Before it was possible to potter off to the cinema for some entertainment, stories were told on the stage. And with so many classic pieces of drama continuing to be reproduced over hundreds of years, when film came along it seemed right to cement the best of them in history on screen.
The ways we relate to what happens on stage and what happens on screen are very different, and reliant on the fundamental nature of each form. Plays, at their core, are about being trapped within a space or situation, and the examination of human life at its most vulnerable that we get from that. Realism was born out of a desire to create something recognizable on the stage and find a fundamental human truth through performing something as close to reality as possible. When modernism came along it was accompanied by the rise of cinema and the desire to reach for more, whether that be reaching further into the outside world or further into our own psyche. Cinema allows a much more up-close-and-personal look at characters, both physically as well as emotionally. Performing on film is a much subtler art, with less required facially and physically in order to convey a feeling. In comparison, a small flicker of your eyes on stage will be lost to the poor chumps who’ve paid £50 for a seat up in the gods. So how can one translate the work designed for theatregoers to the silver screen and, more importantly, how can it be done well?
Shakespeare is a classic example of how something designed for the stage has become a staple of the cinema. Whether it’s down to the durability of his plots and characters (plus the fact that they’re very much out of copyright) or whether it’s because of every actor and director’s desire to have a go at their favourite Shakespeare, time and time again we have seen Will’s work adorn the cinema. When Shakespeare on film works best, however, is when it’s offering something new such as with Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. The classic love story is reimagined in a visually striking setting, with the Capulets and Montagues becoming mafia empires, but the language that makes it so famous is kept. All of which combines to say something new about an old classic, and makes for an interpretation of the star-crossed lovers that wouldn’t have the same kind of flair if translated on stage.
When Aristotle was first writing about what makes a tragedy a tragedy, unity of time and place were important not only for storytelling purposes but because it enabled the stories of the classic plays to be recreated on the stage. But when you move these classic stories away from the stage and into the cinema, a whole other world is opened up to you in which possibilities of setting and location are pretty much endless.
Film was designed to enable us to see and experience more than is true in our world, whereas modern drama locks us in a space with characters for two hours and allows us to examine human existence. In theatre the audience are literally trapped in the same space as the characters on stage – they breathe the same air and take up the same physical space. To then move this into a form where you have the barrier of the screen between what’s happening, and where you are, changes the dynamic you’re experiencing. While one isn’t necessarily better than the other (theatre folk can be infuriatingly snobby about the cinema, but that’s an argument for another time) it does raise the question of whether one should be translated into the other.
Carnage is an example of how losing this unity of place means you lose something essential from the story. Based on the play God of Carnage, the sense of being trapped in a space doesn’t quite work the same way when characters are moving round an actual apartment rather than a set. Although it’s by no means a bad film, by taking this story away from the stage the tension that makes it so captivating for an audience is lost.
Similarly, this idea of space translating to film is the main downfall of August: Osage County, based on the play by Tracy Letts and starring a whole host of incredible actors, from Meryl Streep to Benedict Cumberbatch. The tension of the story comes from the one setting, and this setting’s importance and symbolism: the old house which the family return to and in which they must learn how to exist once more now they are adults. Whilst it’s an undeniably good story, with amazing performances, the thing that bothers you most when watching it is just how much like a play it feels. This was clearly something felt by many as despite two Oscar nominations for its acting, the film promptly disappeared into the ether. The concrete setting and intense relationship formed with the characters because of that is just not a very cinematic tool, and while it’s not that the film is staid, it has a very stationary feel.
The 1951 adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire, famous for featuring a sweaty Marlon Brando in a rather tight t-shirt (in my mind anyway), is an example of how this same problem was solved by intelligent direction. The main force of Streetcar comes from its heat, and the claustrophobia that envelops the audience. The film manages to transfer this sensation to the screen by the way the camera moves and frames the actors. By not shooting full body shots of Blanche, Stanley or Stella, the audience is able to feel much more trapped in that space with them. It also means that when Blanche descends into madness and her reminiscences take over, it can be expressed in a way that feels much more oppressive. This was a film designed to be seen in the cinema, and so when the audience are seated in an enclosed space with the sounds of Blanche’s mind happening all around them they are so much more drawn into the world on screen and can experience that claustrophobic feeling so key to the play.
One of the most well-known stage to screen adaptations remains The History Boys, with a cast so successful on the stage that the same actors were used in the film version. The play has managed to be a success in both forms, a rare feat and one that can maybe only be achieved when you have a director like Nicholas Hytner who works in both the theatre and in film (and is bloody good at both). In fact, it was Hytner who directed the stage version as well as the film version, and perhaps this is key in making both of them an equal success in their own right. By knowing the play inside and out as a director must, Hytner was able to view it objectively enough to transform it into something else. The film version manages to retain the spirit that makes the play so enjoyable without feeling simply like a play that’s been filmed.
Both theatre and film are ingrained into our culture, and the difference between the way they work is partly why they have both remained such durable media. But they don’t exist in separate universes and although a lot of the core things about them dictate the way they tell stories, maybe the important thing is an awareness of each other as art forms.