Top 10 Adaptations: From Stage to Screen

If you caught the results of Sunday night’s Tony awards at all, you might have noticed that Broadway’s biggest night had a decidedly Hollywood flavor to it this year. Scarlett Johansson won Best Supporting Actress in a Play for her part in the revival of Arthur Miller’s “A View from the Bridge,” while Denzel Washington and Viola Davis claimed the lead actor/actress in a play categories for “Fences.” To cap it off, Catherine Zeta-Jones won Best Lead Actress in a Musical for “A Little Night Music.”

So, as film stars lend their talents to prominent stage productions, I thought it would be interesting to look back at some times that the exodus went the other way: when stage productions were turned into Hollywood films. I present my top 10 film adaptations of stage productions. The rules: musicals and plays are both welcome, but the production must have been actually staged at some point (so no Casablanca, adapted from an unstaged play). Also, no teleplay adaptations (so no 12 Angry Men), because I’m picky.

10. Rope (1948)

Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller, based on a 1929 play of the same name, did its best to recreate the stage experience as faithfully as possible. Shot on a single sound stage, Rope used only a few long takes and invisible cuts, creating the impression of being filmed in one continuous shot. We seem to follow the action in real time as two young college graduates murder one of their former classmates as an intellectual exercise, attempting to prove their superiority by committing the perfect murder. Immediately after the murder, the two stuff the body in an antique chest and then hold a dinner party including a dozen friends and family members, all oblivious to the corpse in their midst (the play was based on an actual murder case). The film is an effective, suspenseful response to Nietzsche’s “Superman” theory, with a good dash of homoeroticism thrown in for good measure. Strong performances from John Dall and Hitchcock regulars Farley Granger and Jimmy Stewart round out one of the master director’s early Hollywood masterpieces.

9. Little Shop of Horrors (1986)

This black comedy-musical has earned a well-deserved status as a cult classic. Based on the 1982 off-Broadway production (which was itself based on a 1960 Roger Corman B-movie) about a nerdy florist shop worker who raises a vicious alien plant that feeds on human blood, Little Shop of Horrors is pure, ridiculous fun. Though the film changes the ending of the musical (originally, both Seymour and Audrey are devoured by the evil plant, whereas the film allows for a happy ending), I’m OK with that; normally Hollywood-inserted happy endings are obnoxious, but here a depressing finale seems rather unnecessary.

8. The Lion in Winter (1968)

A historical costume drama revolving around the relationship between King Henry II of England and his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, The Lion in Winter features acting legends Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn at the height of their scenery-chewing powers, plus early appearances from Timothy Dalton and Anthony Hopkins. It’s a typical 1960’s Hollywood technicolor epic, but separates itself by not letting sappy, sentimental dialogue completely overwhelm the fun found in watching two masters of their craft play off each other.

7. Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)

David Mamet’s adaptation of his own 1984 play is fast, clever and profane. One might not usually think of a real estate sales office as “testosterone-laden,” but this is as manly an environment as any, as four salesman battle each other, their customers and themselves in an effort to keep their jobs. Every actor is perfectly cast, right at home with Mamet’s furious dialogue, infusing so much drama into their words you hardly even notice almost all of the action is contained in two cramped locations. Al Pacino, Ed Harris, Jack Lemmon, Alan Arkin, Kevin Spacey, Jonathan Pryce and (in one of the most memorable cameos ever) Alec Baldwin are all wonderful, comfortable with the thoroughly theatrical script.

6. Throne of Blood (1957)

Akira Kurosawa would make another fantastic adaptation of Shakespeare in his 1985 film Ran (partly based on King Lear), but Throne of Blood, a transposition of Macbeth to feudal Japan, still stands out as one of Kurosawa’s greatest films. Toshiro Mifune’s legendary death scene is something to behold. Despite taking many liberties with the original play, most critics agree that Throne of Blood is the best film adaptation of Macbeth ever made (certainly better than Roman Polanski’s bizarro 1971 version).

5. West Side Story (1961)

Another double adaptation, with the 1957 Broadway original re-imagining Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. It’s hard to think of much to write about this one; suffice to say, few, if any, other musicals have ever established themselves so firmly in the pop culture consciousness of this country. Whether it’s the Jets and the Sharks prancing down Manhattan streets, Rita Moreno sparking a rooftop reverie, or Natalie Wood making that unforgettable declaration of “I feel pretty” in front of the mirror, West Side Story is energetic, entertaining, probably casually racist, and an absolute must-see.

