Eye on the Oscars: Best Picture Preview

This year’s bumper crop of plays-turned-films sheds light on the varied transposition tactics available to the adapter, while continuing a love affair between stage and screen dating back to the medium’s birth.

Ever since future Paramount mogul Adolph Zukor made his bones in 1912 by advertising “Famous Players in Famous Plays,” theater’s endless supply of tight plots has been catnip to moviemakers.

Over time they’ve tested the boundaries of what “opening up” a play might mean.

These days “you need to go for the grand gesture, you need to be bold,” says John Logan, adapter of 2009’s “Sweeney Todd” and this year’s “Coriolanus.”

“You can’t just turn the camera onto the set. That’s just an act of reportage, a work of nonfiction. To tell a story cinematically, you have to shake things up, which he hopes to resurrect in the future you have to look at it as a filmmaker.”

Comparatively little shaking up, but plenty of cinema savvy, went into Yasmina Reza’s “Carnage” which, except for an outdoor prologue and coda, essentially restricts itself to the same urban apartment as in her Tony-winning “God of Carnage.”

The piece’s stage unity was part of what attracted helmer Roman Polanski, Reza believes. “The play unravels in ‘real time,’ without any jump in time, without any ‘fade to blacks'; the characters come and go without our really leaving them. Roman absolutely wanted to maintain this principle.”

Moreover, when they sat down to write the screenplay “the problem of ‘opening’ the play was a non-issue,” she says. “Theater offers the spectator a horizontal approach to space and time. Cinema opens that up to multiple angles. It allows us to see two scenes happening at the same time,” with the resulting “increased sense of intimacy” adding an extra cinematic dimension.

Extra dimensions of plot, character and theme emerged when George Clooney and Grant Heslov turned Beau Willimon’s “Farragut North” into “The Ides of March.” Willimon’s screenplay version came to the “Good Night, and Good Luck” team’s attention while the pair were working on a political story of their own.

The projects meshed, Heslov says, but “we were interested in doing a morality play with some thriller elements to it, and the play is more ‘inside’ than that.”

“Beau had created these beautiful characters whom we liked, all very flawed; the amount of change Stephen (the political operative played by Ryan Gosling) goes through is very small, and on stage it all works very well.”

They retained “huge chunks” of the stage dialogue, but “we felt that for film, the stakes needed to be higher. What interested us was, at what cost? How much of your soul are you willing to sell in order to win?

“Ryan’s character does something despicable. But in the end does the right person, the best man, get nominated? I don’t even know if I have the answer to that. But if it gets people thinking and talking, that’s a good thing.”

Thought and talk are the stock in trade of Christopher Hampton’s “A Dangerous Method,” adapted for David Cronenberg from Hampton’s 2003 play “The Talking Cure,” which was itself based on an original 1997 screenplay. (The latter centered on Sabina Spielrein, famous patient and later colleague of Dr. Carl Jung, whereas both play and film focus on the conflict between Jung and Sigmund Freud, with Sabina caught in the crossfire.)

Now, Hampton says, “you get a more vivid impression of the relationship between Jung and Sabina. I just think we were able to extend it over more scenes. And whereas we cut back some of the other areas of the play, we actually extended or expanded the Freud sequences. … Those scenes are very entertaining, I think, despite the fact that they’re rather verbally dense.”

The extent to which theatrical verbosity is indulged is often a matter of directorial taste, Hampton says. While “Dangerous Liaisons” helmer Stephen Frears “gets extremely nervous if a scene is longer than a page,” Cronenberg “was very relaxed about these long dialogue scenes. He was very clear as to where he was comfortable just to sit and watch the scene develop, and where he felt it would help to get some fresh air, as it were.”

No play this year enjoyed more fresh air than Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus,” pared down by Logan and helmer-star Ralph Fiennes to just over two hours, and set in a modern context — think civil war in the Balkans — where political protests go viral on cell phones, and handheld desert battle footage is broadcast as network news: Ye Olde Hurt Locker.

“The cinema landscape for Shakespeare is now very elastic,” Logan says. “It can encompass surrealism and abstraction like Julie Taymor’s ‘Tempest,’ and also absolute literalism like Kenneth Branagh’s ‘Hamlet.’ Both are legitimate storytelling methodologies.”

Like Heslov and Clooney, Logan and Fiennes brought laser-like attention to their central character’s psychological journey, from “this superpatriot, tormented, Norman Bates/mother-obsessed neurotic, to someone willing to destroy the city that shaped him.”

“Elements of the play that didn’t deal directly with Coriolanus’ journey were the first to go,” Logan reports. “Ruminations on the nature of the military and society became for us not as important as telling the story of this driven central character.”

His two cinema adaptations to date enjoyed different degrees of latitude.

” ‘Sweeney Todd’ is built around music. … Everything we did had to slot and refract off of Sondheim’s great, great score,” Logan says. “Whereas with ‘Coriolanus,’ I felt the freedom to go in and muck around with the guts of the engine.”

And how might his long-dead playwright react? “In my office I have a bust of Shakespeare, and while I worked on ‘Coriolanus’ I put a blindfold around it. And when I finally took it off, he didn’t look horrified, he looked OK. I could still look him in the eye with respect.”

Of course, the Bard probably hadn’t yet seen the final cut.

EYE ON THE OSCARS: BEST PICTURE PREVIEW
Reading the voters’ minds | Rewriting history to suit the demands of drama | Veterans back in action | Beyond the boards

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