Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: Antlers, a horror movie adapted from a story by Nick Antosca, is not hitting theaters. In its absence, we’re looking back on other movies based on short stories.
Even when filmmakers heed the advice that short stories are often better-suited to adaptation than novels, they tend to work from popular or hooky genre pieces, rather than entries from the contemporary literary canon. (In other words, there are more movies adapted from stories by Stephen King than, say, Tobias Wolff or Amy Bloom.) Joyce Chopra’s Smooth Talk makes the bold decision to adapt the heavily anthologized and highly economical Joyce Carol Oates story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” into a feature, and it’s an example of both the fruitfulness and trickiness of this process.
Because the Oates story is essentially split between a lot of description and a single extended scene, Smooth Talk has been referred to as a loose adaptation. Wouldn’t it have to be, to expand 15 pages or so into 90 minutes? Yes and no; Chopra’s movie contains many full scenes that are not present in the story, and there are contextual and aesthetic changes involved from filming a mid-’60s story in the mid-’80s while keeping the action contemporaneous. (Oates surely didn’t envision her original work as a harrowing glimpse at mall culture, though it fits surprisingly well into the story’s texture.) At the same time, nearly every detail offered in Oates’ prose is carefully incorporated into Tom Cole’s screenplay, as descriptions become dialogue and character becomes its own form of plot.
The character here is Connie (Laura Dern), a 15-year-old on summer vacation who wants to escape her humdrum life and has limited means of doing so. Connie and her two best friends get rides to the mall, and while they spend a little time ogling boys, going to the movies, and making a scene in various stores, just as often they hitchhike over to a nearby beach or doll themselves up to cruise for guys at a burger joint after dark. Connie’s parents Katherine (Mary Kay Place) and Harry (Levon Helm) may not know the specifics of her daily activities, but her mom in particular has her suspicions. The mother and daughter spend a lot of time seething at each other, and in dramatizing a relationship only described in the story, Chopra and Cole perfectly capture the kinds of bitter, formless fights teenagers have with their parents.
Outside her home, Connie experiments with feeling more grown-up, which involves playing a kind of hormonal lottery with pitiless young men. A few of the teenage boys she flirts with are abashed, most are older and more aggressive, and plenty seem outright predatory. The most unnerving is the decidedly non-teenage Arnold Friend (Treat Williams), who lurks in her peripheral vision and eventually makes contact. Their extended scene together, closely adapted from the story, gives Smooth Talk an unusual structure; it captures slice-of-life moments for an hour before sinking into an uneasy psychological set piece. Chopra does her best to make the hour of slow build-up feel natural, with evocative master shots and a well-observed sense of teenage listlessness. A young Dern is ideally cast as a teenager who yearns to be a little bit older. She looms over her friends with her height, only to turn gawky at key moments.
One reason Smooth Talk might be classified as a “loose” adaptation despite its faithfulness is that it appends an extra 10 minutes or so of screen time onto the haunting, doomy final moments of the original story. Oates herself focused on this change when writing about the adaptation process for a New York Times essay she wrote shortly after the film’s release. (“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” is so widely reprinted that this piece has turned up in multiple literature textbooks alongside it.) She’s ultimately magnanimous about the differences: “I would fiercely defend the placement of a semicolon in one of my novels but I would probably have deferred in the end to Joyce Chopra’s decision” to end the story a different way. And while anyone familiar with the original story will probably be unable to look at Smooth Talk entirely on its own terms, the interplay between the film and its source material gives the former both the sharpness of experience and elusiveness of memory.