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Adapting ‘Doubt’ a challenge for Shanley

Static chamber plays don't translate easily to film

There are plays like ‘Of Mice and Men’ which were performed in a time when there were 18 actors onstage,” observes “Doubt” scribe and helmer John Patrick Shanley about dramas that have translated from legit theater to the bigscreen, “but, when I came along (on Broadway), casts were boiled down to a bonelike simplicity.”

For Shanley, therein lies the rub in adapting his 2005 work “Doubt,” about a Catholic priest’s possible transgression involving a black parochial student and his confrontation with the parish’s head nun: making his four-character chamber piece riveting enough for the multiplex.

“It was the hardest script I ever wrote,” confesses Shanley. “How was I going to take this setting and turn it into a world without losing the narrative propulsion? How can I have people talk that much and have it be visually interesting?”

Historically, adapted plays with large casts and epic backdrops, such as 1984’s best pic Oscar winner “Amadeus,” have had no problem impressing Oscar voters. To that end, both Peter Shaffer’s stage play and screenplay are quite distinct in their plot — another factor that enables a play to work more effectively on film.

Character-driven plays, such as “Doubt,” however, are trickier propositions. For every “Dangerous Liaisons,” which snagged seven Oscar noms including best picture in 1988, there’s “Glengarry Glen Ross,” which was completely ignored by the Academy in 1993, except for a supporting nom for Al Pacino.

Ultimately, it’s the actors who reap the spoils in such fare, since they can “show more nuance on film than onstage” says Shanley. Such was the case in 1981 when Mark Rydell’s take on Ernest Thompson’s “On Golden Pond” lost best picture but won trophies for Thompson and actors Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn.

Should “Doubt” find itself among the best pic nominees, it would be the first screen adaptation of a play to do so since 1989’s Oscar winner “Driving Miss Daisy,” another thesp-driven theatrical work with a small cast.

“Immediately I thought about what Mike Nichols did with Edward Albee’s ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?'” says Shanley about his inspiration for the screen adaptation of “Doubt.” “Woolf,” like “Doubt,” was another four-character play that took place in one setting. Though the 1966 film is quite faithful to the play, Nichols extended the action across three settings: a roadhouse, the interior of the couple’s house and their yard. The pic earned 13 nominations, with actor trophies awarded to Elizabeth Taylor and Sandy Dennis.

“I realized that I had to do moment-to-moment solutions that revealed something about the character and the environment,” Shanley says.

The playwright took the opportunity to expand the school’s setting and characters. In the play, none of the children appear. However, in the film, “showing all the kids is a powerful thing, particularly when there’s one black child among all the white kids,” he explains. The presence of Flynn’s supposed victim fueled more interactions between the priest and the boy, as well as other students, adding fuel to both sides of the argument relating to the priest’s suspected actions.

To underscore the drama’s gender politics, Shanley juxtaposed scenes of the nuns’ asceticism with the priests’ gluttony. However, the crux of “Doubt” lies in its standoff between Meryl Streep’s strictly doctrinaire Sister Aloysius and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s liberal Father Flynn. All of the actions she accuses Flynn of occur offstage and offscreen, which triggers a sense of ambiguity.

“Some plays are contrived,” remarks the film critic and scholar David Thomson. “They don’t look like life. They’re word games, hence the reason why a lot of Harold Pinter’s plays are difficult to film. For a play to work on film, the conflict has to be real.”

“Most plays tend to be about the crucible events that happen to one person while most movies are all plot,” says Scott Rudin, who produced both the Broadway play and the adaptation. “‘Doubt’ happens to be about both these things. There’s a whodunit element whereby events happen offscreen, which makes for powerful movie stuff. Most impressively, Shanley doesn’t answer any of the questions he poses, which is brave.”

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