The Distilled Adaptation

Shortening

The translation of a story from book to stage or screen always involves some degree of change.  The two arts are different; what works to communicate a story in one medium may not work in another.

A book can accommodate relatively long sequences of events, because we read a book in segments on our own schedule.  But a stage play or movie has to be geared to the limitations of the human body.  Watching a full-scale version of The Wheel of Time, say, at one sitting would require both an IV and a catheter—and a “pause” button for sleep.

Tom Bombadil (from card game)Thus, the live-action rendition of a novel generally has to leave things out, and the ability to condense the story smoothly is vital.  For example, the three-film Lord of the Rings omits the book’s entire side trip through the Old Forest, Tom Bombadil, and the Barrow-Downs.  Even with three long films, something had to be cut.  (This omission, incidentally, was a good choice and well-executed.)

The limitations of time have eased a bit with the introduction of multi-episode and bingeworthy screen formats, along with viewers’ increasing willingness to follow long-running stories (a curious counterpoint to the frequent suggestion that our attention span is eroding).  An eight-season Game of Thrones video production can cover much of what occurs in a very long book series.  But the writer or director must still gauge what can be included and what can be omitted.

Reorienting

Sometimes, when condensing a book for the theatre, the writers may take the opportunity to narrow the focus of the original story—particularly when the novel is a broad, rambling, discursive sort of tale.  In the process, they may also convey a meaning (what we might cautiously call the “moral of the story”) that’s different from that of the original.  Depending on what the rewrite chooses to emphasize, the new version may point in a different, or more definite, direction than the old.

Reorienting a tale this way can improve it—depending on what the new direction is.  Let’s look at a couple of examples.

Man of La Mancha

Man of La Mancha posterWe recently looked at the staging of the 1965 play Man of La Mancha; and a couple of years back we talked about what it says to us.  When I first saw the show back in 1970, its basic theme fit right in with what had become a widespread idea back in the 1960s:  that we are too prone to think of ourselves as unworthy of love, and that becomes a self-fulfilling handicap.

To recap:  The fantasy-ridden Don Quixote finds his ideal lady Dulcinea in a barmaid and part-time prostitute named Aldonza.  Aldonza despises herself as well as the men who use her.  She is at first baffled, and then enraged, by Quixote’s persistent attempts to idolize her and praise her ladylike virtues.  She feels she has no virtues; he is refusing to see her as she really is.  (Audio / Movie video)

Against her will, under Quixote’s gentle persistent courtesy, she begins to believe she can be better than the way she’s always thought of herself.  She is promptly and brutally disillusioned when the muleteers attack her.  The play pulls no punches:  being “nice” or showing generosity is no guarantee against mistreatment.  Yet, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, Quixote continues to treat her as a noble lady.

Dulcinea, at Don Quixote's deathbedAt the end of the play (7:42 in the clip), after Quixote’s death, she finally accepts that she is more than a nobody, “born on a dungheap”:  she will honor Quixote’s memory by living his impossible dream.  “My name . . . is Dulcinea.”

I'm Lovable buttonMan of La Mancha forcefully illustrates what in the ’60s became a truism.  We must see what is potentially lovable in someone before it is evident; and sometimes that premature faith and hope can help the person realize they are lovable—and free them to love.  This is more than the mere psychology of self-esteem; it’s an insight about how human beings work that is still worth recognizing.

Yet this isn’t exactly what Cervantes had in mind.  It’s been a long time since I read his immense rambling novel, but I don’t recall that this theme of convincing people they are lovable was evident there.  The novel speaks to a lot of other issues, such as the interplay of realism and idealism, but it isn’t focused on this.  Rather, the authors of the play selected and adapted material from Cervantes to address a theme characteristic of their own time.

One might complain that the modern playwrights have hijacked an existing story for a purpose the novel’s author never had in mind.  But as I see it, the concentrated, powerful Man of La Mancha is a great deal more interesting than the long and diffuse original.  The adapting writers have distilled a potent new wine from familiar grapes.

Les Misérables

Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables is also a massive novel, covering many years’ time and an array of main characters.  It’s also prone to digression, including among other side trips a chapter on the history of the Paris sewer system (part 5, Book Second, chapter II).  When I read the book, I made myself a whole list of sections that could be skipped, without loss, on a second reading.

Les Miserables (opera) logo

By Source, fair use (Wikipedia)

Obviously, this discursive work can’t be transformed directly into a play or a movie.  Nonetheless, there are quite a few film or stage versions.  The one I find most powerful is the opera Les Misérables by Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boublil, and Jean-Marc Natel, with English libretto by Herbert Kretzmer (1980).  It’s a long show, just under three hours, but of course it can’t begin to reproduce the entire book.

Thus, again, the playwrights are selective.  The novel tells the story of a group of people caught up in the Paris revolt of 1832, extending backward as far as 1815 to depict the backstory of Jean Valjean, the central character.  The play starts almost as far back.  After being imprisoned for nineteen years for stealing a loaf of bread, Valjean is overcome by the mercy of God when a kind bishop refuses to turn him in for a new theft, and resolves to make a better man of himself.  He adopts the orphaned girl Cosette and raises her in secret, avoiding public notice so as not to be imprisoned again.  The grown-up Cosette falls in love with Marius, a young student involved in the short-lived and futile revolt.  To save Cosette’s beloved, Valjean joins the rebels and, as the barricade falls, rescues the fallen Marius.  At the end, with Cosette and Marius married, Valjean dies at peace, received into heaven by the spirits of Fantine, Cosette’s mother, and Eponine, a reformed girl who also loved Marius and died on the barricades.

The music is extraordinarily powerful.  I’ve seen the play twice.  Each time was an intensely moving experience.  The opera was finally made into a movie in 2012, with Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, and Amanda Seyfried.

One Day More, from Les MiserablesA political motif is essential to the story—the tragic plight of the poor of France and the injustice that drove them so often to rebellion.  And as a political drama, it’s a bitter tale.  The student activists, confident that the people of Paris will rally to their side, put themselves on the line.  And no one comes to join them.  The revolt is snuffed out at once, barely a footnote in history.  The only triumph that can be found is a visionary one in the indefinite future:

 

Will you join in our crusade?

Who will be strong and stand with me?

Somewhere beyond the barricade

Is there a world you long to see?

Do you hear the people sing?

Say, do you hear the distant drums?

It is the future that they bring

When tomorrow comes!    (Finale)

 

Les Miserables - To love another person is to see the face of GodThen why is the play so uplifting?  We don’t care so much about the revolt’s failure because the characters transcend their miseries.  Cosette and Marius marry; they’ve earned their happy ending.  Valjean, Fantine, and Eponine die, but they ascend to eternal bliss.  The revolt accomplishes nothing, but the heroism and love of the principal characters makes that detail seem irrelevant.

The theme of the opera might be summarized as:  ‘Politics comes and goes, but people are forever.’  How we treat other people is vastly more important, in the long run, than the rise and fall of political regimes.  Of course, the two are not unrelated:  the purpose of a sound political regime is to make it possible for people to live good lives.  But this particular story places all its weight on the personal side.

I’m not sure that that’s what Hugo had in mind.  He might have; he certainly does emphasize the heroic compassion of Valjean and contrasts the ironies of the abortive revolution.  But it seems to me Hugo’s novel had considerably more of a political axe to grind than the opera does.  It’s a matter of degree, but I don’t know that Hugo would have sympathized entirely with the adaptation’s relative downplaying of the political.

Conclusion

In both these cases, it seems to me the adaptation has taken a particular thread from a very large original and woven it into a much more condensed, more focused story.  In doing so, the adapters have chosen to bring out themes that may be different from the bent of the original tale.

When it’s successful, such an adaptation gives us a derivative work drawing on untapped potentials in the original.  The relationship is not unlike what I’ve called the “malleability of myth.”  A root story can be reinterpreted in many ways—and some of them may be greater than the original.

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The Simple Stage

The Crucible

I don’t see a lot of stage plays.  Generally I wait for the movie version to come out.  (Which took quite a while in the case of Les Miserables—though in that case I actually did see the play twice on stage.)

Cruscible-side-shot-1Recently, however, I had occasion to see a performance of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (1953), by the Lumina Theatre Company:  my son was in the cast.  (Portraying one of the villains; and he did it very well!)  The Crucible is one of those plays that many people have been exposed to, often as a high-school reading assignment.  But I had managed to miss either seeing or reading the play, up to now.  It was a powerful experience:  a moving story, well performed by Lumina.

