Like my previous entry, my focus is again on Adaptation Analysis, which I will continue to categorize as either close, loose, or intermediate. This week my goal is to compare the short story “Killings” by Andre Dubus, and the film adaptation, In the Bedroom directed by Todd Field. The basic premise of the short story and the film is straightforward. Our main character, Matt Fowler, seeks revenge after his son, Frank Fowler, is murdered. The story is a look at what drives an ordinary person to kill. For this analysis, I speculate Field’s strategy to adapt such a short story into a film. Adaptation: Studying Literature and Film by John Desmond, defines the common methods a filmmaker may use to adapt a short story as:
Concentration Strategy: “The filmmakers keep most of the elements of narrative from the short story; concentrate those elements at the beginning, middle, or end of the film; and add invented elements to the rest of the film.”
Interweaving Strategy: “The filmmakers kept most of the elements of narrative from the short story; disperse those elements throughout the film, although not necessarily in their original order; and interweave either invented elements or invented expansions to already existing elements.”
Point of Departure Strategy: “The filmmakers drop most of the elements of narrative from the short story; keep perhaps the plot premise, a character’s name, or just the title; and, using these elements as a point of departure, add an invented narrative.” (128).
Todd Field’s adaptation of Dubus’ short story “Killings” is an interesting take on the way filmmakers transfer from short story to screen. The additions and made-up elements that Fields includes show some significant changes, but also retain some of the qualities that Dubus had in his story. Although one could argue that In the Bedroom (2001) employs only John M. Desmond’s concentration strategy for a film adaptation, it makes more sense to categorize the film as using elements from both concentration and an interweaving strategy. Field’s opening scene differs significantly from the short story and rearranges it. The concentration strategy is defined by “concentrating elements to the beginning, middle, or end.” (128). Field’s use of the concentration strategy comes when he portrays the kidnapping and murder scene as an almost word for word transcription of the short story’s sequence. The defining feature of interweaving strategy is when filmmakers “disperse kept narrative elements throughout the film not necessarily in their original order.” Interweaving strategy comes in Field’s adaptation because the short story’s opening compared to the film’s opening scene is entirely different. Fields uses his multi-track medium to its fullest and tells the story through cinematography and mise en scene: tight framing, lighting, and even props. Every detail builds into what Dubus describes with his words, but Fields sets his adaptation apart by rearranging the order of events, using film elements, and adding scenes.
In the short story it opens in media res, or in the midst of things, and dramatically as: “On the August morning when Matt Fowler buried his youngest son, Frank, who had lived for twenty-one years, eight months, and four days, Matt’s older son, Steve, turned to him as the family left the grave and walked between their friends, and said: ‘I should kill him.’” (595). Matt’s son Steve is not in the film; therefore, never saying, “I should kill him.” By omitting this explicit statement from the start, Fields sets the audience up for surprise of both the murder of Frank Fowler and Richard Stout. Dubus opens with Frank already dead, foreshadowing the murder with Steve. In the film, Frank Fowler and Natalie Strout (named Mary Ann Strout in the Short Story) frolic in an open field, everything brightly lit, with an almost dream-like atmosphere created by the pulsing sun on the lovers. The characters’ close-ups establish the intimate connection between them, and we see the passion of their relationship. Compared to Dubus’ grim opening and matter-of-fact, direct, bleak statement of his characters, Field’s film opens with an idealization of the relationship. It is entirely possible that the film got inspiration for the opening scene from the end of the short story:
“He saw Frank and Mary Ann, their eyes closed, their bodies brown and smelling of the sea; the other girl was faceless, bodiless, but he felt her sleeping now; and he saw Frank and Strout, their faces alive; he saw red and yellow leaves falling to the earth, then slow: falling and freezing and falling.” (610).
Even though Frank and Strout’s faces aren’t included in the film’s opening scene, the almost dream-like,vivid vision Fields retains through the cinematography makes it comparable to Dubus’ description. In addition to the sexual encounter vision, Matt sees nature playing out cyclically. Instead of showing all of the seasons in his portrayal of this image, Fields chooses to show summer. While this doesn’t exactly show the cyclical nature of time, it spotlights the relationship in the same vein as Dubus intended with Matt’s haunting vision. The encounter with the bright sun and the lovers’ closeness portrays a perfection that will be interrupted by the murder while Dubus’ ending shows Matt’s final reflections and possible regret: time will pass, the seasons will change, but the memory lingers on. The scene connotes Dubus’ writing through the cinematography, especially the lighting and tight framing. It portrays the feeling of intimacy evoked by the line“their eyes closed, their bodies brown and smelling of the sea.” Fields also uses film conventions to connote Dubus’ description of his characters. Dubus explicitly tells us Richard Strout’s background: “Richard Strout was twenty-six years old, a high-school athlete, football scholarship to the University of Massachusetts where he lasted for almost two semesters before quitting…” (597). Thinking about the visual, Fields shows Richard’s football trophy from high-school in an extreme close-up. This image tells us the information on Richard through the language of cinema. Although these two methods of telling are different, they effectively relay the same backstory.
