CULTURE & ARTS
08/19/2016 09:21 am ET

The Must-Read Short Stories Behind 16 Great Movies

🚂 Yet another reason y'all need to get on the short fiction train. 🚂
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The sci-fi psychological thriller “Arrival” has been lighting up the internet since the trailer’s, ahem, arrival this week. The November 2016 movie of alien contact (not, as some originally may have thought, a comedy of manners surrounding a visit from distant out-of-town relatives) has already been stirring up buzz not just around the performances of its A-list stars and its eerie, geopolitically touchy posters, but around the text “Arrival” was originally based on. 

Believe it or not, this entire feature film was drawn from a short story, “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, which won the Nebula Award for Best Novella in 2000. (That’s a pretty prestigious science fiction award.) Now, movie critics and sci-fi film fans alike are hastening to their computers to order copies of Chiang’s short story collections, uncovering a whole new fantastic reservoir of writing that they might never have previously thought to seek out.

What better argument, in today’s film-rich environment, for the value of the humble short story? One day, that unassuming little flight of fantasy you leafed through in 20 minutes could be on the big screen. Need more proof? Here are 16 gripping, mind-bending, whimsical, poetic short stories that ended up as major motion pictures ― some of them may surprise you:

  • “Arrival” by Ted Chiang
    Chiang's award-winning short story takes a more intimate angle on the alien invasion narrative, focusing on a scientist taske
    Small Beer, Paramount
    Chiang's award-winning short story takes a more intimate angle on the alien invasion narrative, focusing on a scientist tasked with communicating with extraterrestrial interlopers and the philosophical and emotional questions ultimately raised by her work. 
  • “Eisenheim the Illusionist” by Steven Millhauser
    It may be surprising to learn that "The Illusionist," a rather conventional film in which a dashing magician competes with a
    Poseidon, Yari
    It may be surprising to learn that "The Illusionist," a rather conventional film in which a dashing magician competes with a nobleman for the woman he loves, was originally based on a short story by one of our oddest, eeriest contemporary short fiction writers. Millhauser's "Eisenheim the Illusionist" lacks the romantic angle, compiling more of a semi-mythologized portrait of the stage magician. It makes for a decidedly less straightforward experience.
  • “The Sentinel” by Arthur C. Clarke
    With apologies to Clarke, who has said the story "bears about as much relation to the movie as an acorn to the resultant full
    IBooks, MGM
    With apologies to Clarke, who has said the story "bears about as much relation to the movie as an acorn to the resultant full-grown oak," "The Sentinel" was the seed of this classic film. For "2001," Clarke and Kubrick used modified elements of the story, which is about an alien artifact left on the moon, as well certain ideas from other stories.
  • “The Birds” by Daphne du Maurier
    Daphne du Maurier and Alfred Hitchcock are like the literary and cinematic sides of the same terrifying artistic coin, so whe
    Virago, Universal Pictures
    Daphne du Maurier and Alfred Hitchcock are like the literary and cinematic sides of the same terrifying artistic coin, so when they worked together, it was a beautiful thing. If you've never read the original story upon which Hitchcock's "The Birds" was based, do it now -- and never look at birds the same way again.
  • “In a Grove” by Ryunosuke Akutagawa
    Akutagawa also wrote a short story called "Rashomon," from which Kurosawa drew certain elements of his film classic of the sa
    Tuttle
    Akutagawa also wrote a short story called "Rashomon," from which Kurosawa drew certain elements of his film classic of the same name. The meat of the movie, though, is based on another of his short stories, called "In a Grove," which relates three unreliable narratives surrounding the death of a samurai.
  • “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” by Alice Munro
    The Nobel Prize–winning Munro has won acclaim for her short fiction that can seem at odds with the quietness of her sto
    Knopf, Lionsgate
    The Nobel Prize–winning Munro has won acclaim for her short fiction that can seem at odds with the quietness of her stories, which typically focus on domestic dramas and women's daily lives. "Away From Her" successfully turned one of her most poignant stories, about an older couple dealing with the wife's Alzheimers and the husband's history of infidelity, into a lovely film -- but that's no excuse to skip the original.
  • “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” by James Thurber
