You know what’s hard to do? Make a movie out of a play. Not so much with older movies, I think, like Streetcar Named Desire or Dial M for Murder. Back then I think they were used to limited locations and focusing on dialogue more than action.
But in modern times, say the seventies on, I think it’s really a difficult thing to do and have it play cinematically. I’ve been thinking about it because I’ve been wondering if Bug is the only out-and-out horror film ever based on a play. I’d love to hear from anyone on that subject, but it got me thinking about the broader question of plays as source material.
Obviously, there are some very good ones. Wait Until Dark springs to mind, especially with Alan Arkin winning the Oscar this past year. It makes masterful use of the limited space to create tension, and uses Hepburn’s blindness both as a means of isolation, and as a way of creating obstacles for her character to overcome. Deathtrap (which I haven’t seen in many years, but I recall being quite impressed with) also uses the limited locations to build tension, and features one of the few really good performances from Christopher Reeve. I’m also a fan of Roger Rueff’s The Big Kahuna, which features the best performance of Danny DeVito’s career as a jaded but humble salesman. Kevin Spacey has the showier role, and Peter Facinelli (who’s very good, believe it or not) is just the naÃ¯ve newbie. But DeVito reaches deep down to create a heartbreakingly human character. He has one monologue that is just brilliant, and his delivery should have gotten an Oscar nomination by itself. In fact, just because I can, here it is:
I’m saying you’ve already done plenty of things to regret, you just don’t know what they are. It’s when you discover them, when you see the folly in something you’ve done, and you wish that you had it do over, but you know you can’t, because it’s too late. So you pick that thing up, and carry it with you to remind you that life goes on, the world will spin without you, you really don’t matter in the end. Then you will gain character, because honesty will reach out from inside and tattoo itself across your face.
Glengarry Glen Ross is another of my favorites. It’s amazing the talent adapted plays are able to bring to the table, but especially Mamet. Here you’ve got Jack Lemmon, Al Pacino, Ed Harris, Alan Arkin, Kevin Spacey, and Alec Baldwin, and every single one of them is phenomenal. They keep everything urgent and moving, in spite of the fact that most of the action- such as it is- happens in an office and the bar across the street.
Of course, Mamet doesn’t always work. I barely made it through American Buffalo, and that had two very capable leads in Dustin Hoffman and Dennis Franz. Something about the Mamet-speak (“You know, the thing.” “What thing?” “The thing, man. Come on!” “Oh, that thing.”) just doesn’t fly in that one. Although not based on a Mamet play, I actually didn’t make it through Hurly Burly, which has an even more impressive cast. The likes of Sean Penn, Kevin Spacey, Gary Shandling, Robin Wright Penn, and Meg Ryan try to make the dialogue work, but there’s just no overcoming lines like: “Just because you’re whatever the f*** you are, doesn’t mean you’re whatever the f*** you think you are,” and “I’m a real person, you know? Now you know that, you know that!” It makes me appreciate the gravitas DeNiro was able to bring to his whole “This is this,” spiel in The Deer Hunter.
So I don’t really know what makes some work and others not. How is it that I’m riveted by Peter Facinelli in Kahuna and bored to tears by Sean Penn in Hurly Burly? Whatever the answer, we’re definitely going to see more of them, because even though the returns aren’t great, the budgets are incredibly low for the level of talent they’re able to attract. I imagine it’s got to be a lot of fun for big time actors to not have to work in front of a green screen, or worry about how many takes they have before they have to move on to the next location. They can just totally focus on their characters, which is probably a nice change of pace from, say, Superman Returns (poor Kevin Spacey… what happened, man?).
Two things before I leave this to the commenters. First, my absolute favorite adaptation of a play is Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, and you should definitely check it out if you haven’t seen it. Preemptively, though, I will warn you that Stoppard is not a terribly gifted director, and it does get a little weird (read: existential) here and there. But watching a young Tim Roth and Gary Oldman play off each other with Stoppard’s dialogue is mesmerizing, and Richard Dreyfus turns in maybe his best work ever as The Player. You can definitely see the seeds of Stoppard’s Shakespeare in Love here.
Second, the one play I would love to see adapted into a film is Sam Shepard’s Buried Child, a strange but haunting piece that I think is Sam’s best work as a playwrite. I’m curious, though, if anyone else has any favorites they’d like to see get the film treatment? Or, alternatively, a favorite that should never be translated to film?
In any event, enough rambling. Talk amongst yourselves, and I’ll see you Monday for the Box Office Wrap.