The Academy Award nominations came out two weeks ago today, and somehow I have magically managed to see all of the nominees for Best Picture. That got me thinking about how I could discuss these films here, on a theatre site. Especially BlacKkKlansman - though I managed to talk about it last week.
What I came to was the notion of adapting movies to the stage - a topic which has received a great deal of attention particularly with big name films getting made into theatre pieces. Especially musicals. Just recently on Broadway we've had Mean Girls, Groundhog Day, King Kong, Frozen, Pretty Woman...the list goes on. And more are coming. Some of these productions have received positive reception. Let's just say that some of them have not.
So what makes a good stage adaptation? Can you know just by looking at the film? Personally, I don't think there's any tried and true way to tell whether or not something will adapt well to the stage. But I have hunches and evidence from the past, and so here are my screen adaptability evaluations for the Oscar nominated Best Pictures.
Please note that these are my personal thoughts - my opinions, my gut feelings, my ideas. These do not necessarily represent the Board's thoughts as a whole, nor does my word mean that any show absolutely can or cannot be successfully adapted to the stage.
But, without further ado, the nominees!
Eh, I don't think so.
So much of this film has to do with the heritage of, well, film. And while media design can do quite a bit, it doesn't have the same meta quality as seeing a clip from Gone With The Wind blasted up on the giant movie theatre screen in front of you. (Especially if you're sitting in the front row like I was when I first saw BlacKkKlansman.)
The heart of this film lies in the close up shots of Ron and Flip when they are undercover, where the slightest nonverbal cues build up tension and sympathy. Then there's the tight, carefully thought out editing and direction.
One moment that sticks out to me most is when Flip is undercover with members of the Klan, all of them chatting and laughing and shooting. It isn't until we see Ron come out to investigate that we see what they're shooting at: racist and dehumanized figures of black people. That sight is shock enough - there we have no need to see the bullets go through them. The scene is perfectly divided in two seeing the Klan in motion, the camaraderie they developed, the possibility Flip will be found out, and the destruction of their beliefs, their hate, the danger of what they call their heritage.
Could moments like this work in a stage show? I think someone could make it happen, sure. But I think too much would be lost, to the point it would never come to the heights of the film. The effects are best suited to film, and I don't see much reason to chase after it on the stage.
No. Have we forgotten what happened to Spider-Man?
But in all seriousness, I truly believe that the scale of most superhero stories is much better suited to comic strips, film, television, and animation, where there is much greater control over visual details.
The scale of Black Panther, specifically, is truly massive. The first thing I think of is the challenge scenes, with all of the people of the different tribes of Wakanda up on the waterfall. Could you make an awe-inducing version of that on the stage? Certainly. But then what about the vibranium train? The car chase? The giant final battle?
It's all so big. And I imagine that unless you had the most careful direction and design in the world, it would either be far too much to swallow or a hollow shell of its source material. Film allows for highly specific framing and attention shifts. It can make sense of these enormous settings and situations. Theatre, where anyone can look anywhere at almost any time, complicates things.
I have enormous difficulty seeing Black Panther successfully transitioning to the stage. That's why it's a no from me.
This is already pretty much a jukebox bio musical. I think you could make it work. And just as the role has brought immense acclaim for Rami Malek, Freddie Mercury could easily act as a star vehicle on Broadway - maybe even for an unknown!
My biggest issue with the film is the sense of things just happening, rapidfire, with not that much depth unless the main topic is Freddie. That, and the concerning framing of queerness as promiscuity and poor choices ultimately leading to punishment. I think adapting the piece to the stage would present an opportunity to work out these issues. In addition, it presents an opportunity to distance Bohemian Rhapsody from the increasingly intense controversy surrounding Bryan Singer and his work on the film.
On a personal level, I don't love Bohemian Rhapsody, primarily for the issues listed above, and also just because I don't have any real connection to Queen. But I cannot deny the absolute joy and magic of the Live Aid sequence at the end of the movie - and that is something I think could be beautifully transported to the stage. A stage adaptation of a film adaptation of a stage performance. Hm.
Are you kidding me? This film screams theatricality. I could even see this as an opera. Could you imagine the potential three part harmonies between the main women?
Even if not a musical piece, The Favourite feels like something that could transport fantastically to the stage in a lot of its themes. The world the characters inhabit has so much to do with performance and appearance - I particularly love the detail that the women generally have natural hair and minimal makeup, whereas the men are in enormous wigs with cake faces. The possibilities of highlighting a theatrical world within the theatre really intrigues me.
