Wednesday, December 23, 2009


So, hey, I just went to London not so long ago. Like most Bostonians I suspect, I’m a bit of an anglophile, therefore a return to the spiritual homeland is refreshing and inspiring on many counts. While there, I saw very much theatre (shocking, I know), two of which were adaptations of two different classic novels.

A was performed at a small, out of the way theatre with an ensemble cast of about 8. B was at a large West-End house with a star and an ensemble cast of about 8 as well. A was brilliant, B was…not. However, instead of discussing the particular merits or lack-thereof of productions most of you won’t get a chance to see, I thought I’d speak a little broadly about adaptations.

Movies adapt books all the time, and Broadway is now adapting popular film for the stage. We are all looking for good stories, right? And if they’ve already proved themselves successful in one medium, surely they can try a few others? In my humble opinion, some stories lend themselves better to some media then others. I mean, the best way JK Rowling knew how to tell Harry Potter was in several books, Picasso could best express Guernica on canvas, and Shakespeare found his voice on stage. I don’t think this makes adaptation impossible, or a violation of the original intent, but I do think you have to have a means, or an idea, or a reason to move a story to a different medium. There are certain unique-ish characteristics of each mode of expression that have to be confronted in a translation between forms.

Narrative, for example, is the primary means of gaining information in a novel, and often in stage or screen adaptations, we get a Narrator or voice-over to fill the gap. The thing is, a narrator isn’t very “theatrical” because in film and theatre we get information through action – we see stuff happen. Part of why books like Harry Potter and Twilight are so successful in film, is the books are heavy on action, and light on existential reflection.

Now before you start getting upset, I’m not suggesting we abandon think-y books in favor of action ones. However, you have to think about how you are going to make the leap. B didn’t do that – in fact, B did very little thinking, as reinforced by the actors all struggling in their own individual plays, completely separate from one another. Dear lord, there is nothing worse in the theatre- well, few things worse, I suppose.

A, however, fit the narrative of the theatrical world into the framework of the novel. We were in the world of the novel, and were watching a reenactment as cautionary tale about the novel’s hero. By throwing in several Brechtian elements, puppetry and some hilarious pictograms, they made strategic use of the narration all while focusing on the action of the story.

So, the moral of the story is think good and hard, and your audience will be rewarded. Or at least, I will.

1 comment:

Josie said...

So often a narrator just doesn't work in film or theatre--I'm not saying it can't happen, but most often the story was a novel and someone really felt they couldn't leave the narrator out. Which always baffles me. Obviously we need a narrator in a book, but not so in other mediums.

I'm experiencing my own little boo-hoo about the star-power vs ensemble this week. Many people are saying that one of the reasons our show is closing is because there are no stars in it--no famous film people flown in from hollywood. But an ensemble piece it certainly is. It's probably not the ONLY reason--but it sure is hard to compete with Katherine Zeta-Jones around the corner.