Long Live the Short Story

By Midge Raymond,

  Filed under: On Writing

As tonight’s 78th Annual Academy Awards ceremony celebrates “Brokeback Mountain” for its many accomplishments — most of which have an Oscar nomination attached — I’ll be continuing to celebrate the fact that this beautiful film originated as a beautiful short story. While turning novels into films is nothing new, there’s been a wonderful new trend over the past several years in which short stories are making their way to the big screen — with great success.

In her 1999 interview with The Missouri Review, Annie Proulx called Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana’s adaptation of her 1997 story “Brokeback Mountain” an “exceptionally fine screenplay.” Those familiar with Proulx’s story will note the script’s faithfulness to Proulx’s original; whereas adapting a novel to film requires a certain degree of reductionism, adapting a short story, on the other hand, usually requires fleshing out, if anything — and remaining faithful to the original work is far easier for screenwriters to achieve. (This is good news for both writers and readers.)

In addition to Oscar nominations for actors Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal and for director Ang Lee, “Brokeback Mountain” was, of course, nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay (not to mention Best Music (Score), Best Cinematography, and Best Picture). But this isn’t the first time in recent years that short stories have been successfully adapted. Previously nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay was Rob Festinger and Todd Field’s 2001 script “In the Bedroom,” based on Andre Dubus’ short story “Killings” (the film also scored nominations in the Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actress categories). (More of Dubus’ short stories — “We Don’t Live Here Anymore” and “Adultery” — were adapted to the screen in the 2004 film “We Don’t Live Here Anymore,” starring Mark Ruffalo, Laura Dern, Naomi Watts, and Peter Krause.) And let’s not forget “The Shawshank Redemption” and “Stand By Me,” just two of many films based on the short works of Stephen King.

And the short story is being celebrated in myriad other ways — The Los Angeles Times recently named Amy Tan as literary editor for its weekly magazine, West, which last month replaced the Los Angeles Times magazine and now publishes short fiction. Small presses such as Hourglass Books are devoted to publishing collections of short stories; anthologies such as the O. Henry Awards and Best American Short Stories publish selections from literary magazines; and perhaps best of all is The Story Prize, an annual book award honoring a collection of short fiction with a $20,000 cash award. The prize was created in 2004 by Julie Lindsey and Larry Dark to support short story collections and help abate the difficulties authors face in trying to publish them.

A lot of writers believe that they must write a novel in order to have a career as a writer. Being a short-story writer can indeed be frustrating — with a few exceptions, story collections don’t sell as well as novels and aren’t nearly as high profile. Yet a short story remains the perfect medium for today’s busy readers: it can offer all the elements of a novel in a trim, accessible format. And seeing both the film and publishing industries embrace it means the short story will be around for a long while.

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