Adventures In Celluloid

Film critic Dominic Corry celebrates, clarifies and justifies his love for all things film.

Dominic Corry: The perils of adapting plays into films

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Carnage is adapted from the play God of Carnage,  by French playright Yasmina Reza. Photo / Supplied
Carnage is adapted from the play God of Carnage, by French playright Yasmina Reza. Photo / Supplied

Carnage, the latest film from controversial director Roman Polanski (Rosemary's Baby; Chinatown; The Pianist), opened in New Zealand cinemas this week.

Carnage is adapted from a play (God of Carnage) by French playright Yasmina Reza which has seen successful mountings in Paris, London and New York, and won the 2009 Tony Award for Best Play.

I was very excited to see Carnage - it features a powerhouse cast (Jodie Foster; John C. Reilly; Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz); I love films about rich New Yorkers and Polanski is always interesting. But adaptating a stage play can be a curious thing, and I found Carnage to suffer for its origins.

The performances are all intense and vividly alive, but apart from the opening and closing shots, the entire thing is set in one apartment. It may be an obvious thing to observe, but it all just felt so 'stagey'.

The visceral thrill of seeing the performances up close and personal on stage would no doubt have carried me over the lulls in conversation and meagre plotting, but in a movie theatre I struggled to stay connected to the proceedings.

It got me thinking (again): why do some stage plays work as movies and others don't?

My all-time favourite film adaptation of a play is legendary director Joseph L. Mankiewicz's Sleuth (1972), starring Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine, adapted from the play by Anthony Shaffer. Let's all agree to ignore Kenneth Branagh's misguided 2007 remake starring Caine and Jude Law.

In addition to being one of the all-time great whodunnits, the 1972 Sleuth is a masterpiece of shifting power and male brinksmanship. The whole thing takes place in one location, and at 138 minutes, it's not exactly a short film, but I remained wholly captivated throughout. Olivier and Caine are both devastating.

Ira Levin's play 1978 play Deathtrap took clear inspiration from Sleuth, and it's 1982 film adaptation directed by Sydney Lumet, is a whole heap of fun.

One of my favourite Alfred Hitchcock films, the underappreciated Rope (1948), was adapted from a stage play and Hitchcock embraced the confined location by utilising a high-concept shooting style - the entire film is made up of ten-minute long tracking shots. It calls attention to its own staginess, but makes up for it with such a bold technique.

Based on these three films, I might conclude that it's a mystery element that makes certain filmed plays work, but that theory falls apart when I consider my second favourite adaptation of a stage play - Glengarry Glen Ross (1992).

Adapted from a play by the great David Mamet (House of Games; The Spanish Prisoner), who also wrote the screenplay, Glengarry Glen Ross is a very talky drama about a group of downtrodden real estate salesman and the limits of their desperation. This film could also be described as very 'stagey' - there are only two locations - but it never bothered me for a moment.

To be fair, a mystery element is introduced about half-way through, so maybe that played a role in my loving this film. Or maybe it was all the awesome swearing.

Mike Nichols' 2004 adaptation of Patrick Marber's play Closer contains no mystery elements but keeps light on its feet with ever-evolving character dynamics and a variety of locations. The intense talkiness betrays its stage origins, but rarely to the detriment of the drama on display. I wish Carnage could've achieved this.

Steven Spielberg's most recent (live-action) film War Horse was adapted from a smash hit play heralded for its innovative staging and puppetry. Spielberg obviously opened up the canvas of the story somewhat with his lush film (and used actual horses). Whatever its faults, not many people are accusing the film of being 'stagey'.

When Kiwi writer/director/playright Toa Fraser adapted his own play No. 2 into a fantastic movie in 2006, he had to change the essential nature of it to suit the medium. The original production had one actor in all the roles, which were obviously played by a variety of actors when it was filmed.

The film of No. 2 rarely betrays its stage origins, perhaps as a result of the high-concept nature of the original production. This seems like the case with War Horse aswell.

Most of the many films based on Neil Simon plays (The Odd Couple; Biloxi Blues) tend to work. Stephan Frears' Dangerous Liasons (1988) began life as a play, and it's pretty awesome.

I also have a significant soft spot for SubUrbia, Richard Linklater's spiritual follow-up to Dazed and Confused, adapted by Eric Bogosian from his own play. It amounts to little more than a bunch of slackers sitting around yammering in the same spot for 90 minutes, but it just works.

Polanski's 1994 adaptation of the play Death and the Maiden, starring Sigourney Weaver and Ben Kingsley, worked better than Carnage I thought. The new film isn't without merit, but it never stopped reminding me it was a play and not a movie.

With brand awareness driving cinema more than ever before, plays are a much less common source of inspiration for movies than they used to be. So when one comes along, I'm always interested to see how it manages.

What are your favourite films adapted from plays? Which ones don't work? Musicals and Shakespeare don't count. Do you like adaptations of whodunnit plays?

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