24 March 2014


I've been teaching.

Which sounds like a confession of some kind.

Today we watched the 2001 film version of Waiting for Godot. I am always suspect of film versions of plays. They are rarely good. Theater translates poorly to film. Almost worse than fiction does.

When it works it's because one of two things have happened in the process. Either the film has managed to cover up the stage origins of the work or it embraces them and allows the film to be 'stagey'.

Can we talk about how Julia Roberts stopped
smiling like this sometime in 1997?
Let's talk about Steel Magnolias.

Which I bet most people don't even know is a play.

I'll start by saying that the movie is real good. In a specific late 80s way. A big hair Olympia Dukakis Pretty Woman era Julia Roberts Dolly Parton in 9 to 5 way. Think about Beaches. That's what I'm talking about.

The play was written by Robert Haling, who adapted the work into the screenplay. It is based on his own sister's death from diabetes. He wrote a short story version first, then changed it into a play within 10 days.

It is a rare example of a work moving quickly form one stage to another. The play premiered in 1987. The move in 1989. Though it never went to Broadway until 2005.

It is most certainly an example of a plays origins being masked.

But it is also a very rare example of a playwright being responsible for the film.

On the other end of the spectrum is another Julia Roberts movie, 2004's Closer.

That film is also written by the original playwright. In this case, Patrick Marber. He also wrote the screenplay for Notes on a Scandal FYI. A film you need to see now.

The play actively refuses to be solid. It is one of roughly drawn character and scene. Things are implied. Plot is left out until afterwards, then only mentioned. Scenery is sparse. It is very post-modern.

The movie takes a note from this. It leaves the characters broadly drawn. It keeps the settings simplistic. And it feels stagy. In this case it makes the whole film feel wooden. Awkward. Distant.

Like it's all being kept from you. This is where the translation from stage to film can go wrong.

The Godot film we watched was basically a stage production with good close-ups. In this case it works. But this is because the play is already strange enough to hold up to the glare of cameras. And the film makers wisely decided to make it a stage production filmed with nice close ups.

And it draws you in like a stage production. Steel Magnolias pulls you with melodrama and sweeping southern town charms. Closer pushes you away. It's hard to say which is better. I prefer to be reminded of the format. I like the disconnect of knowing it's a production. But there still needs to be connection. And sometimes a screen keeps that from happening.

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