What Great Directors Know About Adapting Plays For the Silver Screen

As common as it is for Hollywood stars to head to Broadway these days, it’s still difficult for Broadway shows, especially plays, to find their way to Hollywood.

Turning plays into films demands the ability to think differently about the audience, and to adapt. Long monologues can easily bore film audiences. Dramas confined to one or just a few locations can seem claustrophobic on screen. And of course, films without any action or effects will have a harder time keeping an audience’s attention. Despite the challenges, great adaptations continue to be made. They come from directors and writers who know how to "keep the best and leave the rest": retaining the characters and essentials of the play, but letting them speak through the language of cinema.

There are playwrights — Martin McDonagh, most famously — who write for both stage and screen, but who have never permitted the adaptation of their plays. Even though film is McDonagh’s first love, he utterly refuses to do adaptations, because, in his words, "It's only ever done for money, they're usually awful, and it usually makes the play look shit in the first place, which was probably the case. And I think if you're writing a play, it should be its own end game."

Playwright Tracy Letts said he was open to adapting his Pulitzer Prize-winning play August: Osage County, because as a kid from a small town, he wouldn't have been exposed to drama had it not been for the film adaptations of Tennessee Williams’ plays. Letts was familiar with the difference in writing for stage and screen, as he had previously written the films Bug and Killer Joe. He told Rolling Stone that, in adapting August, he worked hard to let the imagery do the talking: "The biggest difficulties were condensing the material ... [Y]ou are asking yourself, 'How can I tell the story visually? How can I tell the story with a picture? When will a picture suffice instead of words?'" In the end, Letts managed to whittle August down from a three-and-a-half hour play to a two-hour film.

In addition to cutting dialogue, an effective adaptation has to deal with the lack of movement in stage plays. Most modern dramas are set just in one or two locations. Some adaptations do all they can to get the actors out into the open. When Arthur Miller adapted The Crucible for film, he and director Nicholas Hytner took many scenes out into nature in Essex, Massachusetts, and they added action sequences that were only alluded to the book. Miller proudly wrote of his adaptation, "Anybody seeing The Crucible now would never dream that it had been a play."

On the other hand, there are some stories that depend on keeping a confined setting as part of the plot. 12 Angry Men, for example, is all about the claustrophobia of a jury room. The only way the men can leave is by breaking the hung jury, which drives the play’s tension. In order to make that confined room work on screen, first-time director Sidney Lumet did a meticulous amount of storyboarding. Watch the camerawork during the "these people" monologue, in which one juror reveals his racism, and you get a sense of the film’s masterful dissection of the room. Lumet’s genius was in knowing that even though the characters were stuck, the camera could go wherever it wanted.

Beyond locations and dialogue, the biggest challenge of selling a stage drama is the lack of action. Peter Morgan said that when he was trying to get test audiences to see his Frost/Nixon film, he ran into skepticism. "If you go into a mall and say, 'Would you like to come and see a film about the interviews done by David Frost and Richard Nixon in 1977?' They just walk past you. They think you're mad." However, the film worked. Ron Howard said he actually saw an opportunity in the one-room, two-man narrative. Howard saw the close quarters as a "dramatic asset" and used the secondary characters, camerawork, and editing to increase the tension.

Successes like Frost/Nixon and 12 Angry Men show that with a good story, and the right team, any play can work on screen. Even in today’s box office, there’s still a place for serious drama. In the end, as always, it comes back to the strength of the story and the characters. The resulting film won’t be exactly the same as the source material, but then, few translations ever are. Or should be.

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Dan Marrin

Reporter, writer, passionate about movies and media, and always curious about how everyday people think.

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