Fictional writing comes in many forms, the most notable being the novel, the novella, and the short story. You should already know the difference. A novel is the long one, a short story is the short one, and the novella is somewhere in between. These three forms of literature are a large source of material for movies. When there a story is good enough to be presented on the big screen, filmmakers will adapt rather than create original material. They want to provide a visual representation of the textual material. Audiences will eat it up.
Short stories are the most interesting to look at in regards to movies. They are the shortest of the three. Whereas in novellas and novels, the movie usually trims the story, short stories need an expansion in order to fill the feature length. The story is used as a template. Details must be added and extra scenes created in order to write the screenplay because there isn’t enough to make the whole film.
This week’s Sunday “Bad” Movie, A Sound of Thunder, was based on a 1952 Ray Bradbury short story. The story was about a group of hunters in 2055 who traveled back through time to the era of the dinosaurs. They were told to stay on a levitating path to prevent altering the environment, but one of the hunters accidentally stepped on a butterfly. They returned to their present day and slowly found historical differences. The hunter realized that he changed the world by causing one animal’s death.
The film of A Sound of Thunder changed things up. Released in 2005, the story revolved around a group of hunters in 2055 who went back in time to hunt dinosaurs. Instead of following the hunter who stepped off the path, the movie was about the people in charge of the time travel machinery, who must find out what happened in the past. They want to go back and fix things so the world will revert to its proper state. The movie was more of a mystery than the story it was based on.
There were other differences between short story and movie than the point of view, but what I really want to discuss is how the story was expanded to fill the movie’s running time. The expansion of a short story to feature length is what can make or break a movie. More story needs to be told. The expansion cannot depend on adding simple filler to pad out the runtime. It must expand on the characters, give new revelations, or take the whole shebang in a new direction.
Let’s start with how the film version of A Sound of Thunder expanded upon the characters. The expansion came in the form of the people in charge of the time traveling. The short story was in the movie, but the movie changed the focus from a paying hunter to that of the leader of the hunting team. It followed him and his coworkers, revealing more about them and why they had their jobs. It fleshed them out beyond simple employee characters. New characters were added in order to better show the time travel company. It made the universe feel bigger than it was in the story, though in both cases it felt fully formed.
New revelations in the story came in the form of the way that the future changed. In the short story, the changing of history was instantaneous. They came back to the present and everything had been subtly changed. In the film, when the characters came back to the present, time wasslightly altered, but because of some sort of “time is like waves” stuff, every once in a while, the new history would become more solidified and things would change in a more drastic fashion. Eventually the world would be unrecognizable. It was a change that was maybe not necessary to make when writing the movie, but it added a new layer to the story.
Yet there were still some fairly big changes when the short story was adapted. The Ray Bradbury story was a morality tale about the idea of the butterfly effect. It was about how the situation affected the people involved. The film was an action horror movie where the people tried to navigate through a new, dangerous world in an attempt to change it back to the older, safer one. Much like a slasher movie, the characters got picked off one by one because of the dangerous situations they experienced. The original story was more of an “oh crap, look what I’ve done” and the adaptation was an “oh no, we must change it back.” Though they covered some of the same material (the movie has the short story take place within a fifteen minute chunk), the film version of A Sound of Thunder took the story in a new direction that was never explored.
Making these sorts of changes when adapting short stories to the big screen can sometimes work well and other times be disastrous. A Sound of Thunder was a little bit of both. Though it was nice to see the character building, once history was changed, the characters took a back seat to action and death. The story took a hit when it stopped caring about character or depth. It became a hollow shell of science fiction visuals and repeated exclamations about wanting to make everything normal again. (Not that this was the biggest problem with the movie; the effects are terrible.) The emotional impact that the short story had was neglected and made for a lesser viewing experience.
There was a lot of potential in using A Sound of Thunder as the basis for a feature length film. In the right hands, it could have been great science fiction. There needed to be care put into the emotional connection with the audience, but the solid foundation was there. The same could be said for many short stories that have been adapted to film. Most times, there is a solid story being told that only needs to be expanded in the right ways to make something great. It takes the right person and the right story to produce a great movie. That’s all. In this case, those things didn’t quite line up.
Now let’s get to some notes:
- A Sound of Thunder was suggested by @Turbeetle.
- The star of A Sound of Thunder was Edward Burns. He was also in Alex Cross.
- Another actor in A Sound of Thunder was Sai-Kit Yung, who was previously in Die Another Day.
- Have you seen A Sound of Thunder? Are there other movies based on short stories that you have seen? What do you think about all of these adaptations? Use the comments below to discuss these things.
- The comments could also be used to submit suggestions for future Sunday “Bad” Movies. If you have a movie you want me to watch, suggest away. You could also tell me on Twitter.
- Next week is going to be a pretty big week. I’m going to watch the Showgirls movies. That’s right. I will watch both movies. This will be an interesting week, so come on back and see what I have to say about the two Showgirls movies.