I vividly remember the first time I saw David Cronenberg's remake of The Fly. We arrived late on opening night, and the place was packed. It was one of those giant Los Angeles movie theaters, filled with a thousand people. My friends and I ended up sitting in the front row, the huge screen looming over us, and George Lucas's THX sound system—still relatively new at the time—vibrating the seats. I actually ducked when the gore began to fly during the dramatic climax. You'd think I'd never seen a movie before. At that moment, watching the best special effects Hollywood could throw at the screen, I understood how audiences must have felt the first time they saw a moving picture.
The awe I experienced is one of two common reactions to new technology. The other is fear, and that is the sentiment behind The Fly. In Cronenberg's movie, a scientist, played by Jeff Goldblum, invents a machine for transporting matter. He attempts to transport himself, but his experiment goes terribly wrong when a fly goes along for the ride. This premise lies behind the original 1958 movie and the short story by George Langelaan. Langelaan's "The Fly" is a creepy tale that straddles the line between detective fiction and the horror genre. The story opens after the scientist is murdered by his wife. It follows the efforts of a police detective and the scientist's brother as they try to unravel the motive for the homicide.
Stephanie Harrison includes "The Fly" in Adaptations, her collection of short stories that inspired famous movies. Unlike an earlier book with a similar premise, David Wheeler's No, But I Saw the Movie, Harrison groups her stories by theme and provides detailed and thoughtful introductions to each section. For example, in her essay on the horror genre, she notes that the author of "The Fly" was a British spy during the Second World War. In order to escape detection, his appearance was altered by plastic surgery. With that information, Langelaan's short story has meaning beyond its technophobia, as an allegory about the nature of identity and the potential costs of personal transformation.
Harrison is obviously a passionate reader. Her introductory essays brim with details about the authors of the stories and their other works, as well as providing insight into the production of each film. In a section called "Five All-But-Lost Stories," she laments—as only an omnivorous reader can—that all Frank Rooney's books are out of print. She revives his 1951 story, "Cyclists' Raid," which became The Wild One, staring Marlon Brando. Richard Connell, one of the most successful writers of the 1920s had a similar date with obscurity. Of the hundreds of stories he wrote, only "The Most Dangerous Game," about a hunter who grew bored with animals and now stalks humans, is still read today. Harrison reprints Connell's "A Reputation," first published in 1922 and filmed by Frank Capra as Meet John Doe. In Connell's version, an aspiring writer suddenly finds himself acclaimed, in demand, and, most importantly, published, when he announces he will commit suicide to protest "the rotten condition of civilization in America." Capra expanded on the idea and made John Doe a literal creation of the press, not just a celebrity promoted in the media. Connell's story concludes with the writer's pathetic, solitary suicide. Capra tried using that ending, but audiences rejected it. Harrison relates Capra's unsuccessful struggle to find an alternate ending, and she quotes the director's acknowledgement that Meet John Doe was seven-eighths of a good movie, lacking only a suitable ending. Her inclusion of these kinds of details brings new understanding to the stories and their movies.
Harrison's essays in Adaptations are carefully researched. If there is a quibble with the book, it is that I was constantly looking for Harrison's sources. Unfortunately, there isn't a single endnote or even a bibliography. In most cases, it is even impossible to figure out when and where the stories she includes were first published.
Still, Adaptations is an excellent book. Its range is broad and eclectic. Harrison reprints science fiction tales, including Brian Aldiss's "Supertoys Last All Summer Long," adapted by Steven Spielberg into A.I.; family fare like Mary O'Hara's "My Friend Flicka," filmed in 1943; and classics such as Ernest Hemingway's "The Killers," which has been shot four times. She even includes the cartoons by Harvey Pekar and Daniel Clowes that inspired American Splendor and Ghost World, respectively. Some of the stories included are unjustly obscure, like "Bringing Up Baby" by Hagar Wilde, who later co-wrote the classic screwball comedy of the same name. Harrison reprints Wilde's story for the first time since it appeared in Collier's magazine in 1937. At times Adaptations seems motivated by a comment from W. H. Auden, which Harrison quotes: "Some books are undeservedly forgotten, none are undeservedly remembered." This anthology helps us remember a few good stories left behind in the march of time and cinema.