    Ben Stiller's film adaptation of this classic Thurber tale received tepid reactions from audiences and critics alike, but his
    Penguin, 20th Century Fox
    Ben Stiller's film adaptation of this classic Thurber tale received tepid reactions from audiences and critics alike, but his passion for translating that story to film was thoroughly covered at the time. "Walter Mitty," which tells the story of a repressed, thwarted man who finds escape through elaborately vivid daydreams, might just sit better on the page than the screen.
  • “Three-Ten to Yuma” by Elmore Leonard
    Sure, we all love watching Crowe and Bale flex their manly muscles in a setting that's<a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2005/06
    HarperCollins, Lionsgate
    Sure, we all love watching Crowe and Bale flex their manly muscles in a setting that's 100 percent appropriate. But Elmore Leonard? That guy's the real classic.
  • “Brokeback Mountain” by Annie Proulx
    Before there were&nbsp;Heath and Jake, there was&nbsp;just Annie Proulx's precise prose&nbsp;on a page.
    Fourth Estate, Focus Features
    Before there were Heath and Jake, there was just Annie Proulx's precise prose on a page.
  • “The Minority Report” by Philip K. Dick
    What's better than "Minority Report" starring Tom Cruise? "Minority Report"&nbsp;<i>without</i> Tom Cruise. Dick's unsettling
    Citadel, DreamWorks
    What's better than "Minority Report" starring Tom Cruise? "Minority Report" without Tom Cruise. Dick's unsettling story is somehow darker, more thought-provoking, and unputdownable.
  • “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” by F. Scott Fitzgerald
    That book cover really says it all, no? This story is so&nbsp;bizarre that it stretches credulity that Fitzgerald wrote it an
    Penguin, Paramount
    That book cover really says it all, no? This story is so bizarre that it stretches credulity that Fitzgerald wrote it and Brad Pitt starred in a movie about it, but both of those things happened. But while the movie is something of a dramatic, star-crossed romance, the short story is hilariously grim about the realities of an aging-backwards lifestyle.
  • “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” by Stephen King
    If you ever watched "The Shawshank Redemption" and thought,&nbsp;<i>I wish this were a short story written by a really gifted
    Viking, Columbia
    If you ever watched "The Shawshank Redemption" and thought, I wish this were a short story written by a really gifted author, your wish had already come true. The film is actually quite faithfully based on King's novella.
  • “Memento Mori” by Jonathan Nolan
    The short story, first published in Esquire in 2001, was written by Jonathan Nolan. Before he finished working on the story,
    Esquire, Summit
    The short story, first published in Esquire in 2001, was written by Jonathan Nolan. Before he finished working on the story, however, he pitched the idea to his brother, Christopher, as a movie. One Nolan made the movie, "Memento," and the other finished the short story, both from the same concept. The film has a memorable visual style, but it's well worth reading an artful prose exploration of the theme as well.
  • “The Fly” by George Langelaan
    "The Fly" is an objectively horrifying movie, and it's based on a disturbing short story originally published in Playboy. The
    Playboy, 20th Century Fox
    "The Fly" is an objectively horrifying movie, and it's based on a disturbing short story originally published in Playboy. The story version features a wife put in a mental institution after she apparently murders her own husband with a hydraulic press -- but did it have something to do with an odd-looking fly her son later saw in the house, and some odd experiments her late husband was conducting in his laboratory?
  • “It Had to Be Murder” by Cornell Woolrich
    "It Had to Be Murder," published&nbsp;by pulp fiction author Woolrich in 1942, has been so thoroughly eclipsed by the movie a
    Amereon, Paramount
    "It Had to Be Murder," published by pulp fiction author Woolrich in 1942, has been so thoroughly eclipsed by the movie adaptation, "Rear Window," that the story is typically packaged under that name now. 
  • “Secretary” by Mary Gaitskill
    Behind the sadomasochistic love story of "Secretary," starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader, there's a far less optimis
    Simon and Schuster, Lionsgate
    Behind the sadomasochistic love story of "Secretary," starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader, there's a far less optimistic short story by the brilliant Gaitskill. In the story, the titular secretary, a rather dysfunctional young woman with a controlling family, finds herself sucked into a sexual relationship with her exploitative boss. Not many happy endings, except maybe of the more tawdry type.
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