As is well known, The Crucible is set in the period of the Salem witch trials in 1692-93.  It’s also an allegory for the McCarthy hearings on Communism (1953-54) during the “Red Scare.”  I don’t know whether the term “witch hunt” for such persecution-by-investigation originated with Miller’s play; the phrase has certainly seen a lot of mileage since.

At the moment, however, I’m not interested in the politics or the story, but in an aspect of the staging that caught my attention, and reminded me of a couple of dramaturgically similar cases I’ve seen before.

The Austere Stage

Scene from The CrucibleI’m even less of an expert on the stage than I am on movies; but even I, as a layman, was struck by the simplicity of the stage setting.  There was no backdrop; walls and ceiling were black.  A series of tall panels vaguely suggesting a forest marked the left and right sides of the stage.  The performance depended on adroit use of a few simple props—a bed, a table, some cooking utensils—to indicate whether we were seeing a bedroom, a kitchen, or the anteroom of a court.

Black Box Theatre, Howard County,MD

Howard County Arts Council’s Black Box Theater

Apparently this is a “thing.”  As people with a wider background in theatre probably know, there’s a style called the “Black Box Theater” (which was literally the name of the particular theatre where this performance occurred).  Wikipedia says:  “A black box theater (or experimental theater) consists of a simple, somewhat unadorned performance space, usually a large square room with black walls and a flat floor, which can be used flexibly to create a stage” (emphasis and link omitted).

 

It seemed to me that in The Crucible this stark environment served well to focus our attention on the characters and their interactions, rather than on the surroundings.  Actors wore period clothing, but otherwise there was no strong sense of historical setting.  That seems especially appropriate in a case where the author intends us to see not only the events happening in a particular time and place, but also their analogue in 1950s American politics, or other situations.

That reflection reminded me of a couple of other times when I’ve seen a show that worked better on a relatively bare stage than in a movie.  As a rule, the movie version of a show like Oklahoma! or The Sound of Music has the advantage of being able to present the setting with greater realism and vividness:  we can actually see the Midwestern plains or the Austrian mountains.  And today’s CGI technology can set before us almost any imaginable background.  But sometimes we don’t want to emphasize the particular setting.

Man of La Mancha

Man of La Mancha original playbillMan of La Mancha (1965), with a book by Dale Wasserman, lyrics by Joe Darion, and music by Mitch Leigh, is derived from Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote.  The play is not intended as a complete adaptation of the novel; one might, in fact, argue that the authors make use of selected parts of the novel to build a story whose effect is quite different from what Cervantes intended (something I want to address at a later date).  It was the Wasserman-Darion-Leigh musical that strongly influenced me, starting in high school.

The musical begins with a frame story:  Cervantes himself is in prison, waiting to be examined by the Inquisition.  To pacify and intrigue the other prisoners, he draws them into an impromptu enactment of scenes from the novel (Don Quixote) he is writing.  The story-within-a-story focuses on Quixote’s absurd, yet ennobling, idealism in conflict with the brutal realism of everyone else except his loyal servant Sancho Panza; and on how Quixote’s eccentric view of the world influences a young woman at an inn, a prostitute named Aldonza, whom he insists on seeing as the noble lady Dulcinea.  As the inner story concludes, back in the dungeon Cervantes is called up to face the Inquisition.  He now ascends to meet his fate with courage as the rest of the cast reprises “The Impossible Dream.”

Man of La Mancha program (Shady Grove Music Fair, MD, 1970)I’ve seen Man of La Mancha on stage twice, once in 1970 with Howard Keel, and again with the Shakespeare Theatre Company in 2015.  The 1970 production took place in a theatre-in-the-round, which eliminated the use of any backdrops at all; though, as I recall, there was a long, impressive stairway that could be lowered from the ceiling to illustrate the opening and closing of the dungeon.  This comports with Wikipedia’s description of the original production:

The musical was performed on a single set that suggested a dungeon. All changes in location were created by alterations in the lighting, by the use of props supposedly lying around the floor of the dungeon, and by reliance on the audience’s imagination.

