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.
There are, notoriously, two published versions of Raymond Carver’s short story “The Bath”: the one Gordon Lish edited—or rewrote, depending on who you ask—and Carver’s original. “A Small, Good Thing” restored the significant text Lish cut and was published in Ploughshares in 1983, two years after it appeared in the collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Both stories follow a couple whose young son is hit by a car and goes into a coma. In theory, Lish’s version is more successful. It’s stark and unsentimental, and abides by the tacit rule that guides the writing of contemporary short stories: Include only as much as is needed, nothing more. And yet, one could make a case for Carver’s less efficient iteration, not because of the additional information it conveys, but because by merely spending more time with the central couple, the reader more strongly feels their fear.
There’s a similar accumulation at work in Todd Field’s In The Bedroom, adapted from a story by Carver contemporary Andre Dubus, another heavyweight of mid- to late-century short fiction. Dubus’ story also concerns a grieving couple, here an older husband and wife whose college-age son is killed by his girlfriend’s soon-to-be ex-husband. The film adaptation is long, and somewhat slow. It’s hard to tell at first what kind of movie it is. The first thing we see is Frank (Nick Stahl) and his girlfriend, Natalie (Marisa Tomei), laughing and running through a sunny field. It’s not until nearly 40 minutes in that Frank is killed—a development Dubus reveals in his very first sentence. Working in a medium that relies on compression, Dubus gets right to it, putting the focus on Matt and what he might do in response to his son’s murder. In the story, Frank is an impetus; in the film, he is first a living, breathing person.
By shifting the perspective to each main character and unfolding the film chronologically, Field is able to first establish Frank’s relationships with others, then show their devastated lives without him. It’s clear Frank cares not only for Natalie but also her two young sons. In The Bedroom is set in a small Maine town, and there’s a cookout, a lobstering trip, Red Sox on the radio. While Frank’s mother, Ruth (Sissy Spacek), is dubious of her son’s relationship with the older woman, the viewer understands their connection goes far deeper than just a “summer thing,” as Frank reassures her, because we’ve seen the two of them together. They’re in love.
The film’s intentional pace continues after Frank’s death. Ruth and Matt (Tom Wilkinson) move listlessly through their days: going to the store, watching late-night television, mowing the lawn. None of these scenes create clear tension or provide new information, but through repetition and the accumulation of time, we understand the weight of the couple’s loss.
Dubus named his story “Killings.” A lot of the writer’s titles are like this: “The Pretty Girl,” “Adultery,” “Townies.” He’d give you the subject upfront, but never anything thematic. With “In The Bedroom,” Field brings the story’s subtext to the surface. In an early scene, when Matt and Frank take one of Natalie’s boys fishing, Matt pulls up a writhing lobster that’s lost a claw. He explains that if two lobsters are left “in the bedroom” of the trap long enough, they’ll turn on each other. The metaphor will not fully reveal itself until much later.
As shocking as it is when Strout (William Mapother) shoots Frank, a different, arguably greater violence arrives when Natalie visits Ruth in the music hall where the latter has finished directing choir practice. A contrite and stricken Natalie tells Ruth how sorry she is about everything, and in the middle of her whispered plea, Ruth slaps her. In the next scene, Ruth sees Strout, out on bail, in a grocery store, and her face looks like a helpless child’s. She hits the woman who loved her son and freezes when she sees his killer. Ruth’s angry grief is the kind that swallows up everything around her, including the possibility that her husband might be hurting as much as she is. Tomei, Spacek, and Wilkinson give incredible performances (all were nominated for Oscars), but Spacek’s role is the most challenging. The actor finds nuance within Ruth’s pain and cruelty, and keeps the character from becoming a villain, as with someone like Mary Tyler Moore’s grieving mother in Ordinary People.
What Dubus’ story gestures toward, In The Bedroom makes plain: The tragedy is as much what follows a loss as the loss itself. And adaptations like Field’s show you don’t need more action to make a feature-length film from a short story; you need merely take great care in everything offered. In the late-night aftermath of the climax’s violent reckoning, Matt returns to find Ruth awake, smoking in the gray, early-morning light. We’ve seen their bed before, at night, when the couple was talking about their son, who was at that point still alive, but it’s only now in this wider shot that we see just how small it is.