Favorite and least favorite film adaptations of plays?
You know, I’ve never sat down and really thought about it before.
For least favourite, my immediate instinct is to say Closer, but that might be because I LOATHE that play (the film changes the plot so that it’s slightly LESS stupid, but only slightly), and I may not be judging it fairly.
There was a truly terrible version of The Importance of Being Ernest done a while back. Wilde’s dialogue is challenging for film-makers anyway, since it’s so elaborate, but it was directly in a very…arch fashion, which didn’t help. I do not think the character of Lady Bracknell was improved by adding backstory in which she’d been a showgirl. There was also a pretty dodgy version of Midsummer Night’s Dream a while back, though I’ll forgive a lot for Michelle Pfeiffer as Titania. If I could smash the Whedon and Branagh versions of Much Ado together so that Nathan Fillion’s Dogberry was in Branagh’s film, I’d be delighted, but as is I think both versions are imperfect.
I like the HBO version of Angels in America, but as an adaptation it is…imperfect. They have to drain a lot of the more theatrical elements out of the play to make it work on screen, and…well, the scene where the Mormon diorama comes to life for Harper and Prior is a masterpiece on stage, and I don’t think the HBO version packs anything like the same punch.
I’m also not terribly keen on the filmed version of The Crucible with Daniel Day Lewis. Partly because I think The Crucible doesn’t WORK when the audience is distanced from the events taking place by a fourth wall – you need to be IN THE ROOM with the characters as the insanity builds – but also because it makes the classic mistake with The Crucible of casting Abigail with a clearly adult woman rather than a teenager. Every production I’ve seen does this, partly – I assume – for labour reasons, but I always think it drains out any real sense of transgression from the play. I’m also not a big fan of the Dustin Hoffman Death of Salesman – it’s fine as far as textual interpretation goes, but I don’t think it ever manages to be more than a filmed play. The History Boys by Alan Bennett also had a rather disappointing film adaptation – particularly noteworthy because they used the original cast, and yet…the magic simply wasn’t there.
As for favourites, right off the bat there’s Coriolanus, by Ralph Fiennes. I don’t even like the play particularly, but I honestly think the film is the best adaptation of Shakespeare play I’ve ever seen. It really drills down into what makes Coriolanus such a disturbing play, and by using such a variety of voices (English, Irish, African, American, Scottish) it pulls away from strict realism. I’m also a big fan of Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet – the text is cut quite severely, but he finds a visual language that makes up for it.
There are a couple of obvious ones – I think the film of Glengarry, Glen Ross may actually be superior to the stage play, and I might say the same for Dangerous Liaisons, for all that on the surface John Malkovich was an…odd choice for Valmont. The film’s ability to create lush interiors and costumes (which theatre could never match) really underscores the corruption of everyone involved.
I don’t know that there’ll ever be a better version of Streetcar Name Desire than the Leigh/Brando film. I was lucky enough to see Streetcar when I was thirteen with Frances McDormand and Liam Cunningham, and it had a BIG impact on me – when I saw the film, years later, I was surprised how much they’d cut…but I actually think it helps in some ways, allows the story some room to breathe. And Leigh’s performance is just extraordinary – partly, I think, because she seems to understand the precise extent to which Blanche herself is putting on a performance at all times.
I’d also like to put in a good word for Denzel Washington’s adaptation of Fences. I’m not hugely familiar with the play text, but having seen the film, it could, so very easily, have fallen into the claustrophobic trap that so many ‘domestic’ plays do, but Washington knew how to…open the play up without losing its essential intimacy. And obviously Viola Davis will break your heart into a million pieces.
Looking at my bookshelf, I’m surprised how many of my favourite plays HAVEN’T been adapted into films (She Stoops to Conquer would be a crowd pleaser, I guarantee it), and I think it’s partly to do with…film, as a form, is wedded to realism in a way theatre never has been. Even something fundamentally fantastic, like Harry Potter or Game of Thrones, works on film because directors strive to make it look as real and tangible as humanly possible.
So I can see how a really Theatrical play, like The Playboy of the Western World, or Noises Off, or The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui or, well, anything by Caryl Churchill, could be a real challenge to a film director. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a lot of the ones I picked out had heavy involvement of stage actors – Washington and Fiennes had both acted in their respective plays, and I believe Leigh and Brando had both acted in Streetcar on stage before it was filmed. (I have seen whisperings that Washington may be filming the entire Pittsburg Cycle for HBO, which would be a real treat if it comes off).
That said, I know there are some obvious omissions here – I’ve never seen Branagh’s Henry V for instance, or the film of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, or the Ian McKellen Richard III – so if there are any recommendations? Do let me know.