'Rain Man' in previews while 'Calendar' preps

There’s nothing new in raiding movie back-catalogs for legit exploitation. “The Producers,” “Billy Elliot,” “The Lion King” and countless others have made money-making transitions from screen to stage. And with “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” poised to announce a West End opening in March, there’s no sign of the trend ending. Those titles, however, are all tuners. The new game in town, especially when that town is London, is turning movies into plays.

Leader of the upcoming pack is “Rain Man” (in previews ahead of a Sept. 19 opening), with Josh Hartnett and Adam Godley in the Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman roles, respectively.

Meanwhile, producers David Pugh and Dafydd Rogers and regional powerhouse Chichester Festival Theater are readying an adaptation of Brit hit “Calendar Girls,” opening Sept. 16 ahead of a potential pre-West End tour. Two weeks before its first preview, the show has already banked an eye-watering £1.75 million ($3.1 million) advance.

Clearly, it’s a promising strategy. Look at Maria Aitken’s “The 39 Steps.”

Patrick Barlow’s adaptation of Hitchcock’s celebrated movie is into its third year at London’s 600-seat Criterion Theater. It has grossed almost $9 million, a figure that looks even juicier considering its modest running costs: Designer Peter McKintosh created a wittily minimal set for a cast of just four.

The production is in its ninth month on Broadway; it has also played Australia, Germany, Greece, Israel, Italy and Korea and is licensed to a further 15 countries, including Hong Kong and Japan.

That show, however, is a smartly tongue-in-cheek spoof of the notion of staging seemingly impossible movie moments. But other successful U.K. productions have set their sights on matters beyond mirth.

Following a successful limited run at the Old Vic, Samuel Adamson’s re-imagining of Pedro Almodovar’s “All About My Mother” is being produced in Stockholm, Portugal and Mexico City in 2008-09, with negotiations ongoing for Austria, Denmark and Norway. The only reason London producers Daniel Sparrow, Old Vic Prods., Neal Street Prods. and Dede Harris say they haven’t taken the play to Broadway is because of cast availability. (Its Rialto bow is penciled in for spring 2010.)

But for every transatlantic triumph, there are damp squibs. Productions of “The Postman Always Rings Twice” (2005) and last year’s “Swimming With Sharks” failed to catch fire despite the respective presences of Val Kilmer and Christian Slater.

The vogue for movies onstage took off in 2000 with London’s “The Graduate,” adapted and directed by Terry Johnson.

That show claimed to be a reworking of Charles Webb’s original novel, but ticketbuyers in around 40 cities worldwide were lured more by memories of Mike Nichols’ era-defining 1967 movie. That, and the promise of various famous actresses of a certain age — Kathleen Turner, Jerry Hall, Anne Archer among them — disrobing for the 45-second nude scene.

Johnson was, therefore, the man producer Nica Burns turned to when “Rain Man” helmer David Grindley was forced to withdraw due to family illness. Burns is unrepentant about producing the hybrid form some critics describe as, at best, secondhand.

“Storytellers look for good stories whatever the medium,” she explains. “What about all those Hollywood films based on Broadway plays? Film owes us.”

“Audiences under 35 have been brought up on American film, great iconic stories that are part of their growing up,” continues Burns. “It’s totally appropriate that those stories will have another life. And theater provides a much more visceral, emotional experience.”

Indeed, emotional immediacy in the story of two brothers in extremis is central to the idea of staging “Rain Man.”

Dan Gordon, author of the stage version, is a screenwriter whose credits include “Murder in the First” and “Passenger 57.” He also adapted “Terms of Endearment” for the stage. That show bypassed London on a U.K. tour led by Linda Gray, but is aiming for Broadway in 2009.

“Screen literature that is character-driven as opposed to being visually driven is as worthy of adaptation as any other kind of literature,” argues Gordon.

“My job is not to fix anything that isn’t broken,” he adds. “While making theatrical what was cinematic, I try to be as faithful as humanly possible.”

Not everyone agrees. When staging “On the Waterfront” at Nottingham Playhouse this year (and again at the Edinburgh Fringe), director Steven Berkoff jettisoned movie-style naturalism for a more choral, expressionistic approach.

More successfully, last season’s now-Broadway-bound “Brief Encounter,” by maverick theatermakers Kneehigh, was a runaway hit because it captured the essence of Noel Coward and David Lean’s iconic, stiff-upper-lip movie weepie by being vividly irreverent with the source material.

“I didn’t set out to adapt ‘Brief Encounter,’ I set out to work with Kneehigh,” says producer Pugh, who was drawn to the company for its theatrical inventiveness, not its potential ability to replicate a screenplay.

His most persuasive argument against screen-to-stage transfers is financial.

“It’s not just that as a producer I find original work more exciting,” he confesses. “It’s also more attractive for my investors. With a new play they get to participate 20%-40% in the sale of film rights. You don’t get that when the studios already hold them.”

Pugh’s views on the pic-to-play trend are typically forthright.

“If you can’t find a way to take a film and remake it onstage theatrically, don’t do it,” he advises. “Isn’t it easier just to watch the DVD?”

For proof of his edict, consider another show on his slate. Unlikely as it seems, playwright Conor McPherson is on the second draft of his adaptation of “The Birds.”

“It’s set on the west coast of Ireland, and Conor hasn’t even watched the film in recent memory,” explains Pugh. “It’s much more about Daphne Du Maurier’s short story, which Hitchcock himself only read once. Anyone who thinks they’ll be coming to see the film will be mightily disappointed.”

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