The title of the film, In the Bedroom, is the title of one of Andre Dubus’ short story collections rather than the actual story that was adapted. The title’s change is not superficial, and is explained further in an early scene with Frank, Matt, and Jason Strout on a fishing boat. This scene is a fabrication of the filmmaker and describes the entire story, as stated by Matt Fowler (Tom Wilkinson), through a metaphor of Lobsters:
“Well, look. He lost an arm. The trap has nylon nets called “heads”. Two side heads to let the lobster crawl in. And inside, what’s called a bedroom head holds the bait… and keeps him from escaping. You know the old saying: “Two’s company, three’s a crowd”? Well, it’s like that. More than two of these in a bedroom and something like that’s happened.”
This is a metaphor for the conflict of the film. The “two’s company, three’s a crowd” directly relates to Frank, Natilie, and Richard’s conflict. In the same section, Matt talks about the female lobsters “getting off easy” because the state tells the fisherman to throw them back. It seems Fields is commenting on the state as more lenient on the women who may be complicit in the murder but did not commit it. Ruth at the end of both iterations is complicit in murder. The lobster trap could also symbolize relationships and how only two can form a relationship. That bit of dialogue is important because it reflects and foreshadows the story like how Steve’s line “I should kill him,” forewarned the murder for the short story. Not only does this scene tell us this information, it shows us the lobsters, which is incredibly visually interesting and works great within film.
The final killing scene is particularly important to distinguish the film and the short story. Right from the beginning, we are in the point of view of Matt Fowler. However, in the film, it seems as though it becomes Matt’s point of view after the funeral, which is more towards the middle. The killing scene is almost word for word from the story but Richard’s murder is played out differently:
“The fun kicked in Matt’s hand, and the explosion of the shot surrounded him, isolated him in a nimbus of sound that cut him off from all his time, all his history, isolated him standing absolutely still on the dirt road with the gun in his hand, looking down at Richard Strout squirming on his belly, kicking one leg behind him, pushing himself forward, toward the woods. Then Matt went to him and shot him once in the back of the head.” (608).
The filmmaker does a few things differently when approaching this scene. First, Richard is shown to believe the lies Matt has fed him about him taking him to a safe place away from their small town. Short story Richard tries to sprint away so Matt kills him to prevent his escape. In the film, Matt kills Richard and lies to Willis that Richard actually tried to run away. The lighting during the scene and Richard’s expression connote more detail. Richard’s smirk shows that he believes that Matt is taking him away to “paradise” and the lighting on the ground produced by their vehicles could connote that Richard was close to escape. Little did Richard know, Paradise is the afterlife. The lie allows us to get into Matt’s mind at that moment; it makes the audience question if Matt is an unreliable narrator in the story as well as the film. If Matt Fowler is able to lie to his friend then these events in the story could all be lies and/or justifications for revenge. The way that the “nimbus of sound” cuts Matt away from all his time in history in the short story is put in the film through an eye level shot and canted angle. We see a blank stare in Matt’s eyes during this scene, which could be taken as he is isolated in his thoughts, placing him away from his world.
In the Bedroom (2001) and “Killings” are not entirely the same and not entirely different. It is an intermediate adaptation. The strategy Fields’ employs is a combination of both concentration and interweaving. These two strategies are both seen when Fields concentrates on particular moments such as the ending when Matt Fowler takes Richard Strout by gunpoint. Interweaving occurs when Fields rearranges scenes and adds to them, such as the reimagined opening scene with completely different tone and focus. The way Fields emphasizes with his cinematography, and includes elements in his mise en scene make it certain that he is using the multi-track medium of film to its fullest potential. The tight-framing of the lovers in the opening scene, Matt Fowler’s canted eye-level shot after he kills Richard, and the relatively insignificant extreme close-up of Richard’s football trophy, all further Dubus’ story. These film elements both comment on and build upon what Dubus started, and set the film apart as its own.
“Killings by Andre Dubus.” Adaptations: from Short Story to Big Screen: 35 Great Stories That Have Inspired Great Films, by Stephanie Harrison, Three Rivers Press, 2005, pp. 595–616.
“The Short Story.” Adaptation: Studying Film and Literature, by John M. Desmond and Peter Hawkes, McGraw-Hill Education Create, 2006, pp. 127–157.
— Christian Mietus, Blog Editor.
Christian is a Senior at Lewis University who is an English major and a minor in Film Studies and Russian Language and Culture. In 2019, he received the “Dr. Stephany Schlachter Excellence in Undergraduate Scholarship Award” for his collaborative piece “Assimilation through Sound.” Additionally, his poem “The Japanese Photography is Covered in Dust” is forthcoming from City Brink Magazine. In his free time, he appreciates and dissects cinema as well as consistently rating and reviewing it. Some of his favorite directors are Andrei Tarkovsky, John Cassavettes, Ingmar Bergman, and Kenji Mizoguchi. He also appreciates different art forms, such as music and literature. Christian hopes to continue expanding his skills as a writer and to encourage others to do so as well. He writes about film for the JFR blog, so check out Christian’s Cinematic Syntax.