The Bear and the Bulldog

There are two parts to this argument, and neither of them offers a definitive conclusion. There is the novel – the bear – of the title and then the short story, the bulldog.

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Nobody would think twice about who would win in a confrontation between a bear and a bulldog, but that’s exactly the analogy I think about. What translates better to film? The novel or the short story? As a general rule: the bulldog usually wins, on paper. A glance at the list of short stories made into films proves that the awkward bulldog, with its low center of gravity, outruns and outdoes the lumbering bear.

James Joyce’s “The Dead” became John Huston’s last film in 1987.

Hemingway’s “The Killers” was done twice: in 1946 with Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner, and then in 1964, with Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson. On that ‘last of’ theme: the 1964 version would cast Reagan in his last cinematic role and first role as a villain before he entered politics.

A gaggle of P.K. Dick stories became films. “Blade Runner” and “Minority Report” are two of his most well know stories put to celluloid, although Blade Runner the movie had seven possible endings. Dick didn’t live to see the film open, but he did see alt-versions of BR endings and hadn’t liked what he had seen or read.

There are other bulldogs in the list. Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” has been made into a film three times. The number of Cornell Woolrich short stories adapted for the screen could populate a kennel. His “It Had To Be Murder” is likely the one most people might know from his noirish oeuvre because it became Hitchcock’s Rear Window. 153 – yes, 153! – of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock stories have been made into films. The granddaddy bulldog of them all is – believe it or not, it is not the ubiquitous Stephen King, although close –the Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig, with 70 films made from his short fiction.

Now, the novella is more like a cub than a bear. The problem here is whether the novella is a long short story or a short novel. Henry James’s The Turn of The Screw, which inspired two films, The Innocents in 1961 and most recently The Others with Nicole Kidman, clocks in at a mere 75 pages. I mention the page count because Stephen King’s novellas vary from the 65-page Ride The Bullet, which was the world’s first electronic book for you trivia fans, to the 230-page The Mist. The point is Mr. King’s idea of a short story is broad: the bulldog is more like Cujo – a little long in the tooth.

There are novels and there are NOVELS. Case in point: The Maltese Falcon, just as Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, is a hair over two hundred pages, yet these novels inspired films in which the dialog was lifted verbatim, as if Strunk and White’s “Omit Needless Words” was taken to heart. Maltese, by the way, was put to film three times. The Shootist is another example where script and dialog blurred. Coincidentally, the other Hammett novels are somewhat lean and inspired films: Red Harvest became (loosely) Miller’s Crossing and then there is the series of Thin Man movies.

The granddaddy bear, though I don’t think that he’d have appreciated the pun, is Henry James. I know that an argument can be made for Stephen King, but I picked James for a reason. Where the bulldog reaches for the ankles, the bear is a massive predator that can swipe your head off, which is exactly the problem that faces screenwriters. A short story is compact and concise, and no matter how much leash given the bulldog, he isn’t going to outrun the walker. His legs are capable of only so much. The screenwriter who has to confront Henry James, or Dickens, or Tolstoy, or King himself has the unenviable task of trying to give a bear a haircut with toenail clippers. The powerhouse team of Merchant Ivory and the late Ruth Prawer Jhabvala translated James to film several times. The fundamental challenge is sheer scale, the sprawl of the canvas, and the aesthetic decision (or guess) whether the reader and viewer want to luxuriate in seeing “The Figure in the Rug” (a James short story), the stir of the teaspoon in afternoon tea, or get from here to there as fast as possible. The camera loves the bear. The bulldog likes to talk. The camera shows. Dialog is action. Both are revelatory in their own way.

What stays and what goes is the question that a (screen)writer must tackle in the process of moving the story from the pages of a novel onto the screen. Whether that person is working with Henry James or Stephen King, how does he or she make a doorstopper into a paperweight? Without revealing spoilers, I asked the same question about Gillian Flynn’s adaptation of her novel, Gone Girl. I selected her because 1) I saw the movie and then read the book, although I had tried to read the novel but couldn’t ‘get into it’ and 2) Flynn had that rare opportunity for the novelist to adapt her own work to the screen. For the record, King has done it numerous times, with mixed success. Flynn nailed it.

I won’t write any spoilers here, but Gone Girl is all about surfaces. The novel can be summed up in one quote from Ford Maddox Ford: “Who in this world knows anything of any other heart – or of his own?” There I did it: I gave the bear a landing strip for a haircut. Flynn had some hard choices to make: keep this or chuck that over her shoulder. No matter what your opinion is about plausibility and the contested and decried ending, she had to kill her darlings. She had two unlikeable characters: facile, insipid and shallow people. She kept Nick’s ‘move’ – and here I am reminded of Hannah’s asking Jacob what his move was in Crazy, Stupid, Love – because it is what puts Amazing Amy over the edge. What Flynn ripped out of the novel and gave short order for the film, in my opinion, are two things: the growth of Nick from milquetoast to shocked state of awareness, and Amazing Amy’s parents co-opting her childhood (Told not Shown). Amy, possibly the diva of unreliable narrators, tells Nick all about Daddy and Mommie dearest, yet Gillian Flynn did manage to trim the bear while allowing it kept its claws. I hope to see a published screenplay because I think it would provide writers with lessons on how to deal with ursine decisions.

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About gabrielswharf

gabriel’s wharf is a blog on the random thoughts and writings of author Gabriel Valjan. His stories continue to appear online and in print journals. Winter Goose Publishing publishes his Roma Series.
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