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From stage to screen and back again: the best film/play adaptations

Posted on July 28th, 2019

Films and stage productions naturally have a close relationship. The first movies were essentially filmed plays, and it took a while for film to be seen as a separate art form, with its own language, grammar and convention. However, even today, it often seems like the transition from a stage play to the big screen, or from a hit movie to a theatrical production, should be natural and easy. You have a script, actors, and a combination of visual set pieces and speech-driven narrative. What could be more straightforward?

Of course, some adaptations from plays to films, or from films to plays, just don’t work. Something gets lost in the translation: some magic or essential ingredient disappears in the subtle switch of mediums. However, in some cases, an adaptation can be just as successful as the original, and occasionally even more so. This is especially the case with musicals, where it seems that good songs and imaginative production numbers go a long way.

Little Shop of Horrors

Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s 1982 musical actually improved on the 1960 Roger Corman film, and was the biggest-grossing off-Broadway production ever when it closed in 1987 after five years. The original was a comedy-horror B movie that gradually developed a cult following. The decision to turn it into a rock-and-roll musical was a stroke of genius, winning plaudits and awards. It was then turned into an equally well-received film musical directed by Muppeteer Frank Oz in 1986, starring Rick Moranis and Bill Murray fresh from their success in Ghostbusters.

Fiddler on the Roof

In the 1960s, the original Broadway musical was a record-breaking success and is still the 17th longest-running show in Broadway history. It made vast amounts of money and won nine Tony Awards, so it was no surprise when it was adapted into a much-loved hit film in 1971. This won three Academy Awards and made a star of Topol, who reprised his role of Jewish patriarch Tevye from the musical’s London run. A successful Broadway revival in 2015 was produced by Louise Gund and received three Tony nominations.

The 39 Steps

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 adaptation of John Buchan’s gripping adventure novel was the basis for Patrick Barlow’s 2005 stage version, though the film was remade twice, in 1959 and 1978, and Barlow’s script was adapted from a small-scale stage version that toured the north of England in 1995. Barlow’s version, directed by Maria Aitken, was a West End hit and ran for nine years, the conceit being that just four actors play every part and know just how far over the top to go. The tense drama of the original is largely played for laughs, turning it into a brilliantly camp caper without sacrificing suspense or plot. Fast-paced and endlessly inventive, the play won numerous awards both in London and for its two-year run on Broadway.

The Producers

Mel Brooks adapted his own 1967 cult film into a huge stage musical success in 2001, an achievement surely helped by his deep love of the musical theatre genre. The film also had great, outrageous songs and set pieces to start with, even if, according to the story, they’re drawn from a play within the play (or film) that’s conceived as a deliberate failure. Audiences, however, loved high camp, bad taste numbers such as “Springtime for Hitler”, and although the script for the stage version was significantly rewritten and was less edgy than the original, this was reflected by record-breaking box office takings. Strangely though, when the musical was turned back into a film in 2005 (without Brooks’ involvement), it was a critical and commercial flop.

Billy Elliot

Billy Elliot started as a British film in 2000 about a working-class boy in a mining village who dreams of being a ballet dancer. Although it featured music and dance, it wasn’t a musical. However, a 2005 stage adaptation featured a score by Elton John with lyrics by Lee Hall. It ran for 11 years in London, and when it transferred to Broadway, it won nine Tony Awards and ten Drama Desk Awards, including “Best Musical” in both cases. Although the musical hasn’t in this case been remade as another film, a filmed performance of the stage musical was screened in UK cinemas and then had a successful Blu-ray and DVD release in the UK and US.

It seems that particularly where musicals are concerned, stage and screen are at opposing ends of a two-way street, with traffic flowing in both directions. Sometimes adaptations are successful and sometimes they’re not. However, both will doubtless continue to inspire the other for years to come.

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