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Thursday, February 25, 2021

Lights, Camera, Action!

by Pete Wood

Two years ago, I found myself scouting locations for a film adaption of my short story, Quantum Doughnut. Ray Petrolino, the director, and I stood outside Krispy Kreme Doughnuts in downtown Raleigh. We had to revise the story. With customers lined up outside for the best doughnuts in the world, I doubted Krispy Kreme would shut down for a film shoot. We couldn’t shoot after hours, because Krispy Kreme is open twenty-four hours. Lucky for us, Ray had a friend in the doughnut industry.

The most gracious shop’s owner couldn’t let us shoot until after dark. So, we had to scrap outdoor scenes. I tweaked the dialogue and removed all references to local businesses and sports teams, because Ray and I didn’t know what might be permissible. Neither of us wanted to approach a university or a national company and ask permission to mention them in a movie.

I have exactly one film adaption under my belt. I have a long way to go before I come close to Frankenstein or Dracula, the most adapted novels of all time. Favorite authors of screenwriters include Mark Twain, Agatha Christie, Jules Verne, Stephen King, Philip Dick, H. G. Wells and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, among many others. The results are a mixed bag.

Monkey Planet (1963) by Pierre Boulle is a mind-numbingly dull read. Slow-paced with uninteresting characters, I found it quite forgettable. Thank God, Rod Serling did not. He gutted the novel and inserted compelling characters, a ton of tension, social commentary, and the greatest movie ending of all time when he penned the script for the original Planet of the Apes (1968).

John Carpenter morphed Ray Nelson’s  one-note 1963 short story, Eight O’clock in the Morning, into my favorite science fiction action movie, They Live (1988). Carpenter lifts the premise of subversive alien hypnosis and ditches a counterproductive twist. He adds a healthy dose of humor, some kick-ass characters (he cast Roddy Piper, a professional wrestler in the lead) and some snappy dialogue. None of the dialogue appears in the book. How great are the film’s one liners? Our local NPR station did a one-hour show on great movie lines and used a line from They Live in the promos. Since I suggested the line, they had me talk about it on the air.

Versions of Jack Finney’s 1955 novel, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, range from great (the 1956 original) to pretty good (the 1978 remake) to don’t bother (all the others). All lack the book’s central logic. The novel’s body snatchers had a sensible plan that adapted when the humans got wise. Idiot plot drives the political allegory of the original and the horror slant of the 1970s remake.

Director, Clarence Brown, filmed Intruder in the Dust (1948)  in Oxford Mississippi, William Faulkner’s hometown, and the author’s inspiration for the fictional setting of most of his novels. The film has a rare authenticity since most of the scenes seem familiar to those acquainted with Faulkner.

In my opinion the worst movie adaption is the abysmal A Sound of Thunder (2005), in theory based on Ray Bradbury’s short story. You’d think there would be some sort of professional courtesy among screenwriters. Bradbury could teach a master class in how to make films of unfilmable novels, thanks to his brilliant reduction of 378-page Moby Dick into a two-hour movie. Bradbury’s short fable is the best time travel story ever written. Period. The film is junk. The four screenwriters (four!) abandoned Bradbury’s premise, added senseless action, incoherent rules of time travel, and cardboard characters and an hour and a half of filler. If you want to see a good adaption of a Bradbury short story, check out The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) which has little in common with Bradbury’s 1951 short story, The Foghorn, but is at least a good movie.

Even if filmmakers sometimes fix what ain’t broke, screenwriters have improved upon mediocre fiction enough that I can’t really complain too much about tinkering. I never would have thought you could  improve on the Odyssey until Joel and Ethan Coen adapted Homer’s epic poem into Oh Brother Where Art Thou?

Films have a daunting task of condensing longer works into two hours give or take. Larry McMurtry might have done the best job of culling when he condensed his own novel for Peter Bogdanovich’s 1971 The Last Picture Show. The book is more nuanced, but the film is still pretty damned brilliant.

Sometimes filmmakers just give up and grab the title, a few key characters, and little else. Ian Fleming wrote 16 James Bond novels from 1953 to 1966. Every single one became a movie that had nothing to do with the novels, other than the title and the main character. The novels are generally better, but quite dated. I read Diamonds Are Forever (1956) a few months ago and had a hard time dealing with its racism. The 1950s Bond wouldn’t sell tickets today.

Maybe the best approach is to make a miniseries. That worked for Dune, The Shining, and The Haunting of Hill House. Shirley Jackson’s 1959 horror classic became Robert Wise’s 1963 movie The Haunting.  Mike Flanagan greatly expanded the perfect novel in his ten-part Netflix miniseries in 2018. He added backstory, many new characters, and two simultaneous ghost stories, one in the present and one in the 1980s. Flanagan’s rethinking took hubris, but it works. Alas, his similar approach to Henry James last year did not succeed. The Haunting of Bly Manor, inspired by the Turn of the Screw, is neither interesting nor scary. It’s just a mess.

I can’t possibly go through every single adaption. Movies and the written word are two different mediums, neither better. Bladerunner and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? are different, and I can’t choose between the two.

After someone finally adapts Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Lebowitz, I hope Hollywood gives me a call. I have 70-plus published short stories, y’all. The next blockbuster is hiding in there somewhere!

Read the original story: “Quantum Doughnut”
Watch the film on YouTube: Quantum Doughnut
Encourage the filmmakers! Say nice things about the film on IMDB: Quantum Doughnut on IMDB

Peter Wood
is an attorney in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he lives with his kind and very patient wife. His first appearance in our pages was “Mission Accomplished” in the now out-of-print August 2012 issue. After publishing a lot of stories with us he graduated to being a regular contributor to Asimov’s, but he’s still kind enough to send us things we can publish from time to time, and we’re always happy to get them.


Henry said...

While I agree A Sound of Thunder is a horrible adaptation of Bradbury's brilliant short story, are you sure it's worse than 1977's Damnation Alley? While Zelazny's book aged horribly in the eight years between its release and the movie's release, the movie abandoned everything about the novel except for the vehicle and the post-apocalyptic setting, and then added man-eating cockroaches. I mean, how can you get any worse than that?

~brb said...

How can you get any worse than that? Easily. Get Barry Longyear talking about what they did to Enemy Mine sometime.

Pete Wood said...

A Sound of Thunder is worse than Damnation Alley. The movie massacred Zelazny's book for no real reason, but it still ended up being entertaining with a likable cast. George Peppard and Jan Michael Vincent rose above the material. Thunder, on the other hand, had a mediocre cast and zero entertainment value.