Ben Nicholson Features

Feature: Ten stage-to-screen adaptations

Theatre and cinema are inextricable. From it’s earliest days, film has borrowed conventions, genres, personnel and even material from the stage and over the past century that relationship has grown in complexity and influences have travelled in both directions. Still, alongside other media – including literature, comic books, television shows, paintings – plays are regularly repurposed for the screen.

This month, two films based on plays will be contesting for the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay at the Oscars; August Wilson’s adaptation of his own play Fences, for Denzel Washington, and Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, an adaptation of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. With both films released in UK cinemas over the coming fortnight, we look back at some of our favourite films that began on the boards.

12 Angry Men (dir. Sidney Lumet)
One the wonderful things to observe about Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men is his masterful control of the camera. It’s a film confined to one setting – the deliberation room of a jury at a murder trial – and heavy on dialogue, but you could easily mute the sound and relish the economy and emotional intelligence of the visuals. It stops the atmosphere from ever getting to stifling, except of course when that suits the narrative, and helps to build the tension of the ongoing disagreements as they escalate towards a verdict.

Brief Encounter (dir. David Lean)
Often cited as one of, if not the, greatest romances in cinema history, Brief Encounter was written by Noël Coward and based on his own play, Still Life. David Lean really brings it to life on the screen, the beautiful monochrome photography capturing the atmosphere of the busy train station in which Laura (Celia Johnson) and Alec (Trevor Howard) embark on a tormented love affair. In particular, a voiceover from Laura helps to elucidate the internal wrangling of class concerns, social values and romantic desire.

Electra, My Love (dir. Miklós Jancsó)
Miklós Jancsó’s Electra, My Love walks in a strange hinterland between truly cinematic visual spectacle and an uncannily theatrical sensibility. He anchors the action within a festive performance, all while employing his trademark ‘calligraphic’ style to shape into something unforgettable. He is adapting László Gyurkó’s play of the same name (itself a combination of Aeschyus, Euripides’ and Sophocles’ stagings of the Electra story) but from the starting point crafts a truly unique and radical balletic vision of mythology and politics.

Faust (dir. F.W. Murnau)
The epic scale of F.W. Murnau’s prestige horror classic Faust seems to bely its origins in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s play. From the wager between an angel and a demon (Emil Jannings), to the famous bargain, and temptations of the flesh that come with youthful exuberance, it’s a film full of action and portent. Much like the colossal wings of the diabolical Mephisto, the film flexes the muscles of its form to expand upon its source.

Glengarry Glen Ross (dir. David Mamet)
David Mamet’s adaptation of his own Pulitzer and Tony-award-winning play is a powerhouse example of exacting dialogue and grandstanding performance opportunities. The film version, directed by James Foley, crams Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Ed Harris, Alan Arkin, Kevin Spacey and Alec Baldwin into a real estate hothouse, the camera closed in on their growing desperation. It’s a searing indictment of the American Dream, a portrait of dishonest hucksters in the thrall of a system that will never let them win.

Macbeth (dir. Roman Polanski)
One of many great things about the works of Shakespeare are just how much they encourage directors to be bold in interpretation. Roman Polanski was certainly that in his unusual and unexpectedly psychologically acute The Tragedy of Macbeth. His first striking decision was to cast his two lead characters much younger than tradition held – Jon Finch and Francesca Annis’ performances lend their ambition a youthful, vital quality. Elsewhere, internalised soliloquies become internal dialogues, questioning and chastising as the narrative spirals. That it was the first film Polanski made after the murder of his wife adds a further layer of complexity and tragedy.

The Odd Couple (dir. Gene Saks)
With hindsight, it is obvious that Gene Saks’ The Odd Couple originated on the stage – written by the man who adapted it for the screen, Neil Simon. The (almost) sole setting of the apartment, and the stir-crazy claustrophobia, are a perfect fit for the theatre and it’s a device often utilised. Fortunately, the pitch-perfect interplay between stars Walther Mathau and Jack Lemmon, not to mention the precision of their comic timing and physical humour, distract from such mundane thoughts while watching. It’s got some compositional sight gags worthy of the silent masters.

Ordet (dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer)
Based on a play by Kaj Munk, Ordet was Dreyer’s only film that managed to be both financial and critically successful. In several ways it acts as an exemplar of his style, revolving around a virtuous and self-sacrificing woman in Birgitte Federspiel’s Inger, and allowing for the slow panning camera and lengthy takes that have become somewhat definitive. It brings a real artistic quality to a film replete with substance – a dialogue on faith and contradictory spiritual positions held by different parties during a family crisis.

Ran (dir. Akira Kurosawa)
Akira Kurosawa thrice adapted The Bard to the Japanese screen, in The Bad Sleep Well, Throne of Blood and Ran. Where the former is a more ambiguous reimagining, concerned with corporate corruption, the latter two films explore the tension between theatrical traditions imported from the West and those of Japanese Noh theatre. In his King Lear adaptation Ran, the warlord Hidetora (one of the great physical performances by Tatsuya Nakadai) slowly submits to madness and as he does, Kurosawa transforms his visage into that of a Noh mask, etching his torment permanently.

A Streetcar Named Desire (dir. Elia Kazan)
Elia Kazan had a reputation for being an actor’s director and it’s fascinating to see the collision of theatre and cinema in the lead performances of his 1951 adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. On one side is Brando’s brooding and naturalistic Stanley Kowalski, on the other is Vivien Leigh’s undeniably theatrical Blanche DuBois. The charged atmosphere is a result of a friction between the two – further heightened by similar opposition between artistic expressionism and documentary realism. The conflict of the characters is mirrored in the filmmaking.

Fences and Moonlight are in cinemas this weekend ahead of wider releases on 17 February.

Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson