Recently, my Dad and I eagerly watched our screener of August: Osage County. Both of us had seen Tracy Letts’ play on Broadway—I loved it so much I went back and saw it twice in two days. It featured riveting ensemble acting and a script of terrific one-liners, creating what was, for me, a theatrical experience unlike any I have ever had. So I had reasonably high expectations for the movie. But if I had never seen or read August: Osage County, I’d have a hard time believing, based on the movie, that theatregoers and critics deemed it such a great play.
So why does August fail as cinema? The blame can be assigned in many directions. One person who deserves the brunt is Tracy Letts himself, whose adaptation, while close to the play, cuts out several parts that deepen the characters’ relationships. One is director John Wells, who directs the film like a Lifetime movie, with the actors pitched at high histrionics at all times. It’s as if Wells never knew that the play was just as funny as it was dramatic, and scenes that drew huge laughs on stage aren’t mined for comedy. The lack of a strong guiding hand sends the actors adrift, particularly Meryl Streep who, given to her own instincts, performs the role of alcoholic matriarch Violet Weston with none of her requisite grace and subtlety. But the big question is this: why did August: Osage County even have to be a movie, if there was nobody who could make it a cinematic experience?
The question of why some plays can translate to film and some can’t has always fascinated me, since I’ve spent most of my life closely observing in and partaking in both. I had to write an essay on this in ninth grade, and I even posted it on my first blog (you can find it deep in the recesses of blogspot—I’m not going to link to it, unless you want to see the journalistic equivalent of refrigerator drawings). We studied A Streetcar Named Desire, Michael Almareyda’s film of Hamlet with Ethan Hawke, Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, and many more to separate the two mediums. I argued that they were similar, since their focus was both on narrative. But, as I saw more movies based on plays, I realized that narrative is never enough. To translate a play onto film, you have to take advantage of the cinematic medium.
What do I mean by “take advantage of the cinematic medium?” I just think it has to live as film. A play has to be adapted and reshaped. It cannot literally just be the play, unless it’s a towering masterpiece like A Streetcar Named Desire or Long Day’s Journey Into Night, both of which translate seamlessly onto film with only minimal cuts. But some plays, in trying to become cinematic, lose the intimacy that made them great.
A good example of a play which tries, but doesn’t quite gel on film, is Brian Friel’s masterpiece, Dancing at Lughnasa. I feel a deep connection to this play about five Irish sisters, their African missionary brother, and the son who narrates the play in flashback, in large part because I played the son in my senior year of high school. The movie, adapted by Frank McGuinness, takes advantage of the camera and “opens the play up” so that we see more locations than just a ramshackle country house, adding scenes and characters that are only referred to in the play. The famous dancing scene, where the five sisters leap into a spontaneous jig, was moved from the middle of the play to the climax of the film, and much of the son’s narration is cut. It “works” as cinema, from that standpoint, but the drama of the play dissipates, and what was powerful on stage becomes melodramatic on film. Does the camera erase the big emotions of theatre? Not entirely—Marlon Brando’s cry of “Stella!” is as famous a piece of film acting as any—but Brando knew when to be big and when to scale it back. When actors are just big all the time—as the Lughnasa and August actors are—the results are closer to TV.
So what makes a great transition from stage to screen? It all comes down to how you present the story. To paraphrase William Goldman, adaptation requires being faithful without being literal. For this reason, Milos Forman and Peter Shaffer’s adaptation of Amadeus is my favorite movie of a great play. Shaffer’s play is inherently theatrical: it uses chamber theatre narration, characters playing multiple roles (often in the same scene!) and other devices that work best on stage. When Forman made it into a movie, he told Shaffer, “You must give birth to your child a second time.” Apart from expanding the narrative to include Mozart’s father, a character not featured in the play, Amadeus re-tools its theatricality in a cinematic way: rather than just have Salieri narrate to the camera, he narrates to a Priest, not featured in the play, who acts as our audience surrogate. It also takes advantage of showing us the full spectacle of Mozart’s operas, with full production numbers—something which couldn’t be done on stage. By making the play a separate entity from the film, Amadeus becomes a different but equally satisfying experience in both mediums.
Ultimately though, it’s tough to argue that “the play was better,” especially when you’re talking to people who didn’t see the play on stage. If people enjoyed August without having seen the play on stage, fine. But it’s sort of like not reading the book before seeing the movie—those who read it have an entirely different perspective. And just as some books don’t need to be movies, some plays just don’t need to be either. If August’s reputation as a play sags over the next few years, it’ll be because of the entirely unnecessary film.
I highly doubt the Academy voters who nominated her for Best Actress (and Julia Roberts for Supporting) even saw the movie. They voted for her because she’s Meryl Streep, and she’s the greatest actress alive—but even the best batter can strike out.