This autumn sees the release of Possum, the debut of writer director Matthew Holness which started life as an entry in Comma’s 2008 modern horror anthology The New Uncanny. Literary adaptations are nothing remotely new, of course. They’re a whole art form unto themselves. But there’s something about short fiction in particular which means that it lends itself well to the broader canvas of the cinema screen. Why exactly is that?
For one thing, adapting a full novel into a film will be an almost inevitable process of leaving things out. For example, even the big screen versions of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, three feature films each with a very generous running time, were required to lop out scenes, characters and subplots beloved by the faithful.
Adapting a novel, then, is about finding the core of the story and telling it in a way which befits the cinema. With short stories, it’s a different matter. The narrative is all there but in a much tighter, more compact form, so putting together an adaptation will be about allowing the story and the characters room to stretch out and breathe.
Yes, big screen versions of Austen and Dickens are ten-a-penny, but some copper-bottomed film gems were drawn from short stories or novellas. Think of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Brokeback Mountain, The Swimmer, The Third Man or Double Indemnity. Indeed, think of 45 Years, the much-garlanded Andrew Haigh film based on a David Constantine short story first published by Comma in 2005.
This ‘short story to big screen’ pathway can work especially well for science fiction films, from The Day the Earth Stood Still and Total Recall to 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Thing from Another World. Consider the example of the latter, which began as John W. Campbell Jr.’s 1938 novella “Who Goes There?” and has now inspired three different big screen outings (or four if we count the very loose adaptation Horror Express). It has a remarkable setting which can be called ‘cinematic’ without too much of a stretch. It has a small character list, some big, nasty surprises and at its heart a huge, clear, simple ‘what if? idea, which can be explored and rendered in a whole variety of ways (indeed, that’s proved to be exactly the case).
“Who Goes There?” walks the line between science fiction and horror, and short fiction has been the source for some fine horror films, such as Hellraiser, The Fly or The Birds. Some, as with The Thing from Another World, have pulpy roots in popular genre story magazines. Others, such as The Birds, have more obviously classy, ‘literary’ origins. The work of certain horror authors have been especially suited to film adaptation, such as Edgar Allan Poe or Stephen King (whose extensive short-fiction-to-film canon takes in everything from The Mist to The Lawnmower Man and The Shawshank Redemption).
The best horror short stories tell a complete story with the greatest economy, deploying vivid visual imagery and a pervasive mood. Of course, short stories are perfect for springing surprises, enveloping the reader until delivering a powerful reversal or a shock ending, and while all manner of genres make good use of narrative twists, the nature of horror makes them absolutely vital. A short story is rarely long enough to allow an author to conjure up an entire, complex world, but it’s just right for getting into the mind of a character. Again, this more overtly psychological approach can be a key feature of horror fiction.
Nor is this just one-way traffic. It’s plain to see that many modern horror writers have been as shaped by film and television as they have by horror prose itself. Released earlier this year, the film Ghost Stories, written and directed by Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson (himself a regular Comma contributor), wears its influences on its sleeve, but in amongst nods to favoured horror authors such as Ramsey Campbell are tips of the hat to TV scriptwriter Nigel Kneale and the BBC’s acclaimed Ghost Stories for Christmas M.R. James adaptations from the 1970s. The latter were, of course, based on short stories in the first place, but the TV versions have exerted a whole influence of their own. Meanwhile Kneale, himself a great admirer of M.R. James’ original stories, has inspired many writers who have come after him, not least Dyson and Matthew Holness. It’s a whole web of confluence reaching out in assorted directions, creators in one medium influencing those in another on and on. In horror, though, the short story is arguably the forefather of all that’s come after.
Dyson and Nyman’s Ghost Stories was not shy of acknowledging its debts, and it’s particularly interesting here that it assumed a variation of the portmanteau form. Down the decades the great British ‘anthology horror’ sub-genre has brought us the likes of Dead of Night, Dr Terror’s House of Horror and From Beyond the Grave, and by offering up a selection of stories they are on one level a contemporary take on classic paperback horror story collections, the older medium literally replicated by the silver screen.
How then does this relate to Matthew Holness’ Possum? No spoilers here, but the film examines a place, a character and a state of mind in an intense, relentless fashion, unfolding at its own natural pace. There are ways in which Holness draws upon his original short story version and other ways in which the two differ wildly, but it would be remiss to spell such details out here. They’re for the curious to discover, but that shouldn’t pose too much of a problem, as Comma have reissued The New Uncanny in a handsome new edition, and the Possum film is due to go on release later this year. Will further horror stories, courtesy of Comma or otherwise, be following the likes of Possum into your local cinema? You can count on it.
Many thanks to Andy for writing this post.
Purchase The New Uncanny at commapress.co.uk for an exclusive online discount.
Catch the English premiere of Possum at London’s Frightfest on Monday 27th August, 3:45pm.