This is the season where we get some of the greatest half-hours of television ever made. High on that list is “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” the original made-for-television half-hour short, directed by Chuck Jones. (Famously, Dr. Seuss said that the Grinch in it more resembles Jones that the book illustration, and he wasn’t wrong, but who cares?) It is a beautiful piece of television. Funny and adventurous and even suspenseful even though we’ve all seen it about eighty billion times in our lives. And then there’s the movie.
Yeah, yeah. A lot of people like the movie. But Seuss hasn’t done that well in feature adaptations. He and Stephen King could have a club. I’m sure we could add others to that list. And I think one of the things the ones with the longest list of bad adaptations would have in common is that the length of their fiction is wrong for the standard feature-length adaptation. That’s kind of one King gets coming and going—some of his work really needs the miniseries treatment. But the short stories should be short films.
It’s not really revolutionary, you wouldn’t think, and another strange intersection of Seuss and King is that they have indeed both had considerable success in television adaptations. Oh, yes, The Stand, but also the Nightmares and Dreamscapes collection, which was an assortment of adaptations of his short stories that was actually produced as a series of short films. Alas not “The Lawnmower Man,” the most notorious of his poor adaptations inasmuch as he literally sued to have his name taken off it.
Some short story adaptations are surprisingly good. Where the Wild Things Are is a bare handful of sentences long, and the movie is—in my opinion, at least—outstanding. Because it knew where to leave the book aside and go other places and it knew how to do that in a way that fit with the mood of the book. Which is a fine way of adapting a work regardless of how long or short your adaptation and your original work are, really, but Spike Jonze definitely did it to good effect there.
And you hear a lot that there aren’t a lot of places for short films, but that’s a lie now, isn’t it? I mean, it always has been, for the entire history of film. It’s just that places that could have shown great half-hour films or whatever weren’t inclined to air them, for the most part. But with streaming, there absolutely is no excuse. Why shouldn’t we have a half-hour “Cask of Amontillado” or “Masque of the Red Death” on Netflix instead of just the Corman ones that had nothing to do with the stories?
I can feel you all gearing up to tell me in the comments that there are some stone-cold classic films that started as short stories. Rear Window and Rashomon, just for starters, and you’re quite right. And goodness knows the live-action Cat in the Hat had problems beyond length, but I think at least one of the problems is that the book is so short that they decided they needed to pad it, and it was padded badly. Stagecoach comes from “The Stage to Lordsburg,” which is about twenty pages long. But it is twenty busy pages.
In short, the length of the adaptation should be what is best for the work. Just as The Hobbit didn’t need to be three movies, I can’t imagine that The Lorax is really better at 86 minutes than the 25 minutes of the made-for-TV version. Even that is, honestly, a bit padded. It’s just padded better and for less time. So it could be and demonstrably was worse.