Eye on the Oscars: The Writer

Now that the curtain’s gone up on key Awards Season films “Anna Karenina,” “Lincoln,” “Les Miserables” and “Quartet,” all from world-class playwrights, age-old questions about the relationship of stage and screen have returned to the fore.

“Anna Karenina” and “Lincoln” are demonstrably “cinematic” in their visual flair and richness. Yet each is also redolent of the legit playhouse, as if greasepaint were being sold in the lobby instead of butter-flavored topping. They beg the question: What happens when the screenwriter wants to make a movie, while the director has his eye fixed on the stage?

The writers of “Les Mis” and “Quartet,” meanwhile, faced another question: How much should they draw on their own stage roots while transplanting their stories to the screen?

Tom Stoppard, after delivering what was by his own admission a “straightforward adaptation” of Tolstoy’s immortal classic “Anna Karenina,” was confronted in his kitchen by helmer Joe Wright’s portfolio of storyboards which set the entire tale — all the urban interiors, anyway — throughout a completely detailed, if dilapidated, 19th century theater. Stoppard remembers Wright saying, ” ‘I hope you like this, because if you don’t like it I can’t do it.’ So I decided I liked it.”

For his part, Tony Kushner says of his “Lincoln” script, “I hope it doesn’t feel like a play. … I was writing a movie.” Yet he found helmer Steven Spielberg pushing for more and more of cinema’s traditional bane: “He never said to me, ‘I can’t film this, it’s too much talk and there’s no action.’ The more talk there was, the more excited he got.” All the while, the helmer of “Jaws” and “Indiana Jones” fills each frame with theatrical effects, dropping hints of a stage environment long before the story ends — where else? — in a box seat, house right.

This isn’t to accuse either creative team of being at cross purposes. Each scribe cheers the relationship with his director, and takes pride in the final result.

But the impact of both movies is arguably intensified by an exciting tension between filmic and theatrical conventions. One can’t forget that both writers — as well as William Nicholson of the forthcoming “Les Miserables” — aren’t just experienced screenwriters, but distinguished stage dramatists of long standing. Surely all were chosen, in part at least, for their ability to do-do-do what they done-done-done before.

What Stoppard has mostly done before in the theater is originals. He’s a notoriously careful adapter (he’s just come off a four-year stint bringing Ford Madox Ford’s “Parade’s End” to television), so he admits it was with trepidation that he perused those sketches of dinners hosted in the orchestra, assignations in the loge and a full peddlers’ bazaar installed up in the flies. But he came quickly to realize the advantages inherent in what Wright had conceived.

“I first wrote the script the way they’ve been written for a hundred years: You establish Kitty’s house and Levin goes in, and he meets the porter, and she comes into view from above, and blah blah blah.” But as seen in Wright’s film, Levin sits at a floor-level table as he spots Kitty above, in the mezzanine. She descends while he mounts a set of tiny rehearsal steps and they meet on stage, neither one ever acknowledging they’re anywhere but in their Moscow reality.

At another point, office clerks become waiters, “and you see the scene change to a restaurant right before your eyes — just what you’d do in a theater, in a nonrealistic production of a play.”

The real value, Stoppard feels, was rhythmic. “It’s this fluidity I find exciting. It completely breaks down the conventional rhythm of how you end a scene and begin the next one. It means the scenes elide into each other as if it were a mix. But there’s no mix,” just a juxtaposition of film’s immediacy with theater’s capacity for simultaneous locations.

What he doesn’t say, but what’s obvious to any even occasional playgoer, is that this “Anna Karenina” is the functional equivalent of what’s done with (some might say, to) Shakespeare onstage all the time: placing the words within a totally different, often anachronistic and alien context. You can enact “King Lear” in an Eskimo village or “Much Ado About Nothing” in a Midwestern town park; maybe it’ll work and maybe it won’t, but at least the audience will have a chance to see and hear the material anew. The play’s still the thing, but its trappings set off unanticipated sparks.

It’s important to remember Stoppard didn’t have to change a single word of his screenplay to accommodate the concept, and the helmer respected his author’s one precondition that “the emotional narrative must never know it’s in a Joe Wright idea.” Some critics have been objecting to this “Anna” as if what the world needed were the same old retelling, but over time you can expect to see the synergy between Tolstoy’s narrative and Wright’s conceit analyzed with great respect, and it’s a fair bet theater critics will be in the vanguard of that effort.

Theater critics and historians alike will likely spend much time with “Lincoln: The Screenplay” when it’s published next spring. Kushner presented Spielberg over the years with multiple scripts, at least the first of which was a massive tome covering the entire life of the Old Railsplitter, womb to tomb.

That the helmer finally decided to focus solely on the last four months of the president’s life, and on one specific political endeavor — the passage of the 13th amendment abolishing slavery — indicates a realization that a full life can be recounted albeit telescoped in time. In the same way, Shakespeare presents a rich portrait of the titular Julius Caesar, although he’s merely a minor character and seen only in his final few days.

