’t know their names. I’d never heard their voices. I didn’t even know them by sight, strictly speaking, for their faces were too small to fill in with identifiable features at that distance. Yet I could have constructed a timetable of their comings and goings, their daily habits and activities. They were the rear-window dwellers around me.

Cat’s Eye

Stephen King’s 1978 short story collection Night Shift, his first ever published, contains some of his best-known works in the form — many of which became movies. An incidental feline character from “Quitters, Inc.” and ”The Ledge” became a main character in the 1985 film Cat’s Eye — an anthology meant to showcase baby Drew Barrymore after her appearance in another King adaptation, 1984’s Firestarter.

All About Eve

Mary Orr didn’t receive credit for her contribution to Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Bette Davis vehicle, All About Eve — about an aging Broadway star (Davis as Margo Channing) and the ruthlessly ambitious ingénue (Anne Baxter’s Eve) who tries to replace her. However, Orr’s short “The Wisdom of Eve,” which first appeared in a 1946 issue of Cosmo, formed the bones of the story. Orr based it on a real-life incident:

Contrary to popular belief, Margo Channing is not based on Tallulah Bankhead. The film was adapted from an original story “The Wisdom of Eve” by Mary Orr (uncredited in this film), based on a real-life incident involving Austrian actress Elisabeth Bergner during her run in the hit stage thriller “The Two Mrs. Carrolls” in 1943-44. Originally the lead was, like Bergner, a foreign actress named Margola Cranston before it was changed to Margo Channing. However, the story about it being based on Bankhead persisted, and when Bankhead heard it, she reportedly told a live radio audience that the next time she saw Bette Davis, she would “tear every hair out of her mustache.”

Another version of the incident goes something like this:

In an introduction to the film on Turner Classic Movies in November 2008, Robert Osborne said that everyone assumed that Bette Davis had based her characterization on Tallulah Bankhead, even Tallulah herself. In fact, Bankhead even considered suing Twentieth-Century Fox, but decided not to, because Bette Davis “did such a good job. I’ve just been witched out of $1,000,000 by Bette being as good as me.” But in 1952, Tallulah Bankhead starred in a radio adaptation of “All About Eve” which featured in the supporting cast Mary Orr, author of the original story “The Wisdom of Eve”. According to Robert Osborne, during a rehearsal Tallulah asked Mary Orr: “I was the prototype for Margo Channing, wasn’t I?” and Orr set the record straight and said “no”. Tallulah reportedly never spoke to Mary Orr again.