There was a time when most cinematic versions of plays were just that – plays filmed as they were performed, all the while preserving the proscenium staging with the camera planted in the first row of the audience and the action taking place statically, players entering and exiting as they would during a live performance. After all, the playwright’s words should be enough to carry the venture. Plays do not necessarily have to be seen to be enjoyed because it’s the words that wield the power and convey ideas – simply listening to a recording of a good play can be totally absorbing. But film is not the stage – there are endless possibilities to capture the spirit and intention of the original words and not be constricted by an enclosed setting. A well-imagined film of a play sets the words free and incorporates visuals that no other medium can provide.
Most of the world’s greatest plays have been filmed at least once. Shakespeare alone has over 400 filmed versions of his plays in the historical archive, more than any other writer in any language. This speaks directly to the freedom of interpretation that the director must take on – preserve the core yet reimagine the execution. Sometimes the film versions fall flat – if nothing is attempted to “open up” the play and use the opportunities cinema provides, the end product is a filmed play. Unfortunately, getting the right mix in the adaptation is not easy, as recent failures have proven. The power of the dialog is so central that it is easy to slip into that zone where it all sounds like stagey recitation combined with a bit of scenery-munching by enthusiastic actors. Not true filmmaking and nothing more than a paint-by-number record of animated words.
When a powerful play is adapted to incorporate some of the technical features possible with film, the end result can be transporting. A savvy director and crew will mine the dramatic work for opportunities to maneuver the camera in such a way as to take the audience out of their seats and place them in the middle of the action (just as one would with any other film genre). The playwright’s words should not be treated as a wall that defines the boundaries of the film, but as a door that opens into another medium of expression.
I’ve selected versions from playwrights whose words have been re-imagined by five great directors. The end result is not simply a recorded version of another medium, but each an achievement that stands tall on its own merits, and gracing us with five cinema milestones at the same time.
A Streetcar Named Desire – Elia Kazan (1951) Play – Tennessee Williams
If anybody could translate southern angst into words, it was Tennessee Williams. His dialog brims with the desperation, flirtatiousness, and frustrations of his characters. Kazan not only captures this, but also imbues his film with a New Orleans night heat that is full with humidity, working class clutter and noise, and an abundance of pheromone-infused sweat. The highlights, of course, are the performances, especially those by Vivien Leigh as the brittle Blanche, on the path to disintegration, and Marlon Brando as Stanley, the dumb brute who’s smarter than he acts. Despite the fact that changes to the original play were required for compliance with the Motion Picture Production Code, by the time you dousethe entire proceedings with Alex North’s steamy jazz score, you have an eternal classic.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – Mike Nichols (1966) Play – Edward Albee
“George and Martha, sad, sad, sad.” Maybe so, but the battles that take place before we get to that line rival most boxing films. Taylor and Burton go at it like verbal gladiators, both turning in career-high performances as the couple entertains a younger couple (George Segal and Sandy Dennis as Nick and Honey) at their post-party party, complete with too much booze and plenty of nasty parlor games. This was Mike Nichols’ first feature and he pulls out all the stops to create a visceral experience, aided capably by his cinematographer, Haskell Wexler. This black and white drama was a critics’ darling as well as the #1 box office champion of 1966 – something that rarely happens. It is also one of two (only) films that were nominated in every Oscar category for which it was eligible. Albee creates a human train wreck like nobody else and everyone should have a look.
Long Days Journey into Night – Sidney Lumet (1962) Play – Eugene O’Neill
And a LONG day it is with the Tyrone’s, but a mesmerizing one. Eugene O’Neill won a Nobel and four Pulitzers during his career for his honestly observant writing, and this play is about as close to the bone as one can get because he unblinkingly based it on his own family, addictions and all. Father and brother were drunks and mother was a morphine addict, yet they try and function as the upper crust model family that must deal with hurdles like illness, blame and genuine affection just like everyone else. Kate Hepburn and Ralph Richardson glow as the parents, as do Jason Robards and Dean Stockwell as the sibling brothers. Lumet boldly captures the anxiety and ultimate futility of this most famous of dysfunctional families.
Much Ado About Nothing – Kenneth Branagh (1993) Play – Wm Shakespeare
Enough with the heavy stuff – plays can be fun, as well. I was never much of a fan of Much Ado… until I saw Branagh’s interpretation. It’s a complete delight, start to finish, and is probably the only Shakespeare-based film I’ve seen where the audience applauded in spots throughout – and that’s what “making Shakespeare accessible” is all about. Following a dazzling opening, Benedict and Beatrice (Branagh and Emma Thompson) lead the rest of a very diverse cast through a romp of a mating dance that is one of the most financially successful films based on the bard’s work. It’s the most fun you’ll ever have watching a Shakespeare play, I guarantee.
RAN – Akira Kurosawa (1985) Based on Wm Shakespeare’s King Lear
The most expensive Japanese film ever made, to that point, may not have an ounce of iambic pentameter present, but it remains the best – and most opulent – version of Shakespeare’s King Lear ever filmed. The Lear tragedy can be a dinghy, heavy-handed affair, but under Kurosawa’s direction, it is a vision, ultimately tragic, but a vision. Ambitious sons have replaced ungrateful daughters and Lear is now a 16th century warlord, but the themes of honor, loyalty and nihilism remain intact. Technical credits were state-of-the-art and the film garnered international praise even though Japan, by some fluke, failed to submit the film for the foreign language film category for the Oscars. It’s a masterpiece by one of cinema’s true masters.
Those are only five, and I wish I could have included Mike Nichols’ version of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America or Peter Glenville’s take on Jean Anouilh’s Becket. When the power of the word, as spoken by our greatest actors, is fused with the imaginative and never-ending possibilities of film, all hell (or heaven) breaks loose.