Short films have long been a good calling card for filmmakers just starting out, and with exposure so much greater on the Internet for anything dazzling enough to go viral, Hollywood is taking even more notice than ever. And with our eyes on these films, too, they’re familiar titles and plots worth capitalizing on, so producers aren’t just interested in the directors but also the ideas themselves. This is why a bunch of recent shorts, including Pixels, The Gift and I Love Sarah Jane, are currently being adapted into features.
Funny, then, that a short from 1984 is the basis for the new animated feature Frankenweenie. Tim Burton reached back nearly 30 years to his live-action film of the same name, which had at the time got him fired from Disney, and has remade it for that very studio. The result is a terrific, darkly imagined suburban fairy tale reminding us of what we loved about Burton in the first place. It’s almost like he actually immediately adapted the short as his first feature, and we’re just getting to see it now.
Many directors have done the immediate adaptation thing, often having initially developed a part of the eventual feature as a short for a film school project. Below I’ve highlighted eight great films and the earlier shorts they’re based on. Because I stuck to works where the filmmaker directly remade his own short, Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys, which was inspired by Chris Marker’s La Jetee, has been excluded.
THX 1138 (1971) - Based on Electronic Labyrinth THX 1138 4EB (1967)
A perfect example of the student film to feature route, as George Lucas was a member of the 1960s film school explosion that ushered in the New Hollywood. While most of those directors left their school work behind them (though Oliver Stone’s Last Year in Viet Nam hints at some of his later features), Lucas took one of his many USC efforts, an award-winning dystopian sci-fi film, and reworked it for his feature directorial debut under the guidance of producer Francis Ford Coppola. He and former classmate Walter Murch stretched out its plot while shortening its title and the hair of its characters for a visually stark yet aurally complicated adaptation, which bombed at the box office. The original short is somewhat more significant, as it was selected by the the Library of Congress for National Film Registry preservation.
Watch it below:
Bottle Rocket (1996) - Based on Bottle Rocket (1994)
Another box office disappointment, Wes Anderson’s debut feature is pretty underrated even among his fans. But as he becomes even more stylized as an auteur, my appreciation for his first work grows. That includes the black-and-white short that came before it, which is basically like a test run for certain heist scenes in the feature that are basically test runs for a big job later in the film. Aside from adding color, some Love in place of the Sonny Rollins on the soundtrack and a depiction of the bookstore robbery rather than an account, the feature just lifts the short and drops it in place as its first act. So, the later version is also kind of a continuation, and it features a name actor (James Caan) in a supporting role while fortunately keeping the excellent unknown actors Owen Wilson (who cowrote both versions), Luke Wilson and Robert Musgrave in their lead positions.
Watch the Bottle Rocket short below:
Sling Blade (1996) - Based on Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade (1994)
Though he’d been around for a decade and had even written the acclaimed 1992 film One False Move, this is the feature that really boosted Billy Bob Thornton’s acting and filmmaking career, mainly due to his Oscar recognition (nominee for Best Actor; winner for Best Adapted Screenplay). Before the feature came the longer-titled short, which Thornton wrote and starred in. That was directed by George Hickenlooper, though, while Thornton was able to take the helm of the adaptation for his directorial debut (not counting a short Widespread Panic concert film).
It’s also another example of a feature that really continues the story set up in its short, as well as one where the short had been fundamentally an introduction to an original character. A later short-to-feature duo that did the same thing is Jared Hess’s combo of Peluca and Napoleon Dynamite.
Watch Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade below:
Boogie Nights (1997) - Based on The Dirk Diggler Story (1988)
Here’s another film where the source short introduces the character but little else. It’s also possibly the greatest improvement in quality from original to adaptation, though we can forgive the earlier film for being made while Paul Thomas Anderson was still in high school and using amateur equipment. The short is apparently insignificant enough that the Academy’s nomination of the feature screenplay for an Oscar was for original work rather than adapted. Maybe it’s the difference in style? Just imagine if the feature-length Boogie Nights was done in serious-tone mockumentary style. I doubt Anderson would have broke out as well as he did were that the case.
Watch The Dirk Diggler Story below:
Office Space (1999) - Based on Office Space (1991)
Everyone’s favorite workplace comedy is based on a series of animated shorts that Mike Judge made for Saturday Night Live (and elsewhere) focused on the Milton character. The first cartoon, which aired during the Charles Barkley/Nirvana episode of September 1993, has Milton talking about his stapler and was directly adapted as a scene in the feature. But unlike other films on this list, the short wasn’t an introduction to a character that would get his own movie. Milton was only translated to the feature in a relatively minor yet very memorable capacity. The guy just doesn’t get any respect. It’s like Bill Lumbergh had him moved out of the way of the plot that ended up the main storyline.
Watch part one of the Office Space shorts at YouTube (embedding unavailable).
Dear Lemon Lima (2009) - Based on Dear Lemon Lima (2007)
This little-seen film from writer-director Suzi Yoonessi deserves more recognition for the fresh coming-of-age story it tells, of a mixed-race Alaskan teenager who rounds up a team of underdogs to go up against her now-cool ex-boyfriend in a junior version of the World Eskimo Indian Olympics. It’s been labeled a Youth in Revolt for girls but its quirky tone is more like Donnie Darko minus all the sci-fi stuff.
Beth Grant even has a supporting role that’s similar to her part in that film. Really, though, it’s a fairly original and delightful work of young-adult cinema and before it came Yoonessi’s short of the same name, which was another of those test-run types and, while also featuring Grant, had different kids in the main parts.
Watch the short version of Dear Lemon Lima below:
District 9 (2009) - Based on Alive in Joburg (2006)
Unlike Paul Thomas Anderson, Neill Blomkamp retained at least some of the documentary style he employed in his earlier short when he turned it into a feature (and his lead actor, Sharlto Copley, as well). Alive in Joburg is a great early example of how digital effects have become so easily and cheaply obtained in the past decade for amateur short films (see any of the popular shorts optioned for feature adaptations in recent years), though it should be noted that Blomkamp had been working as a visual effects artist at the time. The short now plays kind of like a trailer for District 9, but it also definitely works on its own and in being brief doesn’t beat the apartheid allegory to death. Of course, the feature has a lot more cool stuff happen beyond its satirical setup.
Watch Alive in Joburg below:
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (2012) - Based on Who’s Afraid of Ai Weiwei (2011)
Can we consider a segment on Frontline a short documentary? A year before her new feature documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry debuted at Sundance, Alison Klayman provided a short piece on the title artist to that PBS series. Narrating the segment herself, she quickly goes into most of what wound up in the longer film, minus a major turning point that came about following the short’s airing, and so it too now feels somewhat like a trailer for the feature. But it also plays more like a report without any of the fun character moments we get of Ai Weiwei in Never Sorry. Where the short is simply informative, the feature is revealing, enlightening and so much more engaging. Not to mention so much funnier.
Watch the Frontline piece here: