The Secret Life of Walter Mitty by James Thurber

The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” (1939) is a short story by American humorist James Thurber. The story has been adapted several times for film, most recently in 2013. I haven’t seen the films but it’s interesting someone financed feature length movies out of a story so short — “Walter Mitty” is 2,512 words.

Brokeback Mountain” is a short story adapted far more successfully for film (though not according to Annie Proulx, because they butchered the main message). “Brokeback Mountain” is a capacious, novelistic short story, and and gives the director far more to work with, coming in at 9,135 words.

My theory is that sometimes short stories (and picture books) are simply too short to fill a feature length film. Scriptwriters must artificially bulk them out. Unfortunately, it’s hard to make money out of short films, which they probably should be.

A reviewer at The New Yorker is rather more optimistic about this than I am:

The great thing about adapting a short story rather than a novel is that it demands expansion rather than reduction—it’s a springboard, not a blueprint.

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Rain by W. Somerset Maugham

rain somerset maugham

“Rain” by W. Somerset Maugham is a fish-out-of-water story, in which characters wholly unsuited to their environment become marooned somewhere due to external circumstances. As a result, they undergo many trials and change as a result… or they don’t, if it’s a tragedy.

The incessant tropical rain is pathetic fallacy which foreshadows tragedy.

In this case we have Christian missionaries hellbent of converting native Pacific Island culture into something foreign and entirely unsuitable (Protestant, puritanical, cold climate culture). It’s worth remembering that the mainly white, Christian audience of Somerset Maugham’s contemporary readership had to be converted themselves to the view that this was not acceptable.

These characters get stuck on an island because of a travel ban due to a measles outbreak, which is deadly for local populations if not to themselves. By the time we’re told there’s no hotel for them at Pago Pago, we despise them so much we are glad to see them suffer. Continue reading “Rain by W. Somerset Maugham”

The Happy Hypocrite by Max Beerbohm

Mask of Apollo

The Happy Hypocrite” is a short story by Max Beerbohm first published 1897. Basically, in this misogynistic tale, a man who won’t take no for an answer pursues a much younger girl anyway. Her goodness improves his countenance for real, and he is rewarded by owning her forever after.

Lest you think “The Happy Hypocrite” is a story of its time, there have been many popular stories since in which a boy or a man who won’t take no for an answer pursues the girl anyway, and is rewarded with her at the end after undergoing an improving character arc.

Apparently, this sotry is a more humorous version of The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, but since I haven’t read that this isn’t part of my response.

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I’m A Fool by Sherwood Anderson

“I’m A Fool”(1922) is a short story written by American Sherwood Anderson, who was born around the time Lonesome Dove is set, and who died at the beginning of the second world war. So, he came along at the end of the cowboy days, lived through one world war and was heading into another.

Anderson had four wives during his relatively short life. I’m immediately suspicious of a man who has had four marriages. “I’m A Fool” demonstrates a possessive, objectifying attitude towards a woman character which isnt challenged. This doesn’t improve my impression of the writer. To understand this story the reader must also understand that being attracted to a woman and not acting on those strong feelings is about one of the worst things that can happen to a man. If this story were a contemporary song, it’d be “You’re Beautiful” by James Blunt (2004). A young man catches sight of a pretty woman on a train, can’t be with her and is sad forever that he can’t have her. All because she smiled at her.

James Blunt swears he’s got ‘a plan’ but never tells us what that plan is, making the narrative arc incomplete. Like the narrator of “I’m A Fool”, Blunt spends the entire music video punishing himself physically, in this case by taking off all his clothes in the snow, laying out all his pocket possessions and jumping (probably to his death) into the sea below.

Sherwood Anderson’s own young life working various jobs will have influenced this story, about a young man who also feels he has little in common with more sheltered boys of his own age. I recently rewatched Terminator 2, and the very annoying kid in that movie has the same superiority complex of a boy who has been let loose on the ‘real’ world and immediately starts dividing between men and boys, putting himself in the category of man, prematurely.

Sometimes now I think that boys who are raised regular in houses, and never have a fine nigger like Burt for best friend, and go to high schools and college, and never steal anything, or get drunk a little, or learn to swear from fellows who know how, or come walking up in front of a grandstand in their shirt sleeves and with dirty horsey pants on when the races are going on and the grandstand is full of people all dressed up—what’s the use of talking about it? Such fellows don’t know nothing at all. They’ve never had no opportunity.