And then, on a genre level: big, period comedies are not strangers to places like Broadway, but aren't as common as they could be. The possibilities to play with scale, and this beautifully designed world provides so many opportunities for the stage.
So yes - with or without music, I think The Favourite could gracefully transfer onto the stage.
Yeah. I think this could work. Green Book feels rather play-esque in its defined locations and strong interpersonal nature. There's the fun, recurring challenge of showing scenes in a car ride on stage - which has been done many times effectively before (How I Learned to Drive, anyone?). Then you get the "play with music" vibes through Dr. Shirley's performances.
Here's my thing, though: I don't really love the screenplay for Green Book. Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen act the hell out of it, sure, but I can't forget about how it's a story about race written by three white men. So much of the screenplay is Tony says something related to his Italian/lower class identity and how it relates to black man Dr. Shirley, who in turn says something quippy back. There's a payoff when Dr. Shirley reveals how he doesn't feel he fits in with black people or white people and how that leads him to loneliness, but it rings somewhat hollow when you look beyond Ali's absorbing and beautiful performance. Too much of Green Book feels like "let's take those stories of black people working for upper class white people who become friends, and then just flip the races around."
Green Book could be a play. But, for my two cents, I would much rather see writers of color getting awareness and exposure for their work. Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Lynn Nottage, Jeremy O'Harris, Dominique Morisseau, George C. Wolfe, Robert O'Hara, Charly Evon Simpson, Tarell Alvin McCraney, Danai Gurira, Christina Anderson, and so many more black playwrights are writing phenomenal, engaging, and thought-provoking plays. Let's focus on them first.
My gut instinct is no. The film feels too close, too personal, too quiet. It captures what film does so well in intimacy with minimal distance, which struggles to transfer to the stage where there can't really be close-ups on a given actor's face without the use of media or specific staging.
But here's the thing: The Band's Visit. If we're talking quiet, intensely personal movies ported to the stage here, then I can think of no better place to begin. The Band's Visit makes careful but exquisite use of silence, inviting the audience in to the complicated but utterly human relationships forming and shifting on the stage. I imagine a version of Roma could do something similar, really making use of having an audience present to heighten the human connection and empathy that runs like a current through the film.
However, I'm still not sold. Beyond whether it is possible to transport Roma to the stage is the fact that this film is strongly tied to Alfonso Cuarón. He was director, screenwriter, and cinematographer. This is his film. This was based off of his life, off of his experiences growing up with a live-in housekeeper. And even if one could make Roma into a stage piece, in my opinion no one ever should unless Cuarón specifically says he wants Roma to be a stage piece.
And what about the black and white cinematography?
A Star Is Born
This movie already has a solid "play with music" structure going on. The musical events act as markers for both characters’ development and story, even if the majority of the story is portrayed through non-musical scenes. Not to mention that the music is really, really good too.
But here's the thing: A Star is Born is part of a line of film remakes. The 1954 remake, starring Judy Garland, was the first to be a movie musical, a facet that has carried on in one way or another since. In 1954, movie musicals were big. Moving forward, the films had to shift their musical side to fit more with the times. If you think about it that way, as a movie musical for our times in a line of remakes, trying to bring it to the stage seems a little strange. It's already in its best state.
As an individual film, A Star is Born has a solid structure that could be nicely translated to the stage. But seeing it in a line of films, moving it to the stage feels like an unnecessary step that messes with the evolution that the various films have built. If you're interested in learning more about the history of A Star is Born in all of its states, I highly recommend this video by Be Kind Rewind on YouTube.
I feel like this film would make a good stage play in the same way I think I, Tonya would make a good stage play: the unbelievable yet true story about a real person with sharp wit feels like it’s screaming for a theatrical version, even if it ends up looking quite different due to the distinctive editing and style of the film. Tonya & Nancy: The Rock Opera is not an adaptation of I, Tonya. I feel like something similar could happen for Vice.
What stands out to me in this film is the use of montage and snappy editing - very, very cinematic elements that are not impossible to put on stage, but don't quite have that ease. So, on that level, I wouldn't push for a direct adaptation.
But on a story level. The extreme focus on a single figure, with plenty of intriguing peripheral characters (many of which are public figures), with scale ranging from intimate family conversations to massive political rallies, feels like a wonderful starting place for an engaging play. I've yet to read Hillary & Clinton, but for whatever reason I feel like Lucas Hnath could tackle this story. Politics and the personal. That's what it's all about.
There we have it: all of the Academy Award nominated Best Pictures, evaluated on their potential for theatrical adaptation. At least, my personal evaluations. All I can say now is that I can't wait to watch the Oscars in just a few weeks!
(Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images)