Theatre to Screen
Cover image source: Brinkoff/ Mögenburg
Jim Norman considers the value of moving stories from stage to screen.
Hit musicals, drama, and classical works of Shakespeare have consistently worked their way into cinemas almost since the dawn of film. It is the use of cinema’s intimate and lifelike techniques that have attracted budding filmmakers time and again to the task of bringing the theatre to the big screen. Whilst the fact remains that the experience of watching a stage play and watching a film is almost incomparable, I argue that an adaptation is wholly justifiable if it can develop its source material, not just copy it.
Whether it be the big budget display of galloping horses in Steven Spielberg’s War Horse (2011), or Michael Fassbender’s intimate personality-defining soliloquies in Macbeth (2015), cinematic adaptations have time and again proven that the intimate camera is capable of bringing them into a world in which they were previously only an observer.
By ‘observer’ however, I do not doubt theatre’s ability to provide a deeply engaging experience. Indeed, the downfall of so many cinematic adaptations is precisely the fact that they are unable to strike this personal chord with audiences. Seeing a company perform in the flesh has the undeniable effect of creating a unique experience that is as far away from cinema as it is from literature.
In instances like this, it is important to not look simply at a comparison to the source text, but instead to question if the cinematic form has provided an experience that was previously unachievable on the stage
Yet this is not to say that it is impossible for an adaptation to be as powerful as its source. The distinction ultimately comes down to if cinema can provide a service that was previously unachievable on the stage. Take for example Tom Hooper’s 2012 adaptation of the West End classic, Les Misérables. The size of the theatrical production means that, whilst spectacular, the plot can often be confusing and difficult to follow. What Hooper’s adaptation provides is a narrative-focussed version of the play, which utilises its star-studded cast to ensure that the audience is able to follow each twist and turn in the story without becoming lost in the performance.
It is with this in mind that I am increasingly cautions of the coming adaptation of Cats. Looking at the trailer, it appears that the film will struggle to bring anything new to spectacle-driven show other than an instantly recognisable cast, resulting in a product that defeats the point of adaptation.
In instances like this, it is important to not look simply at a comparison to the source text, but instead to question if the cinematic form has provided an experience that was previously unachievable on the stage – bringing something fresh to an already loved art form.