Film and Theatre may walk hand-in-hand down the lane of audiovisual entertainment, but that does not mean they are similar: each is a different discipline with different – written and unwritten – rules and difficulties, and each has the ability to be extremely powerful – both as a vessel for meaning and as a tool for entertainment. But what happens when we cross the wires? Oftentimes filmmakers think that simply filming a great stage production makes for a similarly impressive movie, an erroneous and dangerous assumption. This guide aims to provide budding producers and directors with some hints and tips on transferring a stage play to the screen, so read on as we have a romp through the 4 essential areas of Production that will make sure your stage play translates!
1) Sound & Visuals
Getting the audience’s attention
Think of how most lines start in Shakespeare plays. A character, more than likely already on stage, shouts ‘My lord!’ (or something to that effect). Everyone turns to look at the one who made the noise, and they proceed to go on with their speech. Take this example of Banquo’s ambush from Macbeth:
If you were planning on ambushing and murdering someone on a dark footpath, would you be chatting as he came along? Would you make a clever quip before you attacked? Shakespeare uses the Murderers’ lines – the noise they make, not what we see them doing – to direct our attention to them, to their part of the stage, to what’s about to happen.
Now in film. Check out this famous excerpt from Psycho:
Notice how we ‘see’ the bathroom door, Mary ‘looks’ somewhat relieved. The clever thing here is that we experience the shower like Mary does – we can’t hear anything, the noise of the shower (and, soon, that infamous score) drowns out everything apart from the visual clues as to what’s happening. If we’d heard the door open and close we’ll assume that so did Mary, and the tension is gone. But we don’t, we hear nothing and so remain in the odd dream-like state the cinema places over its audience: half-immersed in having a shower, and half-aware that something terrible is about to happen.
Film and theatre, although dealing in the same currency, have very different methods with which to grab an audience’s attention. In the theatre aural cues direct the audience to one part of the stage or another. In film, our attention is directed by our vision – what the screen shows is what distracts us, what is trying to be directly communicated to us and what makes us focus.
Does ‘off-stage’ mean ‘off-screen’?
A voice heard ‘off-stage’ is not the same as someone talking off-screen. Film is primarily a visual medium, so if we can’t see a character speaking in a film, we automatically relegate them to either less important status than a character we do see, or give them some sort of narrative quality.
Think about how the character of God is depicted in Bruce Almighty. God, an entity powerful enough to influence the individual lives of billions of living creatures, past and present; God, who created the air, light and everything the characters in the film touch and see; God, who is everywhere and everything at the same time. You might expect him to be portrayed as a disembodied voice, a mystical being, something too grand to really be contained in physical form. But despite awesome advances in CGI, special effects, make-up etc., God is portrayed with the very human, visible, recognisable and movie-screen friendly form of Morgan Freeman. This is not because Morgan Freeman is the closest thing Hollywood has to God, or because he’s a particularly funny actor – it’s because if God was depicted as something not visible and comprehensible on-screen, he simply wouldn’t have been an important part of the movie.
On stage, however, visual absence doesn’t necessarily subtract from a character or situation; it can even increase the tension and drama. In Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, the action and characters are almost entirely defined by the absence of Godot from the stage – we’re almost certain he exists, there are stories and facts we know about him, other people have met him or been sent by him, but Godot himself never materialises. The fact that we never see him doesn’t matter – more than that, it’s the whole point of the play. On the contrary, even the shadiest, most elusive film characters are at some point seen on-screen in physical form: Saw’s Jigsaw, the A.I. program in Her, the spirit that haunts the soon-to-be-splattered kids in Evil Dead.
In the event you want your film character to be heard but not seen, it’s always advisable to perhaps vary the shots during the speech, keeping the action flowing visually as well as aurally – otherwise the audience will quickly become bored. Another trick is to show a concealed or past version of the speaking character – old photographs, a gravestone, maybe even just a close-up of a body part – so that the audience knows who’s talking, and that they need to listen up.
Tl;dr: In theatre, sound directs the audience’s attention, in film it’s what we see. As a general rule in film: if we can’t see it we don’t care for it.
One of the downfalls of theatre is the difficulty with which the audience’s perspective of what’s going on on-stage can be changed. The ‘fourth wall’ – the imaginary barrier between actors and audience – can be broken, but almost never moved to a different place in the same room. This means that subtle ways to direct the audience’s attention, such as close-ups, are almost always completely lost. Shows that attempt to mimic film tropes like this are usually slightly experimental, sparsely decorated physical theatre pieces which, although valid in themselves, do not chime with mainstream naturalism in the theatre. Check out Pilobolus’s video below, for example. It’s a stage show that uses shadow puppetry and dance to treat the stage more like a camera lens, allowing for dramatic scenery and perspective changes as well as close-ups – but many would probably categorise it as some sort of ‘performance art’ as opposed to ‘theatre’.
