Cutting to the Chase; Short Stories Prove Surprisingly Good Fodder for Films

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Byline: Tara Pepper

At first glance, short stories and big-screen films appear to be polar opposites. Tiny, carefully crafted dramas that rely on honed language and subtle allusions aren't obvious fodder for feature-length film scripts. Yet they've been the basis for some of cinema's most compelling offerings--including the current Oscar favorite "Brokeback Mountain"--and more are on the way. "Directors are buying up a ton [of short stories]," says Brent Hoff, editor of the literary magazine McSweeney's. "If 'Brokeback Mountain' wins an Oscar, it will certainly increase the desire to buy more, but that train has already left the station. Directors are clamoring for these sorts of stories."

Over the next year, moviegoers will begin seeing the fruits of their labor. "Wristcutters: A Love Story," an offbeat comedy based on a story by Etgar Keret, won good reviews at Sundance. "Next"--drawn from a Philip K. Dick yarn about a man who can see into his future--is set to begin shooting this spring, starring Nicolas Cage and Julianne Moore. Also currently in production: an adaptation of "The Smoker," a New Yorker short story by David Schickler, which will star Natalie Portman, and "Beautiful Ohio," starring William Hurt, adapted from an Ethan Canin coming-of-age story set in the 1970s. Actress Stockard Channing is set to make her directorial debut by bringing to the screen Alix Strauss's short-fiction collection "The Joy of Funerals," about a thirtysomething New Yorker in search of love.

What makes short fiction so appealing to filmmakers? "A lot of the stories have a tight plot, executed very cleanly," says Hoff. "The filmmaker doesn't need to spend time cutting it, as you would with a novel. There's more packed into a small space." It's also typically much cheaper to buy the rights to a short story than to a blockbuster book. Short stories often allow film directors greater freedom of interpretation, too. "Material needs to be filled in, and this can be done in a way that works for the film," says Stephanie Harrison, author of "Adaptations: From Short Story to Big Screen. …