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Movies adapt to Broadway playbook

'Doubt,' 'Frost/Nixon' take bigscreen test

“Frost/Nixon” and “Doubt” are destined to be serious awards season contenders when they open in December, but even as film adaptations of highly popular plays, they are on a road fraught with mixed results and more than a few risks.

Unlike a string of Broadway tuners that have scored at the box office, recent bigscreen treatments of plays like Alan Bennett’s “The History Boys,” David Auburn’s “Proof” and Patrick Marber’s “Closer” have underwhelmed, leaving some producers simply perplexed as to what works and what does not.

In addition to “Frost/Nixon” and “Doubt,” pic adaptations of “August: Osage County,” “Blackbird” and “Rabbit Hole” are in active development.

Such Hollywood interest in straight plays has sparked a lively dialogue about how to turn a good play into an equally good movie. And it has playwrights on both sides of the Atlantic struggling to decide how much to keep, how much to change and how much to expand as they turn their scripts into screenplays.

It’s generally acknowledged that the legit audience for nonmusicals is much smaller than for the broad-reaching, no-English-required pleasures of a splashy tuner — and as a result, no new play in recent years has achieved the kind of global brand profile of world-conquering musicals like “Mamma Mia!” or “The Phantom of the Opera.”

“It’s not simple making a film out of a play,” says veteran Broadway producer Emanuel Azenberg. ” ‘Death of a Salesman’ was a great, great, great play, and the movie was a great, great, great disaster because they recycled the play, and the camera doesn’t call for that.”

Major feature films adapted from hit plays were once a Hollywood staple. And some screen adaptations actually managed to improve on the legit original: Few know “Casablanca” originated from a then-unproduced play with the awkward title “Everybody Comes to Rick’s.”

In fact, “A Man for All Seasons,” a revival of which is currently running on Broadway, took home the 1966 Oscar for best picture.

But in recent decades, non-tuners have either been ignored as film properties, underperformed at the box office or gone the HBO route.

Industry players aren’t sure if Hollywood’s renewed attraction to plays is cyclical or coincidence, or perhaps reflective of a gradual shift in the theater back to more traditional narrative. It does seem, some say, that more plays are telling stories, developing characters and unspooling plots in ways that lend themselves to films.

“It’s not going to be a decision Hollywood makes; they are always canvassing for ideas,” says John Patrick Shanley, who adapted and helmed the upcoming pic version of his 2004 play “Doubt,” which won a Pulitzer and four Tonys. “It’s a decision that New York and London playwrights make.”

Scribes wrestling with the adaptation process quickly discover it’s a rocky road from stage to screen.

Shanley (“Moonstruck,” “Congo”) is no stranger to the bigscreen, but he says turning “Doubt” into a film was “the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”

His main compass for adaptation, he says, is plot.

“You ask, ‘Does the play have a compelling story to tell? Is it a tone poem, or a theatrical trick that could not be replicated on film? Is it basically a character study?’ ” he says. ” ‘Doubt,’ on one level, is a whodunit. It has that going for it.”

According to Tracy Letts, at work on the screenplay of his Pulitzer and Tony-winning family drama “August: Osage County,” part of the challenge lies in translating stage diction to screen dialogue.

“In plays there is a heightened theatrical quality to language,” he says. “It doesn’t necessarily play on film. It can sound wooden. Without de-boning it, flaying the piece, you have to find a way to translate the language. It’s scalpel kind of work.”

David Harrower, at work on the adaptation of his play “Blackbird” for New York-based producer Jean Doumanian (“All the Real Girls,” “Bullets Over Broadway”), finds himself struggling to make a stage choice resonate in the film version.

“Blackbird” takes place in real time as two former lovers confront each other more than a decade after the end of their relationship. The play never shows the woman, who was 12 when the affair started, as her younger self.

“If you saw it, it would ruin the delicacy of it. It would explode something,” Harrower says. So he is striving to open up the story, introduce new characters and avoid the temptation of using flashbacks.

Playwrights working on the current crop of adaptations don’t seem all that eager to discuss other highly decorated stage productions that have lived, or died, on film.

“The History Boys,” about a class of British boarding school boys looking to enter Oxford or Cambridge, was widely acclaimed, winning numerous awards in the U.K. before sweeping the Tony for best play Stateside. The film’s reviews were mixed, with some critics calling the language too stagy. Others felt the playwright hadn’t opened the story up enough for the movie, which turned in a cumulative box office of only $2.5 million.

“I wish you hadn’t told me that,” said Harrower, who said he hadn’t seen the movie.

There were no major stars in the film; instead most of the original London cast reprised their roles, as did director Nicholas Hytner. The pic’s disappointing receipts underscore the fact that bankable stars are also a consideration in making the move to the cineplex.

“In Europe and all over the world, yes, they like movies with names,” Doumanian says.

“August: Osage County” hasn’t been cast, but Doumanian says she’s been inundated with calls from agents whose big-name clients had seen the play in New York. “Doubt,” produced by Scott Rudin and distributed by Miramax, stars Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams, while Nicole Kidman will star in and produce David Lindsay-Abaire’s “Rabbit Hole.”

Sometimes, though, producers decide to stick with what worked onstage. After reportedly considering marquee names including Warren Beatty and Kevin Spacey, the team behind the Ron Howard-helmed “Frost/Nixon” circled back to cast Frank Langella, who originated the role of the titular disgraced president in the play. The thesp picked up his third Tony (along with an Olivier nom) for his stage perf.

The gambit could pay off, because ultimately big-name stars don’t guarantee success.

Take the pic adaptation of “Proof,” which won a Pulitzer Prize and Tony award for best play. It had a stellar cast — including Gwyneth Paltrow, Anthony Hopkins and Jake Gyllenhaal — but the film, directed by John Madden, also failed to connect with auds, grossing a total of $7.5 million.

And “Closer,” directed by Mike Nichols and starring Julia Roberts, Jude Law, Natalie Portman and Clive Owen, earned $34 million.

On the smallscreen, HBO’s adaptation of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America,” also directed by Nichols, caused a flurry and won a record 11 Emmy awards. But the costs are generally lower, and the pressure less intense, in a television adaptation.

Some of the challenges of screen translation can be eased by television, according to HBO Films prexy Colin Callender.

“I don’t think we lose that personal connection between the audience and the actors,” he says. “On the contrary, I think that sense of familiarity is heightened with the close proximity the television viewer feels with what is onscreen.”

“Angels in America” found a home on HBO, which has successfully adapted a number of plays over the years, including “As You Like It,” “Dinner With Friends” and “Wit.” Another, “My Zinc Bed,” from Brit scribe David Hare, starring Uma Thurman, Jonathan Pryce and Paddy Considine, is coming up.

” ‘Angels, ‘Wit,’ ‘Dinner With Friends,’ if you see that on TV you say, ‘That’s pretty good.’ If you went into a movie theater and were one of 300-500 people in the audience, maybe not,” says Azenberg.

Callender frequently mines the theatrical world for ideas, as do others seeking fresh fare for the motion picture pipeline.

Doumaniansays she sometimes goes to the theater four nights a week and dispatches staffers to Off and Off Off Broadway. “When you see it mounted already, it’s not less of a risk, but you have a better idea, and you get audience response immediately.”

As the new crop of plays transitions to the bigscreen, the critical and commercial wisdom of putting them there will again be tested. But it’s a high hurdle, Azenberg believes, because plays, in the end, are people talking. “Some people like films with dialogue. But there are only 18 of them, and 94 million want to see the bus that crashes into the plane.”