In film, different shots allow the filmmaker to explore relationships between objects and people, to zoom in and zoom out, to focus on objects. It’s a much more controlled and directed way of telling the story, and a reason the director and editor have so much power in the world of film. The very slightest change of focus, a tiny snippet of a shot deleted here or added there, could completely change the meaning, shape and tone of a scene. It’s also a very useful way of keeping the story flowing without having to write lots of cumbersome dialogue, or rely on action-heavy sequences. Consider, for example, the pure physical events in the Mexican stand-off scene in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, which is by-and-large what a theatre audience would see if there was a stage version of the film:
What happens (on stage):
- Blondie walks into the middle of the cemetery and puts a stone on the ground
- Blondie, Tuco and Angel Eyes get in place for the shoot-out
- For nearly 2 ½ minutes, NOTHING HAPPENS. The characters just stare at each other. Don’t think that’s a long time? Try sitting in silence for 2 ½ minutes right now. It’s actually ages.
- Bang! Whistle! Splat! No spoilers.
Now, on film. Try to keep your toes from curling and your bowels from wobbling:
The music, the close-ups, the detailed expressions etched into the actors’ faces (which you definitely could not see from the upper dress circle at the Royal Court). They turn a 5-minute scene where externally nearly nothing happens into a roller-coaster ride of emotion, possibility and danger.
Being able to change the perspective, to follow people about as opposed to being stuck in one place, can also help build characters and stories in interesting ways. Let’s go back to Psycho for a second. The movie starts off following the young heroine, Marion, and her attempt to steal some money so she can marry her lover. She winds up at the Bates’ Motel, where something extraordinary happens: we ditch Marion’s storyline and begin following Norman’s. Here’s how the scene starts, the camera following Marion:
And here’s how the scene ends, with Marion leaving the room, and the camera (and, consequently, us) staying with Norman Bates. She’s about to get killed off anyways, and Norman’s story takes over from this point on:
It’s a genius storytelling method that could only be done with film. Try to switch main characters in a stage play, you’re likely to wind up with a confused audience – because of macroscopic way in which we view it, we need to establish and know certain things from the start: these are the main characters, this is why they’re here, this is what they’re trying to do, etc… We don’t focus on peripheral characters close enough, we don’t see enough about them in enough detail to let them take over as main characters. In film, however, where all the little nuances, twitches and details can be magnified to fill the screen, we can inspect, become interested in and even start following a totally different character than we started with.
Tl;dr: Cameras can zoom, focus, cut to, etc… to make you pay attention to stuff. An audience in a theatre can’t, and so theatre is less detailed (or more subjective) in its storytelling. You can use camera and editing tricks and conventions to change the tone or meaning of a scene, as well as to even change the way your story flows or by who it’s told.
3) Location, Location, Location
Disunity of space & time
In his ‘Poetics’, Aristotle writes on the need for a ‘unity of time and space’ in the theatre – meaning that a stage play should only take place in one location, at one time – so no flashbacks of jump-forwards then. This theory prevailed in the theatre up until past the Renaissance, and it is still evident today. The Ancient Greeks believed this was the ‘proper’ way to tell a theatrical story, but today the convention persists more for reasons of practicality – there are not many theatres that have the technological abilities to convey a variety of locations in detail. Even the most elaborate and changeable stage shows (such as pantomimes) will only feature 3-4 sets throughout the show, as not only are they difficult to get into place in tight blackouts and intervals, but also very expensive.
The filmmaker, on the other hand, has complete artistic license over the locations of his movie. One scene needs to be at the top of the Eiffel Tower? No worries, let’s cart the camera up there. The very next one has to take place in the catacombs beneath the floorboards of a small Parisian cafe? Again, it’s not a problem so long as you can find the location. The freedom of film is almost an excuse to set stories in crazy and unfamiliar locations – after all, why is there so much more cinema sci-fi than stage sci-fi? With this freedom comes the realisation that the bare bones of a story can be transported into any setting you choose, and the setting can then become a character, a feature of the film on its own.
Take the recent space-disaster epic Gravity. Could it have been set somewhere completely different? Perhaps on a sinking ship, or an arctic expedition? Of course it could: the themes of exploration, isolation, danger and companionship would remain the same, and perhaps it would make quite a good stage play in these more easily staged settings. But space! The beauty of the film is that it uses the camera’s magical capacity to not only take us somewhere we can barely imagine being, but to also suspend our disbelief and make us feel that the events we are seeing are real.
Using location to your advantage
An exciting, different or unusual location could even translate into better funding opportunities for your film project. Different countries offer different tax breaks and discounts for filmmakers – in Greece, for example, they will let you film on the Parthenon for free if you go through the right channels. The UK is something of a haven for filmmakers at the moment, with some very alluring tax breaks and IES schemes for companies attempting to make a feature – so transpose that Western from Sioux Valley to Summerset (as Edgar Wright did with Fist Full of Fingers)! You also might be able to attract some heavy-punching funders with a concept for a film set in a novel place. Imagine being a financier, flicking through thousands of scripts for the next project to fling your millions at. Romantic comedies set in snowy Paris by the dozen. Probably a couple of hundred scripts set in urban centres (New York, London, LA, etc…). Several more set in Iraq, Afghanistan or some other poorly-defined war zone. Then this:
A… a what suspense? Cool! Then those first lines: ‘At 600km above planet earth the temperature fluctuates between 120 and -100 degrees celcius. Life here is impossible’.
