From Screen to Stage

Not Every Movies Needs to Become a Play

There is an urge, no matter what media we're talking about, to take something that works and move it to a new format. Comics become movies, movies become shows, shows become movies or comics or novels. Everything feeds on each other because once you have an idea that works the desire is there to rework it and milk it and build a franchise. Most of modern Hollywood is built on just this concept, the incestuous need to work and rework the same idea over and over and over again.

This all came to me when I read that Almost Famous has a Broadway adaptation. A film about a kid following a band all around the country. In their bus, on stage, in planes, at hotels... This somehow was turned into a stage adaptation. Sure, there's music in the film so you potentially could make some kind of rock concert hybrid piece out of it, but should you? Is this a film that was really calling for a Broadway adaptation? I'd argue no, not in the slightest. This seems like a terrible idea.

While I get the impulse, there are some media concepts that really don't feel like they need to happen. Most specifically I'm thinking of the transition from screen to stage, movies or shows evolving into plays and musicals. Again, I get the impulse: the stage is yet another way to interpret and idea and flesh it into a new experience (one that can then be turned into a lucrative financial avenue), but not every idea actually lends itself well to the stage. In fact, I'd argue most do not.

It's easy to pick out specific plays that, while based on pop culture, absolutely id not work. There was the famous, and quite costly example, in Spider-man: Turn Off the Dark, a musical that was critically panned and cost the producers what can only be described as a metric ass-ton of money (which is even more than an Imperial ass-ton). It cost $75 Mil, cost more each week to run than it made from tickets, and closed so far in the hole that even Uncle Ben's corpse was buried far above it. It was a shit show.

There are other examples you could point to as well. A terrible BatmanOne of the longest running, consistently in-print superheroes ever (matched only by Superman and Wonder Woman), Batman has been a force in entertainment for nearly as long as there's been an entertainment industry. It only makes sense, then that he is also the most regularly adapted, and consistently successful, superhero to grace the Silver Screen. musical. A forgotten SupermanThe first big superhero from DC Comics, Superman has survived any number of pretenders to the throne, besting not only other comic titans but even Wolrd War II to remain one of only three comics to continue publishing since the 1940s. musical as well. A misbegotten Carrie musical. Hell, the whole idea seems to be, "there is a property that hasn't been put on Broadway yet. Let's make it into a musical!" Not everything should be a musical (and in the case of Carrie I think we have a clear example as to why), but even if you didn't put it to music, I think the urge to take things to the stage is a bad one.

The stage is the stage, which is a statement that both is totally obvious but is worth stating. Yes, you can have giant productions with huge sets and a lot of moving pieces -- think the ever popular, for some reason, Phantom of the Opera -- but even with those gigantic, overblown setups the stage works differently than a film. The counter is true as well; the 2004 film based on the Broadway musical (based on the book) was too literal to the stage play while also having the worst cast possible, proving that sometimes the stage should stay on the stage. But still, there are ideas that are better in certain media over than the theater.

I'm sure you can find examples of films that have been turned into plays and have worked really well. From what I hear the Heathers musical was a success (so much so that it's moving back to the cineplex, another weird trend Hollywood is in love with). There was also Hairspray and The Producers, which each went from movie to stage and back to movie (with the final movie transition leading to diminishing returns). But you can also find plenty of examples of plays based on movies that didn't work and that comes down to fidelity.

More specifically, when moving an idea from the screen to the stage you have to strike the right balance between fidelity to the source material (the original film) while coming up with enough new ideas to make up for the total shift of style that the stage requires. You can do big action set pieces on film, even in a low-grade comedy (like Heathers) in a way you simply can't do in the theatrical experience (and thanks to Spider-man for illustrating that fact as well). If you don't come up with new creative ideas to paper over the loss of the cinematic experience, your stage production won't work.

An interesting example of this is Evil Dead: The Musical. This was a low budget affair that, depending on where you saw it, had very different setups. The (bootleg) DVD copy I was able to watch had two productions packed in, one on a large set decorated up like a B-version of Into the Woods, while the other was on a much smaller stage with a weird, tiered setup. Of the two, the bigger stage with the full setup of the cabin and the woods worked so much better than the smaller one. But what also helped was the fidelity to the source material as well as the lack thereof.

The writers of the Evil Dead musical elected to combine aspects of both The Evil Dead and Evil Dead II (and a little tag ending of Army of Darkness) to make a stage play that felt in line with the fun had by the movies without being too stuck in the source material. Character arcs are massaged and updated, songs and dance numbers are added, and everything feels fresh and interesting even to those of us that have seen all the movies over and over again. It worked because it got creative and was willing to offer a new experience (beyond just song and dance).

The problem, of course, is that not every creative director is that, well, creative. There's an impulse to try and cram all the ideas of a film onto the stage, even when the medium itself of different locations, characters, and set-pieces, conveying all that without a lot of streamlining can make the experience hard to follow (just look at Carrie). You have to have a source that somehow can lend itself well to the streamlining approach (like using one jungle set to represent all of The Lion King) because otherwise your play will end up a jumbled mess.

I'm not saying that movies should never move to the theatrical experience. But Hollywood needs to be better about the items it chooses and what it movies over. I'm sure the plays for Heathers and Mean Girls and Legally Blond each have their fans but, at a certain point, one has to wonder if Hollywood (and Broadway) needs better ideas than hitting the back catalogue yet again. At the very least, let's all abandon ship before Dude, Where's My Car?; The Musical, the Movie happens. Please, for the love of all that is holy.