By Alex Trivilino

In the days of dystopic rebellions, articulate teens with cancer and many shades of erotic fulfillment, it’s likely that your most recent trips to the movies have included quite a few flicks based on books. But every once in a while, you’ll be watching a movie, notice a credit and realize that, wow, Die Hard was a novel? Weird.

Even more elusive are movies born of short stories. No screenplay or adaptation is easy, but when a feature-length film’s source material is only a few pages, that’s a pretty big sandbox to play in. Of course, for every victory like Where the Wild Things are there’s a Cat in a Hat, but we enjoy celebrating success. In that spirit, check out these four great short stories which birthed great movies. All of the films have taken on lives of their own while still managing to honor the brief but powerful words on which they were based:

1. “Eisenheim the Illusionist” from The Barnum Museum by Steven Millhauser Inspired The Illusionist

Despite winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1997 for his novel Martin Dressler, Millhauser’s work has only danced with Hollywood once. “Eisenheim the Illusionist” serves as a biography of the eponymous character and captures the unease of his spectators when his magical performances take on darker, more serious turns. Its film version sadly seemed to be overlooked by many as “the fall 2006 movie about 19th century magicians that wasn’t The Prestige.” But The Illusionist captured the magical spirit of Millhauser’s overall style and has wonderfully understated performances by its leads, Edward Norton and Paul Giamatti. (Jessica Biel is also in there.) Both story and movie will make you believe in magic a little more, while also illustrating that its allure works best with less answers.

2. “Why Don’t You Dance?” from What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver Inspired Everything Must Go

Carver’s tale is a snapshot of a man, his drinks, his lawn, his possessions and the sad joy he sees from a young couple and the optimism ahead of them. Not exactly enough to last 90 minutes. Everything Must Go fills in our hero’s gaps a little more explicitly, and it’s all Carver 101: He’s been fired from his job due to alcoholism, his wife’s changed the locks on him, and she’s tossed all his possessions on the lawn. More players emerge, in the form of a charming kid neighbor and a cute grown-up neighbor, and the film justifies its expanded length. Best of all is a Will Ferrell who doesn’t poke fun at or overplay the disparity of his character. Instead, he’s just as honest and quiet as both the world he’s acting in and the source material which inspired it.

3. “The Minority Report” from The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick Inspired Minority Report

The two iterations of this science fiction tale are set in the world of “pre-crime,” in which cops can arrest criminals for committing murders they haven’t gotten around to yet. With such a juicy landscape rife with fate versus free will dilemmas, the movie does a great job illustrating the ethical swampland of Dick’s story. The movie enhances Dick’s vision too, resulting in a view of the future that seems oddly plausible. Most noticeably, the two take very different endings. You’ll have to enjoy both to gauge which one best fits your brand of cynicism.

4. “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” from Tales of the Jazz Age by F. Scott Fitzgerald Inspired The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The very long movie that stems from the very short story seems to have generated strong opinions from just about everyone who’s come in contact with it. (This writer’s opinion is very favorable — Forest Gump comparisons be damned!)

As similar as their premises are — there he is, Benjamin Button, still aging backwards — their executions couldn’t be any more different. Story “Button” is played up much more whimsically, beginning in 1860 and containing all kinds of wacky hijinks-filled exploits: College football, twice! Benjamin’s son becoming a de facto uncle! Benjamin leaving the love of his life because she’s getting old and ugly and he isn’t! The movie takes an Oscar-friendly three-hour somber turn, keeping the love story stretched across the entire 20th century and into Hurricane Katrina. It underlines the hardships of missed opportunities and how timing — particularly when one party has that backwards-aging-thing — is everything.

Which other short stories that you’ve enjoyed have inspired movies? And have you read any recently that you think should get expanded? Let us know in the comments below!

Alex Trivilino grew up in Pittsburgh, went to college in Boston and now hikes around Los Angeles. He enjoys maps, pies and mysteries, and is currently seeking an academic nemesis. Favorite his tweets, but only if you want to.

(Image Credits, from top: Fllickr, Amazon, IMP Awards, Vintage Books, Collider, Collector’s Workbench, IMP Awards, Penguin Books, My Lawyer Will Call Your Lawyer)

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