We all know the drill: You wake up one morning to discover that one of your favorite short stories by one of your favorite authors is being made in to a movie. You get excited. You deftly try to follow news of the production while dodging actual spoilers. You do the dance of checking up on the director’s track record while questioning the casting. You spend months or years looking forward to it, and you arrange your schedule so you can pick it up during the opening weekend.
And it sucks.
Oh, sure, it follows the screenwriting 101 guide to structure, there’s some good writing, some funny scenes here and there, some pulse-pounding set pieces, and everyone *else* seems to like it, but for you, personally, being intimately invested in the story from long ago, it just doesn’t work.
The classic example of this is…well, I was going to say “Total Recall,” which is based on “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” by Philip K. Dick, but truth be told most of the movies based on Phil’s work have been pretty sub-par. The man wrote brilliant short stories and great novels, but Hollywood has yet to do a really solid adaptation of them to the big screen. The best of the bunch is unquestionably “Blade Runner,” which is based on Phil’s novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” but even there we find *WILD* divergences from the book, and a fundamentally different ending and a fundamentally different setting, and a largely different point than the novel.
But there it works. In “Recall” we get a beautiful, clever, tight, punchy little story with a neat structure that gets transformed in to an over-caffeinated Arnold Schwarzenegger kill fest. Ok, the “Is this real or a dream” twist at the end is clever, but not enough to justify what came before, and I actually kind of like Arnie Kill Fests, but the fact remains that the movie has little or no intersection with the story it’s based on.
Now, in Hollywood they prefer to make movies based on short stories rather than novels. The reason being: Movie scripts are about 90 to 120 pages, and novels are hundreds of pages. Short stories - being rather short - allow them to expand on some parts and fiddle with the structure. In the case of the late Mr. Dick’s stories, many of them actually deliberately lacked a conclusion. “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale,” for instance, ends when the twist is revealed, leaving the audience free to imagine the higgledy piggaldy that’s about to ensue as a result. That’s attractive to screenwriters, directors, and studios as a whole because they get the prestige of doing a story by a ’name’ author, but it still leaves them free to do whatever the hell they want.
Ok, fine and good, I’m not here to kvetch about Hollywood, and their track record really isn’t all that bad. But even if you love “Recall,” there’s something sweet and beautiful in the original short story that simply can’t survive being over-inflated to feature length. It’d be great as an episode of The Twilight Zone (The original one, please) at 22 minutes, but at 120 minutes there’s just too much filler and not enough meat to make the sausage really appetizing.
It doesn’t even have to be SF, you know. Take “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas” - a great, punchy Dr. Seuss book, which was turned in to a great, punchy Christmas special. The book is better than the special, but not by much, and then only because the special is ever-so-slightly too long. Cut out one song/montage and I’d say it’s perfect. This gave rise to “The Grinch” movie which takes a perfect, punchy little story, stretches it out to five times its length, introduces terrible backstory and forced whimsy, and completely manages to blunt the dark wit of the original. It’s awful.
But here’s what I’d like to see: I’d like to see a return - at least occasionally - to the “Anthology Movie” concept.
Granted, Anthologies have never been all that popular as films: Creepshow 1&2, The Illustrated Man, Twilight Zone: The Movie, none were huge hits, but for me the Short Story has always been a delivery device for great ideas. There’s little better than a great anthology by a great other that just shoots concept after concept in to your head efficiently and rapidly, and makes you sit up half the night saying “oooh!”
There’s no reason this can’t be done in film. Pick a dozen short stories that you like by an author - let’s say Larry Niven - and film them, with no fixed length. Each one is only as long as it needs to be. Some will be like five minutes (Neutron Star), some might be forty (Grendel), then you just stick them together, and when you hit a 120 minute running time, you’re done. Shoot an extra story for the DVD release, and you’re set.
How much fun would that be? You get maximum delivery of ideas in the most efficient useage of time, it’s fascinating and fun, it’s like nothing else on the market, you can have all kinds of crazy fun with production design and music differing from story to story. It’d be a total trip, and, best of all, the stories themselves would retain their original structure, they would be much closer to the authors’ original intention than a 2-hour feature based on the same story. You wouldn’t have to sweat the ‘adaptation’ much because they’d be filmed more-or-less as written. They’d be, you know, cool.
In fact, it doesn't even *have* to be just movies compiling short stories by a single author, it could be a bunch of authors. It doesn't even *have* to be stuff that started as short stories. Take Star Wars for example: We all know that George Lucas doesn't have an original idea left in his head, and if he did somehow come up with one, he'd instantly murder it so it wouldn't become a threat to his long, slow slide in to irrelevance. But the Star Wars universe is pretty cool and all, right? So take six directors, and have them each film a standalone 20-minute film set at any point in the history of the Star Wars galaxy. Give the entire project an A-picture budget, string 'em together, and how freakin' cool would that be? I mean, by it's very nature it wouldn't be ponderous (For a change) and the storytelling would be efficient (For a change).
Paramount is having a lot of success at the moment simply by taking Trek away from the Trekies. Presumably it's about time to take Star Wars away from Lucas, and an anthology film would be a great weather balloon to check out the feasability of doing just that.
So that’s what I’d like to see, if anyone in Hollywood is listening.