Critics aren't 'slavishly committed' to the source

Hollywood has a long tradition of adapting plays and musicals for the screen. Critics whose job it is to assess such films say they give efforts like “Frost/Nixon,” “Doubt” and “Mamma Mia!” no special consideration just because they originated on the stage.

“Film is an eclectic medium, and things are adapted all the time,” says Joe Morgenstern, film critic for the Wall Street Journal. Though a former theater critic, Morgenstern rarely sees even major plays these days.

“I’m not slavishly committed to the notion of going back to the source,” he says, echoing the comments of several peers. “We are, after all, talking about movies. And we do understand that difficult choices have to be made when adapting material to the screen.”

Similarly, New York Times film critic A.O. Scott doesn’t frequent the Rialto habitually. Instead, he’ll read a play, acknowledging “that’s not the same as seeing it. It’s helpful, but not that different from reading a screenplay – and that’s a notoriously unhelpful way of getting an idea of what a movie is.”

Like Morgenstern, Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune also wrote about theater before reviewing movies, but that hasn’t given him a soft touch when it come to criticizing stage-to-screen adaptations. “Just because I came out of the theater didn’t make me like ‘Mamma Mia!,’ ” he says. “All you have to do is look at ‘Proof,’ ‘Oleana’ or ‘American Buffalo’ to see how hard it is to do right.”

One factor determining the success or failure of stage-to-screen ventures is the question of how much to open things up. “If the material is strong,” Morgenstern says, “I’m perfectly happy to stay within the psychic confines of the play, within reason. In a movie, you expect someone at a window to see street life outside, not blank space. And you expect a character leaving a room to enter another rather the wings of the stage.”

For Phillips, some of the liberties taken in “Doubt,” directed by John Patrick Shanley, who wrote the play on which the film is based, demonstrate effective broadening. “The scene with the mother took place in the office on stage, but on film, it’s an exterior. Is it more effective with that lack of compression? Some of the energy is dispersed, but Viola Davis and Meryl Streep are so good that it works.”

Scotthas harsh words for filmmakers who seem to take a follow a schematic approach when it comes to turning stage shows into movies. “We have to make this a movie, so we have to be outside,” he says, mocking such notions. He says the issue is more complicated.

“I think it has as much to do with language as the visual opening up of things,” he says. “We’re accustomed to seeing people speak a certain artificial, self-consciously poetic way on the stage. What makes something seem stage-bound, even if it’s opened up, has as much to do with writing as with cinema.”

Ultimately, says Phillips, “there’s absolutely no formula for adapting a stage piece correctly, because some of the most successful adaptation are highly theatrical, like Louis Malle’s ‘Vanya on 42nd Street’ (1994) or Masahiro Shinoda’s ‘Double Suicide’ (1969). Both are completely compelling.”

One thing all critics appreciate is the preservation on film of great stage performances. Yet Morgenstern insists that films get no points just for having stage actors reprise their roles. “The movie medium plays to people who for the most part neither know nor care about antecedents,” he says. ” ‘The History Boys’ (2006) worked brilliantly because it preserved the level of performance in the play.”

More often than not, films don’t end up enshrining stage performers in acclaimed roles. “I wish Julie Andrews had played ‘My Fair Lady’ on the screen,” Morgenstern contends, “but it would not have been financed if she had, and the same is true of Cherry Jones and ‘Doubt.’ Besides, it’s not as if Meryl Streep disgraced that play.”

Scott agrees. “(Streep) is a movie star, but she’s also an actress with significant stage experience and training. Besides, any good-enough role has room in it for more than one interpretation.”

Phillips calls the tendency to deny stage actors cinematic immortality “a Hollywood tradition. It’s a miracle when someone like Vivian Blaine is retained for ‘Guys and Dolls’ (1955) or Frank Langella for ‘Frost/Nixon.’ You know, Warren Beatty was pondering whether he would do Nixon. And thank goodness we got Langella.”

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