Stage plays have a spotty record making the jump to the screen, even when the playwright is the one doing the jumping.
For every “Amadeus,” which took flight in Milos Forman’s film version, there’s an “Equus” — by the same playwright, Peter Shaffer, and no less a sensation on Broadway — that lands on movie screens with a thud.
“I think the mistake that a lot of playwrights make is ‘Oh, I’ll just chop this scene into pieces and I’ll put it in different locations.’ And there’s a lot more to it than that,” says playwright and screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire.
Lindsay-Abaire’s movie credits now include “Rabbit Hole,” his adaptation of his Pulitzer and Tony-winning play about a couple trying to reconnect after the death of their son.
If his play made an unusually successful transition to the movies, Abaire observes it might be because the play already lent itself to “opening up.”
For one, the play takes place over a span of time. “There’s no real ticking clock,” he says. “And since the plot is very much about people mourning in their own way and grieving on their own clocks, time was sort of fluid anyway, so it lent itself to a more circuitous journey.”
In the stage version, many offstage scenes were described: a confrontation in a grocery store, the couple’s group therapy sessions, and more. “I thought this is great,” says Abaire, “I can go to all of those places, and this couple’s world got that much bigger as a result.”
Along the way he discovered that opening the story up also changed it: “It feels like the play was more about a woman who had actively shut out the world.
“But by opening it up, just by design, the movie became more about the couple.”
He trimmed aggressively, knowing that pages of dialogue could be boiled down to a closeup, but he worried about cutting the play’s laugh lines. Humor, he felt, was essential lest the grimness of the situation become “unbearable.”
“A couple of them were in the Broadway production and would kill every night,” he says. “Me being a laugh whore, I do miss those laughs.”
Only in a Toronto screening did he realize he’d written new laughs — and helmer John Cameron Mitchell had found a few, too.
Case in point: a smash cut from husband Howie and a friend getting stoned before therapy to the two of them trying to be dour and serious in the group.
“That gets a huge laugh,” says Abaire. “That’s alchemy. As a writer, I don’t know that I know how to do that. I feel you can only find that, maybe in the editorial room, but probably not until it’s in front of an audience. But it’s not something that I do.”
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