Kushner can’t say enough about the documentary realism, the “fly-on-the-wall feeling,” of Spielberg’s mise en scene and the complete lack of any CGI work in recreating 1865 Washington, D.C.; clearly he is proud of the movie’s cinematic flourishes and his role in bringing them about. Asked about any stage roots of his treatment he comes up genuinely blank: “Well … it’s Lincoln, so of course there’s a theater.”

Yet there’s the whiff of the playhouse throughout “Lincoln’s” 150-minute running time. Period lighting consistently creates moody, composed effects. Actors are pointedly framed in the little prosceniums of windows and doorways. A fabric of creaking floors and footsteps is given weight usually associated with stage plays. At the approximate midpoint, there’s a sense of intermission evoked by a cliffhanger decision of Lincoln’s: Music wells up; fade out.

Two key scenes (not the one you’re thinking of) are actually set in playhouses, the first of which is a performance of “Faust” attended by the first couple, during which Mary reads her husband the riot act about signing the amendment. Should he fail to do so, “Woe unto you,” she intones in Sally Field’s most forbidding Master Thespian tone, which is plenty. Indeed, the entire nail-biting structure of the amendment-vote negotiations seems reminiscent of machinations within stage tuner “1776,” whose libretto Kushner says he once told the late author Peter Stone he admired.

Upon reflection, Kushner concedes his screenplay’s texture may owe some debt to his background. “The late Andrew Sarris once wrote about ‘the essential claustrophobia of the dramatic event,’ and there’s no way around it: When you’re in a theater, you’re just in a room with a bunch of other people, and a lot of plays traffic in the power of a lot of people being trapped in a room having to work out their issues.”

And “Lincoln” does reflects what Kushner calls “that singularity of focus. … The conflict is primarily interpersonal, and confined to a lot of rooms. And it’s really about argument and debate. … the kind of dialectic we’re more familiar with in the history of theater than the history of cinema.” As for any “1776” parallels, he didn’t consult or see it in the present instance, but “it’s a great musical,” he shrugs, “so why not?”

It ca
n’t be coincidence that both films are set in a century in which people of all classes were well and deeply read, when social and political discourse was founded on the elegantly written word and — above all — when the theater was, in the U.S. and Europe alike, the single most important entertainment medium. “Les Miserables,” too, takes place in the 1800s, a likely reason why so improbable a piece of source material took so readily to the legitimate stage.

A perusal of Nicholson’s screenplay (the movie has not yet screened) suggests fans of the international sensation needn’t worry that their beloved tuner has been unduly opened up for, or trashed by, the screen. “The show is fantastic,” Nicholson raves. “I’m a huge admirer of it, and if the movie is a success it’ll be 99% because the show is so brilliant.”

A skillful hand was nevertheless needed. “People think a screenwriter writes dialogue. What a screenwriter writes is story structure, and story structure consists of moral and emotional beats.” Motivations for actions have been strengthened, as well as the Javert/Valjean cat-and-mouse game, no longer placed on a back burner for a time as in the legit original.

As for the relationship of stage and screen, Nicholson is concerned with purpose rather than technique. What films like “Anna,” “Lincoln” and “Les Mis” are all getting at, he says, “is a level of moral seriousness. They’re saying ‘We’re not just here to entertain you in a trivial way; we’re trying to do something mythic.’ And of course theater is easier to make mythic than film, because film is so very naturalistic in everything it does.”

One wonders what he’d call “Star Wars” or his own “Gladiator” if not mythic, but his point is clear enough: The theater is the place where people have traditionally gone to hear moral choices worked out, and to seek moral direction in their own lives. Now that cinema occupies pride of place, if it can begin to do some of that intellectual and emotional heavy lifting, so much the better.

Theatrical values, as applied to movies, are notable assets to “Anna” and “Lincoln,” though whatever success they enjoy probably won’t usher in a major trend.

“In the theater it’s words that matter, and in the cinema it’s images,” says Ronald Harwood, who won an Oscar for “The Pianist.” A too-stagey script “can become slightly pretentious on screen. Movie audiences are not now trained to listen. ”

This season, Harwood has turned his 2003 “Quartet” into a film with helmer Dustin Hoffman, and together they “tried to remove all traces of its being a play.” An intimate four-hander became a sweeping view of an entire culture, as Harwood created multiple subplots involving residents of a nursing home for aged virtuosi, many of whom are played by famous classical music retirees. All the long speeches of the playtext have gone by the wayside, and the stylized ending had to go, as well.

Yet neither could resist one theatrical coup: As prima donna Maggie Smith arrives at the nursing facility for aged virtuosi, the residents are assembled on the landing above, feverishly applauding her.

“Yes!,” Harwood delightedly affirms. “I wanted her to be a star among her peers, as if she were entering Sardi’s after a first night.”

Even in a contemporary story, theatrical life and “reel life” can, at crucial moments, be made interestingly to merge.

Eye on the Oscars: The Writer
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