4. Amadeus

Is it historically accurate? Of course not. Does anyone care? They shouldn’t. Loosely (emphasize that) based on the lives of composers Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri, Peter Shaffer’s 1979 play portrayed the two men as rivals, with Salieri fiercely jealous of Mozart’s God-given gift for effortlessly creating gorgeous music. Milos Forman’s film made great use of the expanded settings available to the medium, giving the audience a much better sense of the glorious palaces and opera houses of Vienna that these men passed through. Though Elizabeth Berridge is cringe-inducing as Mozart’s wife Constanze, leads Tom Hulce and F. Murray Abraham are spectacular.

3. Chimes at Midnight (1965)

Because of complications regarding the estate of the late Orson Welles and the ownership rights of the film, Chimes at Midnight is almost impossible to see in the United States. This is an absolute crime. Welles himself considered Chimes at Midnight to be his greatest completed work; yes, better than The Trial or even Citizen Kane. I was lucky enough to catch a showing at the Cleveland Cinematheque several years ago (as past of a “Mystery Movie” promotion; the audience had no idea what they would be watching), and while I wouldn’t go so far yet as to endorse its superiority over all the rest of Welles’ considerable work (I would need repeat viewings to say that, and, well…), Chimes at Midnight is certainly a masterpiece that deserves far more recognition and attention than it generally receives. The film was constructed using dialogue from no less than 5 different Shakespeare plays: Henry IV, Part 1, Henry IV, Part 2, Henry V, Richard II and The Merry Wives of Windsor. The famed character of Falstaff serves as the common link between these tales, and the protagonist of this ambitious project. People throw around the declaration “oh, so-and-so was BORN to play so-and-so” too much; the whole “Morgan Freeman was born to play Nelson Mandela” thing, for instance, or “Keanu Reeves was born to play an alien.” It’s an overused, trite device, but God help me, Orson Welles was born to play Falstaff. It’s as if Shakespeare wrote the character, knowing full well that it wouldn’t be played just right for centuries, but eventually, eventually…

Communication over the ages, over mediums, from one genius to another. This is what cinema, what art can accomplish. And if I’m talking like this with my #3 film, just imagine what the next two are like.

2. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

Some of the most harsh, unrelenting, in-your-face drama you’ll ever see. Edward Albee’s 1962 play is punishing but captivating, and Mike Nichols’ film adaptation captured every painful note. The film’s main strength is its perfect casting: Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor (THE star couple in Hollywood at the time) are riveting as George and Martha, the frighteningly dysfunctional husband and wife who take special pleasure in psychologically torturing each other, but George Segal and Sandy Dennis are under-appreciated as the young couple that get caught up in George and Martha’s night of “fun and games.” The black and white cinematography (the last to win the ill-fated Black and White Cinematography category at the Oscars) lends a suitably eerie and shadowy feel to the drama. But, as brilliant as Nichols’ film is, it just can’t unseat another 4-person, 2-couple drama that came around a decade earlier…

1. A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

When casting the film version of Tennessee Williams’ legendary 1947 masterpiece, Hollywood execs demanded only one change from the production’s original run: Vivien Leigh, of Gone with the Wind fame, replaced Jessica Tandy in the role of Blanche DuBois, the fallen Southern belle who comes to visit her sister Stella and brother-in-law Stanley in New Orleans. The execs were concerned that the film didn’t have enough star power to draw audiences; the young fellow playing Stanley, in particular, was essentially an unknown. As even those with the vaguest sense of film history can usually tell you, that man was, of course, Marlon Brando, and Streetcar served as the launching point for one of the greatest acting careers in history. Brando injected an incredible physicality into the role, the likes of which had never been seen in Hollywood before (with the Hays Code still in effect, Streetcar just barely scraped past the censors; several of the play’s themes, include homosexuality, were toned down or edited out altogether). Brando’s brutish, beastly Method characterization of Stanley Kowalski has thoroughly dominated all further interpretations of the play, and there is no more raw, sensual scene in film history than the famous “Hey Stella” moment (and just look at Brando’s arm in that picture, for chrissakes; biceps like that didn’t come around again until Mark McGwire). But, once again, the entire ensemble is really pitch-perfect; Brando was, in fact, ironically the only main actor NOT to win an Academy Award, with Leigh, Kim Hunter and Karl Malden all collecting hardware for their considerable efforts. And no matter what Elia Kazan’s personal sins, the man knew how to direct. He knew that the secret to effectively adapting a play for the screen isn’t in expanding the setting, adding more locations; it’s all in the angles.

So there you have it; I doubt anyone would question my top pick, but is there any disagreement below that? Anything I left out? I would guess that some people, not sharing my general indifference, would like to see more musicals on here.

2 thoughts on “Top 10 Adaptations: From Stage to Screen

  1. Wow. Very different from what I would have picked. I definitely would have included more musicals, but hmm.. I will think about this one. Nice blog post, though. I approve of the topic. 🙂

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