The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

The Art (and Commerce) of Adapting Plays to the Screen

Written by: Rob Van Winkle, CC2K Staff Writer

Image The History Boys (2006) – This movie came out right on the heels of the incredible success of the play, racking up more Tonys than any other non-musical play in Broadway history. The filmmakers decided not to mess with the formula that worked, and to that end they employed the playwright to be the screenwriter, and kept the director and the entire cast together for the movie. The results, in a word, are perfect.

The story takes place in 1983, when a handful of gifted British prep school students pass their A-levels (a pre-college exam in England), and all appear to have a chance of getting in (and with scholarships) to either Cambridge or Oxford, the crown jewels of English universities. The headmaster desperately wants the acclaim that would come from their achievement, so he hires a slick new teacher to supplement the work of the kids’ two other teachers. While the two entrenched faculty members spend their class time trying to instill the boys with a sincere and serious love of learning, this new man is only concerned with their entrance exams, and tricks they can play to make their essays stand out. The combination of these two disparate teaching styles is the motor that makes this story run, and by the time we reach the end and get a glimpse into the boys’ futures, you realize that the film is both expansive, and concise.

The strange thing about The History Boys is that it is never far from your mind that it came from the stage, and yet it still works so well as a film. The director neither hid the story’s roots (certain scenes – most notably the final one – are clearly done in precisely the same way as its stage run), nor tried to enhance it to make it more of a “film” (scenes that were not, or could not have been, in the play are not here either). The cast is absolutely brilliant, and you never for a single moment question their complete and utter immersion into their characters (which probably is at least related to the fact that they filmed this movie during the day, then played the roles on stage at night). And the story is superb. The plot evolves at the same pace as the characters, which is to say that they are both given time to stretch out and flourish. If handled less delicately, you could have ended up with a cross between Head of the Class and Dangerous Minds, with each chord and moment foreshadowed long before it was struck. Here, because the filmmakers trusted their text and the power of their story, they just sat back and let it do its work.

The simplicity of the film is perhaps its bravest trait; moviemakers tend to opt for the bigger is better approach, and more than one stage-to-screen movie has failed utterly by keeping everything too simplistic. But here, you leave the theater struck by the power of a good story, especially when put in the hands of a creative team that knows how to tell it.


Author: Rob Van Winkle, CC2K Staff Writer

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