Scene from Man of La Mancha, Shakespeare Theatre Company

Man of La Mancha, Shakespeare Theatre Company:  note largely black backdrop

The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production was not theatre-in-the-round, but used a similarly spare set, with a catwalk above and again, a stairway that could be raised and lowered.  Both the 1970 and the 2015 iterations were excellent and moving presentations of the stage play.

The movie version of the musical (1972) was disappointing.  It didn’t help that the producers cast Peter O’Toole and Sophia Loren in the leading roles, since neither of them could really sing—although visually Loren was a perfect Aldonza.  But even aside from the musical issues, the screen adaptation, depicting a green countryside (with windmills) and the inn where Aldonza works, seemed distinctly less effective than the stage version.

Man of La Mancha, movie sceneWhy?  Eventually I concluded that the whole point of the show—competing and radically different visions of the world—was undermined by the fact that the movie used real landscapes.  Viewing the story, one has to keep in constant tension the world as Quixote sees it (giant, castle, lady, varlets) and the world as everyone else sees it (windmill, inn, sullen and degraded woman, rough and violent muleteers).  In addition, with the frame story, it’s also necessary to keep in mind that this is theoretically being acted out by prisoners of the Inquisition in a dungeon.

So in this story, we have to keep three levels of realities before us at once.  But with the movie, the director had to commit to one or the other vision:  either film an inn and leave the castle imaginary (and the dungeon tacit), or vice versa.  Unless the movie simply filmed a production of the play—a compromise which rarely satisfies anyone.  In this particular case, the greater realism of the movie version actually blunted the effect of the story.

Godspell

Godspell play posterThe 1960s-1970s were the era of what one might call big-concept musicals—at the opposite end of the spectrum from the wholly frivolous musical comedies of the 1930s-1940s.  Like the folk Mass of the same period, Godspell (1971) sought to convey a fresh view of Christianity by putting it in the form of popular music and styles.

The play describes itself as “A musical based upon the Gospel according to St. Matthew,” though it doesn’t actually confine itself to that Gospel.  It’s structured as a series of musical numbers with skits illustrating classic parables, bookended by stylized, minimalist episodes representing the initial calling of disciples and the Passion.  The characters, except for Jesus and perhaps John and Judas, are non-Biblical, and the entire cast is dressed in colorful informal clothes reminiscent of the “hippies” of that period.

Godspell cast on stage

Godspell cast on stage: note black background

I saw the play at least once or twice back in the 1970s, though I don’t recall the particular venues.  Like Man of La Mancha, it was presented with a minimum of props and without backdrops.  The focus was on the music and the actions of the characters.  It wasn’t individual personalities or character development one focused on; the characters themselves are somewhat arbitrary, without history or backstory.  Rather, it appears they were deliberately designed to represent a group of Everypeople.

The modern style of the music, together with the lack of time and place cues (as in The Crucible) and the randomness of the costuming, serve to lift the play out of its historical place in first-century culture.  That abstraction made it more accessible to contemporary young people.  (Whether it still has that effect now, fifty years later, I can’t say.)  Rather than being distracted by the antique ambiance of robes and horses and Roman soldiers, the audience could perceive the Gospel stories in a new light.

Godspell movie cast, New York CityAs with Man of La Mancha, the popular stage play was promptly followed up by a movie version (1973).  The producers and director chose to set the movie’s activities in New York City.  The characters’ antics are seen against the Brooklyn Bridge, Times Square, the top of a World Trade Center tower, and other well-known New York locales.  Wikipedia observes:  “While the play requires very little stage dressing, the film places emphasis on dramatic location shots in Manhattan.”

In this case, the musical aspect of the movie was fine.  At least one critic considered the movie soundtrack better than the original stage cast album.  Yet, again, it seemed to me that overall the movie was not quite as effective as the stage play.  The realistic modern setting did not improve upon the minimalist furnishing of the stage play.  I concluded that, if the goal is to abstract the essence of the Gospels as universally applicable, regardless of time or place, the movie setting isn’t an advantage:  it lifts the action out of first-century Palestine, but ties it back down to contemporary New York.  The very spare, austere stage set helps the viewer make that abstraction.

Conclusion

I’m a great fan of CGI, and look forward to seeing a full-fledged dramatic presentation using virtual reality (VR).  Modern technology allows us to present almost any science fiction or fantasy setting—things we never see in real life—realistically enough for us to suspend disbelief.  But when we don’t want realism, simplicity may be a better approach.  Even in our high-tech age, the plain theatrical stage has its uses.

