In a 1985 interview with The New York Times in it’s autumn edition, Arthur Miller admittedly conceded that screenplays quite often prove problematic when adapted to the screen. Speaking candidly about filming a production of his 1949 Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning play Death of a Salesman, he would shed new light on the process and it’s creative pitfalls.
‘In the theatre, while you recognised that you were looking at a house, it was a house in quotation marks. On screen, the quotation marks tend to be blotted out by the camera. The problem was to sustain at any cost the feeling you had in the theatre that you were watching a real person, yes, but an intense condensation of his experience, not simply a realistic series of episodes. It isn’t easy to do in the theatre, but it’s twice as hard on film’.
From an analytical standpoint, we need to look at the theatre space and the film set as two separate entities.
Of course that which has been written with the stage in mind doesn’t always translate so smoothly to the screen, and vice-versa. The filmmaker can utilise camera positioning, or editing, for example, to tell their story. The theatre director can set the drama at centre stage, but they can’t stop the audience’s eyes from wandering about the rest of the set.
With all that being said, however, good drama always reigns penultimate with respect to both crafts. Testament to this are a good number of worthy filmmakers who have managed to successfully adapt the playwright’s script for the screen. Simultaneously, more than a handful of those that wrote for the theatre had promising careers as screenwriters and film directors.
One could quite rightfully argue that cinema shares it’s genealogical roots with theatrical stage performances, and the early vaudeville acts of the 19th century. Silent filmmakers drew inspiration from the grand theatre halls and amphitheaters that performed to packed houses and captivated the modernising world. And soon enough film producers were scrambling to obtain the screen rights to a plethora of theatre plays.
In 1923, silent film producer Thomas H. Ince paid a whopping USD 35,000 for the screen rights to Eugene O’Neill’s 1921 play Anna Christie (the first of three film adaptations).
The roaring 20’s saw a string of notable silent film adaptations of theatre, like Victor Sjöström’s He Who Gets Slapped (1924), Cecil B. Demille’s Chicago (1927), and Frank Borzage’s 7th Heaven (nominated for Outstanding Picture at the 1st Academy Awards in 1929).
With the advent of sound in cinema, film culture was rapidly being fashioned by the likes of The Marx Brothers and King Vidor. These ‘talkies’ of the 20’s were also introducing opera and musical theatre to a new audience.
The following 2 decades exemplified a significant upsurge in theatre adapted for the big screen. And Hollywood began contracting notable playwrights for their burgeoning production teams. After Preston Sturges’ string of Broadway hits and successful film adaptations like Strictly Dishonorable (1931) and Child Of Manhattan (1933), he was contracted out as a writer-for-hire for several Hollywood studios, before going on to become one of the most prolific filmmakers of his generation.
Around the same time Patrick Hamilton was to sell the screen rights to his plays Rope and Gaslight that made him a rich man by his mid-twenties. The film adaptations would go on to be box-office successes for George Cukor and Alfred Hitchcock respectively.
But perhaps the most important playwright to reach Hollywood in this period was Clifford Odets. Highly revered for his extensive contributions to the theatre, filmmaker Elia Kazan once said that:
‘‘The tragedy of our times in the theatre is the tragedy of Clifford Odets…’
Described often as a writer synonymous with socially relevant drama, Clifford Odets moved to Hollywood in 1936 with the intent of raising money for his forecasted projects, including his play Paradise Lost. Fate would prove otherwise, and Odets would remain in Hollywood for the rest of his career, working as (sometimes uncredited) screenwriter, and even directing some of the films he wrote screenplays for.
His most notable film adaptations were The Big Knife in 1950, and the Fritz Lang directed Clash By Night in 1952. Odets also wrote the 1957 screenplay to Sweet Smell Of Success, which starred Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis.
In the footsteps of Odets, Arthur Miller would also make his mark on the cinema world with his work in Hollywood on such films as The Misfits (1961), directed by John Huston, and starring Miller’s wife at the time, the iconic Marilyn Monroe.
Miller’s highly acclaimed stage plays Death of a Salesman and The Crucible would also eventually be adapted for the screen.
Few playwrights, however, have ever made as mammoth an impact on cinema than the great Tennessee Williams.
By the 50’s, Williams’ work in the theatre had made him a household name. And during this prominent period the talented writer crossed paths with many filmmakers- including Elia Kazan, whom Williams met backstage at one of his shows on Broadway.
Soon after, his works were being snapped up by film studios, and his screen adapted works dominated the Hollywood model, including The Glass Menagerie (1950), A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), The Rose Tattoo (1955), Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (1958), Orpheus Descending (under the film title The Fugitive Kind), and The Night Of The Iguana (1964).
Across the Atlantic, a couple of prolific writers were making waves around London’s West End, with their distinctive brand of theatre that included everything from the satirical to the psychological.
Many of Sir Peter Shaffer’s plays saw screen reincarnations, most notably Sleuth (Shaffer’s 1970 Tony Award winning play, and Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s last directed film), Equus (1977), and Amadeus (1984). Shaffer would receive the 1984 Oscar For Best Adapted Screenplay for the latter of the three. The film would take home 8 Academy Awards in total.
Working predominantly in London, Harold Pinter crafted 27 film scripts in total for cinema and television. His work with British director and close associate Joseph Losey brought him considerable fame in film and theatre circles. Despite being adaptations from novels, Pinter and Losey’s 3 collaborations The Servant (1963), Accident (1967) and The Go-Between (1971) still bare strong elements of the theatrical and the melodramatic… testimony to the stage backdrop from which Pinter was essentially birthed.
He would continue to adapt screenplays up until the early 90’s, for which he would be nominated twice for an Academy Award in 1981 and 1983.
More recently, such playwrights as David Mamet and Tony Kushner have had fruitful careers in screenwriting and film directing, earning much praise in both creative industries.
Some of Mamet’s numerous screenwriting credits include The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981), The Verdict (1982), The Untouchables (1987) and Hoffa (1992). David Mamet also adapted the Academy Award nominated Glengarry Glen Ross from his 1984 Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning play of the same name.
Winner of the 1993 Pulitzer Prize For Drama for his play Angels in America, Tony Kushner also co-wrote the screenplay for Munich (2005) and Lincoln (2012), receiving Academy Award nominations for both.
If history is of any indicator, the public’s insatiable appetite for film adaptations of theatre pieces isn’t likely to sedate any time soon. With many creative figures being heralded for their work in both spheres, the proven working combination of playwright and film director has added another dimension to the way we look at cinema. And, similarly, as films have began to be adapted to the stage, the relationship is changing the way we look at the theatre.
Whatever the case, these adaptations must demonstrate a creative transition to their respective medium. Only after extracting the underlying drama and subtext within these works can they truly resonate with another audience.