News comes this week from Hollywood that Gillian Flynn’s short story The Grownup has sold to Universal Studios for “high six figures,” which is a holy-crap-that’s-a-lot-of-money amount of money for a spec sale.
The question is: Is it worth it? And the answer is yes. And no. And that most powerful word in the English language: maybe. Yes, it is worth it because Gillian Flynn is a name and Gone Girl made eight gazillion dollars (rightly so), and they can sell that alone. No, it is not worth it, because—spoiler alert here, but a little one. A “spoilette,” if you will—The Grownup, which is only 62 pages long, completely and utterly lacks a third act.
The story presents us with an intriguing main character– a con artist ex-hooker masquerading as a fortune teller with a wicked sense of humor. And it even gives her something pretty interesting, if not exactly original, to do: investigate a spooky old Victorian haunted house. But it still leaves readers flipping back a couple pages upon reaching the end with a “Wait, is that it?” expression on their faces.
Personally, if I was going to spend “high six figures” on a movie, I wouldn’t want to have to write the third act myself. Then again, if I had “high six figures,” I would be writing this to you from a “beach chair in Bermuda” and not standing in my kitchen typing with one hand while I make spaghetti for my kids with the other. But that’s beside the point.
And yet I absolutely believe that Universal made the right bet in buying the story, and not just because Gillian Flynn is a sellable name. It’s because the story—truncated though it may be– succeeds in doing something that all great stories must do: it freaks us out a little bit.
Stephen King writes in Danse Macabre, his non-fiction book about how to write compelling fiction that every aspiring writer should read right now, about the concept of “primal fear” in his stories.
Specifically, he says this:
“Terror—what Hunter Thompson calls ‘fear and loathing’—often arises from a pervasive sense of disestablishment; that things are in the unmaking. If that sense of unmaking is sudden and seems personal—if it hits you around the heart—then it lodges in the memory as a complete set.” –Stephen King, Danse Macabre
He’s talking specifically about horror stories, which The Grownup is. But I think we can prove that a similar philosophy can be applied to all great stories that grab us, that hold our imagination, that linger with us long after the lights come up. Great stories give us that sense of “disestablishment,” the feeling that at any moment the roof might cave in. Why? Because the truth that we are learning from the story shakes us to the core. For long after we leave the theater, we see the world slightly altered, as though reflected in a new light created by that truth.
And very often short stories succeed in translating to the screen even more so than novels. It might just be a matter of efficiency; a short story tends to have just enough plot to fill a 90-minute feature, while a full-length novel can simply be too dense to translate properly. Hollywood seems to have caught on to this fact, more and more often adapting novels (and novel series) into episodics such as Game of Thrones or Outlander instead of trying to cram a 900-page book into one film. (Someone on a message board recently described the latest movie version of Jane Eyre as a “greatest-hits album” rather than a real adaptation. I thought that was pretty clever. So I’m taking credit for it, because that’s what writers do.)
But I also think short stories work when they become movies for another reason: in addition to plot, the language itself requires the writer to get down to business and make every word count. No prosaic descriptions of the autumnal rain dragging out the plot; no B story segue that delves into the mystical foundations of the Illuminati. Just the facts, ma’am– introduce me to your characters, tell me what their problem is, put a BIG obstacle in the way of solving it, and then show me how they solve it anyway. As Stephen King might say, “What is the most primal problem– the character flaw– eating away at this person, and how are you going to make them come up against it again and again until they learn a lesson?”
Sounds to me like a screenplay.
And King’s own shorts provide perfect examples of this, possibly because he writes so cinematically to begin with.
King’s own The Body, (which you can read here for free), was altered only very slightly when it became Stand by Me. The biggest changes, really, are just a couple of sequences that were left out of the movie, but occur in the short story, such as a dream sequence in which Gordy (the Wil Wheaton character in the movie) imagines his friends drowning in a lake and pulling him down with them.
Interestingly, that same year, King would visit a similar theme, this time as pure horror, in The Raft, which became a segment in Creepshow 2 that gave me nightmares for a really, really long time. If you haven’t seen it, don’t. As the movie title promises, it will “creep” you out. But the gist of it is a main character being dragged into the water and swallowed whole by an amorphous oily blob.
What’s so genius about King is how he can take a very similar sequence plot-wise and deftly manipulate the tone to fit into two completely different stories.
Similarly, Annie Proulx’s gorgeous Brokeback Mountain, which first appeared in the New Yorker in 1997, manages in only a few short pages to convey not only the entire plot, but also the dialect, origins, longings and desperations of its two main characters. It is one of the most efficient, and the most evocative things I have ever read. (If you’re interested, the screenwriters Larry McMurty and Diana Ossana released this book on the adaptation process.)
It is funny, then, to see the short stories that are changed so dramatically when they become films.
When Blake Edwards made Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s into a film, he dismissed Capote’s sad little dirge about a fascination with an eccentric, but perhaps unstable, neighbor who flits in and out of the life of a nameless protagonist who, let’s face it, is gay, and turned it instead into, well, Breakfast at Tiffany’s:
And I could write a whole novel about the differences between Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle and the Amazon TV show, except it would be a really short novel and it would just say: “The novella and the TV show are so completely different that the TV producers basically just borrowed the cool title and then made up a different story.” But hey, at least they kept the title. The makers of We Can Remember It for You Wholesale (Total Recall) and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (Blade Runner) didn’t even do that.
So will The Grownup, high on charm, but perhaps a bit low on plot, fall into the first category or the second? I guess we’ll have to wait to find out.
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