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Critic's Notebook: When going from stage to screen, things change in between

'War Horse,' 'Carnage,' 'The Ides of March' and 'A Dangerous Method' are all adapted from plays. A moviegoing theater critic evaluates the translations.

January 01, 2012|By Charles McNulty, Los Angeles Times Theater Critic
  • "War Horse" onstage used puppetry, but Steven Spielberg's film used actual horses. The stage version won the Tony for best play. The film may not win the Oscar for best picture, but it still communicates the waste of war.
"War Horse" onstage used puppetry, but Steven Spielberg's… (Paul Kolnik / Lincoln Center…)

The art of adaptation, as the rash of movies derived from plays this season attests, is never easy. The best artistic looters of all time — Shakespeare, the Greek tragedians — recognized that independent vision is everything. Borrowing didn't inhibit them in least. Their goal, of course, wasn't to duplicate but to create something autonomous. Heck, Shakespeare wasn't beyond taking a freehand with history itself.

Contemporary purloiners tend to be less independent. They struggle under a self-imposed obligation of faithfulness. The danger is that in moving from one medium to another, the adapter neither preserves what's distinctive about the original nor discovers anything fresh in a new form.

Film directors who fall too much in love with a play risk getting caught in such a limbo, yet passion is a necessary prerequisite for anyone seeking to transform a work from stage to the screen. Striking the right balance between freedom and fidelity can be elusive. There are many ways to get it right, as Elia Kazan's "A Streetcar Named Desire," Orson Welles' "Chimes at Midnight," Bob Fosse's "Cabaret" and Mike Figgis' underrated "Miss Julie" reveal with their varying degrees of latitude from their source material. And just as many ways to get it wrong, as exemplified in recent years by "Doubt," "The History Boys" and the musical "Nine," all of which fell woefully short of the old theatrical magic.

How did some of the more notable stage-to-screen conversions fare this fall? Here's a view from a theater critic who likes nothing better than spending his off-nights in darkened movie houses.

"The Ides of March," based on Beau Willimon's play "Farragut North," which had a run at the Geffen Playhouse in 2009 in a production starring Chris Pine and Chris Noth, is directed by George Clooney, who collaborated on the screenplay with Willimon and Grant Heslov. This insider drama about political operatives waging war on the campaign trail is given a darkly elegant makeover that's snappily paced and, with one crucial exception, convincingly acted. (Ryan Gosling takes on the role assayed by Pine of the boy-genius press secretary, and though Gosling is one of the finest film actors working today, his emotionally heavy reticence isn't an especially good fit for a quick-draw spinmeister.)

Clooney wisely recognized that the triggering action of Willimon's play involving a clandestine meeting wasn't large enough for a big-screen narrative. (Truth be told, the trust-breaking event wasn't substantial enough for the stage either, but in the theater, the piece found momentum through its Machiavellian banter.) The solution to a problematic plot, however, isn't more plot. Clooney and his fellow writers keep adding to the store of incidents in an attempt to magnify Gosling's character's interior journey when they should have reworked the story from scratch. The result is a polished piece of filmmaking that's marred by the unshapliness of its morality tale.

"A Dangerous Method," David Cronenberg's film based on Christopher Hampton's play "The Talking Cure," produced at the Mark Taper Forum in 2004, as well as on John Kerr's book "A Most Dangerous Method," has provocative intellectual subject matter. A personal look at the founders of psychoanalysis, Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud, the movie focuses on an intimate relationship Jung had with Sabina Spielrein, a troubled yet highly seductive patient who became a psychoanalyst herself after her recovery, influencing the work of Freud and Jung and intensifying the rivalry between them.

This is a highly literate drama (Hampton wrote the screenplay) with a distinguished cast that includes Michael Fassbender as Jung, Viggo Mortensen as Freud and Keira Knightley as Spielrein. Cronenberg, not known for making decorous films for tea-sipping academics, plunges us immediately into the grotesqueries of Spielrein's hysteria. Unfortunately, this sort of mental distress is difficult to capture on camera. Spielrein's symptoms are flamboyantly theatrical, yet Knightley's portrayal of them seems like a calculated performance. She grunts and stammers and flails in a manner that doesn't so much invoke someone in the throes of mental illness as an actor laying it out there for award season.

Onstage, Knightley's work probably wouldn't seem as contrived as it does under the lie-detecting scrutiny of the close-up. Naturalism and hyper-theatricalism aren't necessarily incompatible, as Vincent Cassel's adroit portrayal of Otto Gross, the drug-addicted psychiatrist at odds with both Freud and Young, reveals. Nor are cerebral themes about psychological and sociological conflicts incongruous with the moviegoing experience. The stage may be more accommodating, but what detracts from Cronenberg's accomplishment isn't his ambitious content — it's his occasionally misguided boldness, which lessens the effect of what is nonetheless an absorbingly intelligent film.

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