Some think Sherwood Anderson is a genius. Others think he’s mediocre. Mark Twain did the first person vernacular style first. Every English speaking country has their own iconic male writer of the early 20th century who got famous for daring to write in the regional working man’s vernacular. There’s Frank Sargeson of my own home country (New Zealand). In 1935, Sargeson wrote a piece in a New Zealand liberal newspaper in praise of Anderson’s literary devices. I had to study Sargeson at high school, so it’s interesting to see his main influence. I don’t remember Sherwood Anderson ever mentioned. New Zealand likes to think Sargeson was wholly original in coming up with the idea of eschewing that fancy book learnin language for normal everyday speech.

Anderson also influenced Hemingway and Faulkner, Sinclair Lewis and Philip Roth.

I don’t get a ‘genius’ vibe from this snippet of Anderson’s oeuvre. But I sure am sick of stories about the regrets of men who don’t get to do exactly what they want to with their dicks. Especially when it’s for being dicks.

Apparently, Sherwood Anderson died after swallowing a toothpick. This mode of death is trumped only by Margaret Wise Brown, who died after kicking up her leg to show doctors how well she (ostensibly) was. In any case, I’ll be very careful with toothpicks from now on. And I won’t be kicking any legs up in hospital, either.

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Uncanny by Paul Jennings Hi-Lo Short Stories

Uncanny book cover showing boy with gas mask on searching with flash light

Uncanny is a hi-lo short story collection by Australian author Paul Jennings, first published 1988.

The original ‘uncanny’ stories were by British writer May Sinclair (1863 – 1946). I read a collection of Sinclair’s uncanny short stories (1923) a few years ago and wasn’t really moved by them. This is because so many writers have emulated Sinclair’s work that hers no longer feel all that original! Sinclair was a heavy influence on H.P. Lovecraft. Now, I wager you’ve heard of him, even if you haven’t heard of her.

Unfortunately, the influence of May Sinclair remains little known. Plus, her writing career was cut short with the onset of Parkinson’s disease in the late 1920s.

The Uncanny May Sinclair stories have plots like this:

  • Two lovers are doomed to repeat their empty affair for the rest of eternity.
  • A female telepath is forced to face the consequences of her actions.
  • The victim of a violent murder has the last laugh on his assailant.
  • An amateur philosopher discovers that there is more to Heaven than meets the eye.

Likewise, Jennings writes ‘circular’ stories in which stories end on the note that this weird thing will continue on forever. Characters in Paul Jennings stories are forced to face the consequences of their actions. Underdogs (victims) get the last laugh against their opponents. The stories are set in apparent utopias, where there is more to ordinary life than meets the eye.

Whether directly or indirectly, May Sinclair had an impact on Paul Jennings, across all of his short fiction, and not just in this particular title. Continue reading “Uncanny by Paul Jennings Hi-Lo Short Stories”

Poof and the Piglet

Poof and the Piglet is a homemade picture book written and illustrated by a 10-year-old who was given the title as inspiration. The 10-year-old has also been taught universal story structure.

Poof is the star of an entire series of books. Sometimes she has a sidekick called Worm-hoop (an English owl). This time Worm-hoop is replaced by a pig. I think she may have been influenced by the Elephant and Piggie series.

She has played with lettering on the front cover, understanding that one of the stand out features of pigs is their curly tails.

Inciting incident. Continue reading “Poof and the Piglet”

Flowering Judas by Katherine Anne Porter

flowering judas

“Flowering Judas” is the standout short story by Pulizer Prize winning Katherine Anne Porter, included in a collection published 1930 when Porter was 40. This short story reminds me of “A Dill Pickle” by Katherine Mansfield. Both stories are clearly about the way in which women are socially acculturated into providing emotional labour for men, but written in a time before such language existed to described the phenomenon. Instead, female short story writers showed it by dramatising such relationships in fiction. Continue reading “Flowering Judas by Katherine Anne Porter”

The Gift Of The Magi by O. Henry

gift of the magi

See, “The Gift Of The Magi” (1905) is why we don’t buy secret gifts. Aren’t we always told in relationships that communication is key? Yes, yes it is. Either buy your own presents, or drop strong hints in the lead up to gift giving season.

Wait, that’s not what I’m meant to take away from this story, is it. For the likes of me, reading the story a century later, O. Henry does a Charles Perrault and tells us exactly what we’re supposed to takeaway in a dedicated paragraph at the end — that sacrificially giving gifts is excellent for human relationships.

O. Henry was the pen name of William Sydney Porter. Continue reading “The Gift Of The Magi by O. Henry”