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  • James Kunovski

Three Play to Screen Adaptations That Actually Work

In theory, theatre and film overlap. They both tell stories; they both entertain, and both have characters that reflect our worlds. In spite of this, their principles and techniques have historically separated them. While film is relatively modern, theatre is an ancient art form. One is live and offers a more focused setting, while the other has proven it can venture anywhere. Add that acting on stage usually chews more scenery than their screen counterparts. Though held in a separate bubble, there are instances where their connections are irrefutable: when plays are adapted for the screen. When reimagined for the silver screen, some plays thrive, while others falter under the new dynamic.

By taking their dialogue-driven drama and atmosphere to celluloid, these works have proven that theatre and film belong in the same conversation.


Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? | 1966

based on the Edward Albee play

Drenched in booze, bellows, and Elizabeth Taylor’s best work*, Mike Nichols’ adaptation never makes its restrained setting a bore. Shot in black and white, (an unusual move for 1966), it is orchestrated with claustrophobic awareness. Edward Albee’s play chronicles a night in the life of married Martha and George as they welcome a young, timid couple over for drinks. The ensuing drama, and result, tackles a timeless 1960s American sensibility.

The actors, Elizabeth Taylor and then-husband Richard Burton, along with George Segal and Sandy Dennis play off each other like firecrackers. The writing is searing; the target purposeful and its exuding power, emotionally exhausting. In this sense a film adaptation of this lonely portrayal of marital anguish benefited from the screen. It holds no punches and we cannot hide from the blistering purposefulness of the close-ups, the spiralling dolly shots and the handheld swaying. We are forced to interact and learn from these broken characters. There’s certainly no hiding in the back row.

*In her A&E biography special, Taylor stated that her Oscar-winning turn as Martha was her personal best.


A Streetcar Named Desire | 1951

based on the Tennessee Williams play

Streetcar is so emblematic. It is important because of the performances that it immortalised. You have Marlon Brando as Stanley, fresh from the Broadway stage and the superb Vivien Leigh as Blanche DuBois, back in Southern accent form – this time sultrier and more slurred. The film famously won three Oscars for acting, a record at the time. It’s well known for the scene where Brando howls for Stella, and for his restrictive, specifically tailored wardrobe. It’s also a product of Tennessee Williams, a pioneering American playwright. The acting from Leigh and Brando is of two worlds. Leigh’s Blanche is neurotic and affected, while Brando is modern and commandeering in his first leading screen role.

The mood is palpable. You feel like you’re in New Orleans. You see the characters sweat in the summer heat. You can sense the rumble of a passing streetcar. Alex North’s underpinning jazz score is sullen. The haunting height of the walls in Stella and Stanley’s decrepit apartment instils dread. In fact, over the course of the story, the walls of the set were brought incrementally inward to reflect Blanche’s psyche. With all of these factors at its fingertips, it’s no wonder Streetcar glows on screen.

Jessica Tandy (left), who was replaced by Leigh for the film, Kim Hunter (centre) and Marlon Brando (right) in the original 1947 Broadway production.

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Angels in America | 2003

based on Tony Kushner's two-part play: Millennium Approaches and Perestroika

Mike Nichols, who also directed Virginia Woolf was often credited for his ability to draw a fine performance from any star, irrespective of experience. At the turn of the millennium, he made his way to television with Angels in America. This dramatic character study of six New Yorkers, whose lives intersect, is no exception to that rule. Thematically challenging and raising important issues from Reagan-era America and the rising AIDS epidemic, its top-billed stars are Al Pacino and Meryl Streep. Mary-Louise Parker and Jeffrey Wright are supporting highlights. Boasting a Pulitzer Prize-winning source by Tony Kushner, Angels was a sure-fire hit for HBO back in 2003. Pacino, Streep, Parker and Wright picked up Emmys for their work, along with Kushner and Nichols as the series swept the ceremony. The characters in Angels are outlandish; most will seem barely relatable, but this study and adaptation is deeply human and necessary.


Also check out Dogville, Lars von Trier (2003) and Winter Sleep, Nuri Bilge Ceylan (2014) for two original films that brilliantly borrow theatrical concepts.

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