Don Quixote of Tomorrowland

2015’s “Tomorrowland” was not a great success with moviegoing audiences or critics.  But it hits on some themes that are vitally important.

We can’t discuss those themes without issuing some spoilers, so be warned.

Spoilers Follow

The World of Tomorrow

Tomorrowland - Casey and FrankThe story of “Tomorrowland,” co-written and directed by Brad Bird of Pixar fame, involves Frank Walker, a boy inventor whose earliest appearance is in 1964—played in the present day by a disillusioned George Clooney—and Casey Newton, a teenage girl with a particular genius for making things work.

Casey’s dad, a NASA engineer, will shortly lose his job as the agency decommissions a historic launch site.  Casey sneaks onto the site at night to sabotage the demolition efforts, which shows where her loyalties lie.

We see her in school with a series of morose teachers, each explaining how the world is going to hell in a handbasket:  nuclear armageddon, environmental disaster, literary dystopia.  Casey frantically waves her hand and is finally allowed to ask the question none of them are addressing:  “Can we fix it?” And the bell rings.

With this scene, the movie “had me at hello.”  For fifty years we’ve listened to doomsayers telling us how things will inevitably grow worse—from every part of the political map.  Solutions, however, are harder to come by.

Casey in the golden fieldIn the movie, the same situation turns out to be mirrored in the hidden Tomorrowland.  This haven was founded half a century ago with the goal of recruiting bright people to improve the world.  In the intervening years, it has focused instead on trying to make people face the approaching disasters.  Its futuristic technology beams subliminal messages into our world in an attempt to “raise consciousness” before it’s too late.  But like the schools, this secret cabal is no longer proposing ways to “fix it,” only foretelling doom.

Of course, alerting people to potential disasters is not a bad thing.  Motivating by fear is certainly one way to arouse people to action.  But what Tomorrowland, like the schoolteachers in the opening scenes, has forgotten is that dread, without hope for solutions, doesn’t lead to fruitful changes.  It leads to stagnant despair.

In the end, Casey and Frank halt the doomsaying broadcast, and begin again to recruit “dreamers.”  “Dreamers” here doesn’t mean believing things are just fine.  That would be blind optimism.  Rather, it means believing better things are possible.  If you’re a “fixer”—a builder, a maker—this leads to asking how things can be made better; which leads to plans for change, not just empty wishes.

In other words:  the conviction that catastrophe is inevitable is a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Expect the worst (admitting no other possibilities), and you’ll get it.

The World of La Mancha

A complementary idea forms the backbone of another favorite of mine—the play “Man of La Mancha,” a musical adaptation of the story of Don Quixote by Dale Wasserman, Joe Darion, and Mitch Leigh, written—oddly enough—in 1964.  (There’s a movie version, but this is one case where the stage play is definitely better.)

Man of La Mancha posterThe play slims down the sprawling novel and focuses it on a particular set of ideas—as does the operatic version of Les Misérables.  What makes this Quixote a worthy adjunct to Tomorrowland is the course of his eccentric romance with his lady “Dulcinea.”

The woman the deluded Don identifies as the virtuous Dulcinea is a barmaid and part-time prostitute named Aldonza.  She is at first baffled and then enraged by Quixote’s attempts to place her on a lofty pedestal, his refusal to see her as (she says) she really is.  (Audio / Movie video)

As soon as Aldonza begins to believe she can be better than that, she is brutally disillusioned.  Yet Quixote stands by his conviction that she’s really a noble lady, in the face of all contrary evidence.   At the end of the play (7:42 in the clip), she finally accepts that role:  “My name . . . is Dulcinea.”  She takes on the quest of becoming more than she is.

In other words:  expecting the best calls it forth.

 

This encouraging principle doesn’t always work out nicely, as the play makes devastatingly clear.  If we seek out the best in people, we’d better be prepared for a letdown sometimes.  But the principle does shape our thinking in the right direction—a productive direction, rather than a dead end.

The two matched stories remind us that some degree of faith in the future, for a person or for a society, is needed if we want to foster energetic action.  It’s therefore incumbent on us not to crush such fertile hopes.  We should never blind ourselves to the facts, but that doesn’t mean we should be satisfied with them.