When a well-known play becomes transformed into a movie, I always wonder why — the language of film and theater are quite different (having to do, I think, with the perception of reality being at such different levels), and so often what works as a play doesn’t translate well to film. (“God of Carnage” pops instantly into my mind.) The Pulitzer Prize-winning “August: Osage County” is the latest play to receive the movie treatment (it opens in Seattle January 10), but playwright Tracy Letts had a good answer when the New York Times asked him why.
“I know that there’s another dimension in the film that is not in the play, and that’s Osage County,” he said. The stage production couldn’t show what was beyond the walls of the set, and audiences in New York probably wouldn’t know the terrain. But with a film, “to take them to my home and show them the landscape, that’s kind of profound for me as a guy who not only has written a play, but written a play that’s somewhat autobiographical. The landscape itself becomes a character.”
The NYT asked a number of other playwrights about what they learned when their movies were translated to the screen, and the answers are fascinating reading. The whole article’s here; below are a few excerpts.
Alfred Uhry (“Driving Miss Daisy,” 1989). “I was very lucky because I had a director, Bruce Beresford, who had directed several plays turned into movies. He said: Let me see your draft. Then he said: You’ve retyped your play. He told me: You don’t need to talk as much in the movies. You don’t need to say, “I’ll go get the car.” Just show it. He said: Instead of dialogue, just give me a description of the way you remember things looked.”
Charles Fuller (“A Soldier’s Story,” 1984) “What I didn’t know before the screenplay of “A Soldier’s Story” was that writing for films is like riding in a bus where every traveler (justifiably) has a say in where the bus (movie) is going. Writing plays is like riding a motorcycle — you are in charge of where the play goes — and while you may have someone enjoying the trip with you, (a producer or director) motorcycles can only hold a few riders.”
Aaron Sorkin (“A Few Good Men,” 1992) “A lot of what I was concentrating on in the screenplay adaptation was simply doing a rewrite — writing it better. But it was also my first time learning that a camera wasn’t just a device to record performances, that it has a vocabulary. The audience may not know how to speak that vocabulary, but it understands it fluently. If you do a slow push-in on a glass of water, it becomes a meaningful glass of water, and you can cut that speech you love from the play about how meaningful the glass of water is.”