After reading 200 scripts about vapid 20-somethings screwing each other over in ‘the big city’, I dare you not to devour that Gravity script in minutes. For a professional screenplay reader, it must be like seeing an oasis in the middle of a desert.
Tl;dr: The camera moves, an audience doesn’t. Use it to your advantage and play with locations. Locations don’t need to just be the background of a scene, they can be just as important as the characters themselves, and can even help make your script more exciting, more interesting, or more susceptible to being funded.
It may seem like a bit of a dubious distinction to make, but acting for stage and screen are completely different beasts. On stage, an actor has to ‘become’ a character for the duration of the play. They can’t snap out of it when they’re not speaking, they don’t have the luxury of relaxing when the camera’s not trained on them. The mark of most good actors is the constancy with which they deliver their most naturalistic performances – even in cases of the ‘heightened’ naturalism that is needed for extremely big venues.
Now here’s a dirty little secret about film: the camera lies. As discussed, you can move the camera about, change it’s location in space and time, play tricks on the viewer. The camera sees like the brain, not the eyes, and so you can use interesting shots to create the illusion of actors having a normal conversation – when in reality they are but millimetres from each other’s noses, or one is staring directly into the other’s ear. Stage actors find this very hard to do – it ‘feels’ wrong, but on camera it ‘looks’ right. Take this famous scene from Gone with the Wind, for example:
Some things you might not know:
a) Vivien Leigh is not nearly 2 feet shorter than Clark Gable. Either she’s standing in a ditch or he’s standing on a box.
b) People, even people in love, do not really stand that close to each other’s faces in real life. Your eyes wouldn’t be able to focus.
c) Clark Gable had horrible false teeth, which he never washed. Rumours have it you’d know when he was on set, because you could smell him. Imagine being Vivien Leigh in that scene, about one inch away from one of the most powerful smells a human can experience.
It doesn’t sound like the whirlwind romantic moment the scene conveys. And with a camera and film crew standing around 10 feet away, it can’t have been easy to be ‘in the moment’, something demanded of stage actors. Vivien Leigh must have begged the director to change something, to remove her from the vicinity of Gable’s mouth, to not hake her stand in a weird ditch that makes her look like she’s vertically challenged. His answer? ‘It looks good to me!’. In film, it doesn’t matter how the actor feels, whether they think it’s convincing or not. All that matters is what the camera sees, and what the camera sees in not necessarily truthful. Actor John Malkovich puts it across well in this interview:
So watch out when it comes to casting your film; just because an actor has done loads of theatre shows, it doesn’t mean they’ll be able to do film work. Go for professional film actors with some experience behind them if you can.
Tl;dr: Theatre and Film acting is completely different, so hire some professional film actors if you want to avoid trouble.
Hopefully now you have the grounding to make a great adaptation! So out you go into the wide, scary world of stage to screen and flourish. In the mean time, here are some of the greatest celluloid adaptations so you can have a good old research:
Dan, Alice, Anna and Larry weave a romantic web between them, leading to some funny, romantic and tragic consequences.
Or rather, ‘The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade’. This play-within-a-play quickly and predictably deteriorates into a dangerous situation for the prison wardens.
Angels in America (2003)
A gay couple and a straight couple’s lives collide with life-changing force. AIDS, homosexuality, family and the supernatural all feature heavily in this tale of the turbulence of 1980’s America.
A young boy becomes pathologically obsessed with horses, believing them to be divine beings with which he has a special connection. After he blinds 6 horses, he is interviewed by a psychiatrist, and all his secrets come to light.
(By the way, Raindance founder Elliot Grove was the one who decorated the set to look like an old barn for this movie. Cool!)
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Hamlet’s childhood friends, and have a few short scenes in Shakespeare’s great tragedy. But what do they get up to when they’re not on-stage? Tom Stoppard’s iconic script deals with the nature of imaginary characters, what happens to our creations in the storage areas of the mind.
Death of a Salesman (1985)
A travelling salesman gets too old for the job. He thinks himself competent enough to get a similar office job, but the reality is that he’s getting sick: he keeps talking to imaginary people and attempting suicide. How do his choices affect his wife and sons?
A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
Blanche DuBois arrives in New Orleans to visit her sister, Stella. The delicate southern belle can’t handle the noisiness of the city, the harshness of Stella’s husband, Stanley, or her own troubled past, and slowly goes mad in the hot, stuffy surroundings.
George and Martha invite Nick and Honey over for drinks after a night out. The party atmosphere quickly dissipates into tension, nastiness and determined game-playing from George and Martha as it’s revealed that not all is right between them.