The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

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

Written by: Rob Van Winkle, CC2K Staff Writer


The classic faces of the stage. You’ll notice that a movie camera is not present.

In an age where most people have accepted the Hollywood adage that “all good stories have already been told before,” (a concept that, ironically, I have already covered before ), movie studios and producers are mining pre-existing material more than ever in the hope of finding their next big hit. Today, when you go see a movie, there’s an excellent chance that it came from a novel, graphic novel, comic book, short story, foreign film, or even a pre-existing American film.

But maybe the most interesting experiments in adaptation are when the source material is a play. It’s a perfect paradox; the decision to turn a play into a movie is simultaneously a natural decision, and a recipe for disaster.

  • Natural Decision: Both plays and movies are meant to be performed by actors in role, for an audience.
  • Recipe for Disaster: a movie can never replace the visceral thrill of seeing a story unfold in front of you live.
  • Natural Decision: The playwright has already taken the story he wants to tell and distilled it down to the key moments and themes, a gift for the screen writer that does not exist when adapting novels or even comic books.
  • Recipe for Disaster: Splashy Broadway special effects aside, a live audience accepts the limitations of the theater, and thus is more willing to forgive shortcomings and suspend disbelief. This is completely untrue with movie-goers.
  • Natural Decision: A brilliant play is timeless, with plots, characters, and themes that resonate hundreds and even thousands of years later. People want to see them performed, and the idea of seeing your favorite actors in the roles is compelling.
  • Recipe for Disaster: By and large (and again due to the inherent limitations of the theater), plays tend to tell smaller stories, which carry the risk of seeming petty and unimportant when on the big screen.

And so on. If I were a movie executive, I bet trying to decide whether or not to greenlight an adaptation of a play would be like sitting on your bed in college with the insanely hot girl who is also completely insane, trying to decide whether to hook up with her. Sure, it might be awesome, and live up to all your wildest fantasies. However, she might just lose her mind afterwards, and offer you nothing but misery for months. The urge to move forward and the urge to back away are both so strong in cases like this, that (if you’re me at least) they completely cancel each other out, and you end up sitting stock still, doing nothing.

It is thoughts like these that offer a clear indication as to why I am not a movie executive.

Despite all the risks of turning a play into a movie, it happens often, with a vast array of results. This (hopefully) ongoing piece will look at some of the outcomes, both good and bad. What follows are the theater adaptations that stand out in my mind, nothing more. I urge everyone reading this, be you first-time reader to CC2K all the way up to our staff writers to add on to my observations.

And now, without further ado, I will begin my analysis with the movie that made me decide to write this piece in the first place: