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Good Theatre Adaptation Movies (1985-90): The Play’s the Thing

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David Appleford itcherIn an original work, there’s no way of knowing what elements were changed during the production of the movie unless you worked on the film or took part in that research months earlier. But films adapted from the stage that are changed due to research, that’s another matter. Maybe a regular movie-going audience wouldn’t know the difference, but if you’re a theatre purist and it’s your favorite play or musical that’s had a facial, then there’s trouble. ~ David Appleford

Ring the Curtain Up

Ever been to one of those early test screenings for a movie? Not the kind that gives audiences a full preview just before it officially opens but one of those really early screenings when the film is in its raw state and there’s still work to be done. If you have, then you’ve probably met with studio reps after the showing. They’re the ones holding clipboards by the exits and they want to know what you thought of everything; did the ending work, was there chemistry between the leads, is it too long, and what would you do to make it better?

Depending on answers received, studios often make changes while they still have the time. It might not sound overly creative, but from a business perspective – and, remember, that’s what this is, a business – studios do this kind of research to protect their investment. After all, if an audience overwhelmingly thinks that an ending is wrong and tells you so, it’s a good indication that when the final film is released, that’s how it’s going to be received. Like any business venture where the company has done its research, it’s going to tweak a few things.

In an original work, there’s no way of knowing what was changed unless you worked on the film or took part in that research months earlier. But films adapted from the stage that are changed due to research, that’s another matter. Maybe a regular movie-going audience wouldn’t know the difference, but if you’re a theatre purist and it’s your favorite play or musical that’s had a facial, then there’s trouble.

The following are five examples of movies adapted from the stage that were altered from their original concept in one way or another. Some of the changes work, some don’t, but they’re all of merit and all deserve another look. Here’s why:


Reinvented Theatre Movie Recommendations

‘A Chorus Line’ (Richard Attenborough, 1985)

You were a rotten dancer.

When it comes to ‘A Chorus Line’ the movie, audiences are divided, and it’s a clean divide. They either love it or loathe it.

The lovers tend to be those who have no prior knowledge of the piece and are seeing it for the first time. They’re the ones who come away thinking, great dancing, terrific songs and a dazzling finish. Boy, that director Richard Attenborough really knows what he’s doing.

Those who loathe it are the ones who know the show and know how things are supposed to be. They’re the ones coming away thinking, what did they do to the choreography, what happened to some of the songs and who thought it was a good idea to change the meaning of ‘What I Did For Love’? Man, what was that idiot Attenborough thinking?

The criticisms are valid and it’s difficult to know who to blame. Was it studio pressure on the director to alter key things or was it Sir Dickie himself? I’d like to think it was studio pressure, but, well, you never know. Updating the choreography to a more fashionable eighties style of movement actually dated the film the moment it was released while the original theatrical choreography remains timeless.

And I have to agree with the purists, ‘What I Did For Love’ is an anthem to chorus lines everywhere, but the film changed the meaning to that of a wimpy love song between a key dancer (Alyson Reed) and the show’s director (Michael Douglas) and that was unforgivable.

But there’s still a lot to like, which makes it worth the rental. The cast of mostly unknowns is good, chunks of the original dialog are intact, and even theatre purists should agree that the big number at the end where everyone returns in glittery top hat and tails for the finale is terrific.  

‘Little Shop of Horrors’ (Frank Oz, 1986)

It’s true! I chopped him up. But I didn’t kill him!

The story of a timid florist who nurtures an all talking, all singing, oversized potted plant with a taste for human blood first appeared in a black and white Roger Corman horror cheapie in 1960. It would eventually inspire a 1982 off-Broadway musical with a score that incorporated Motown, doo-wop and a healthy dose of rock ‘n roll. It was a hit. Then came the movie adaptation.

Directed by the voice of Fozzy Bear and Miss Piggy, Muppet puppeteer Frank Oz did what he could to be faithful to the live show. All the songs were there, so was the humor and so was Ellen Greene who played the part of Audrey on stage. The problem was the ending.

The original cut did the same as the show; it allowed the ravenous plant to eat everyone in the cast then turn on the audience. But early test screen audiences hated it. They loved the film and they loved the songs, but they hated that ending. So distressed was the studio that at great expense, the producers flew the whole American cast back to England, rebuilt the sets and filmed a new conclusion where the plant croaks and the lovers get together to live happy ever after.

And it worked. Audiences bought it and for the most part, so did theatre purists. And that’s as it should be. While it would be interesting to see that original ending, the film is fine as it stands. Enjoy.

‘Switching Channels’ (Ted Kotcheff, 1988)

How come there’s a fire on channel four and we don’t have it?

Based on a 1926 Broadway comedy called ‘The Front Page’ about tabloid newspapers covering the police beat, this 1988 movie version switched more than just the title. The newspaper became a cable TV station, the editor became the station’s operations manager, and the male newspaper journalist called Hildy became a female TV reporter called Christy. It also threw out all the dialog of the original and rewrote the thing to reflect modern times and a modern electronic media setting.

If you’re interested in knowing what the story should be like you can always rent the 1974 Billy Wilder version with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. That’s closer to the 1926 play, plus it kept the original title. But you should still see ‘Switching Channels’, if only as a curiosity. Consider the following.

Behind the scenes Burt Reynolds and Kathleen Turner continually fought, plus Christopher Reeve is on record as saying how he made a fool of himself by appearing in the movie. He only signed on when he heard that his buddy Michael Caine was going to be in it only to discover that Burt Reynolds had taken the role. Reeve also acted as a referee on set while attempting to stop Reynolds and Turner from going at each other’s throats in between takes.

Considering how all that bad blood flowed continually throughout the film’s production, how the critics at the time pummeled it and how theatre purists who loved the original literally switched off, how can you resist? Rent the movie, watch it with friends and do shots each time a joke falls flat. You’ll all be out long before the final credits roll.

‘Dangerous Liaisons’ (Stephen Frears, 1988)

You’ll find the shame is like the pain, you only feel it once.

When changes were made to the screenplay version of ‘Dangerous Liaisons’, they came not as a result of any market research but by the author himself. Award winning playwright Christopher Hampton based his play which he called ‘Les Liasison Dangereuses’ from an 18th century French novel.

When given the opportunity to write the movie he did two things – instead of doing a straight adaptation of his own theatrical script he went back to the book, took what he thought were the best bits, did the same with his play, merged them together, nixed the French title and delivered ‘Dangerous Liaisons’. The costume drama was a huge success with both audiences and critics alike, and with good reason; it’s good cinema.

Glenn Close, Michelle Pfeiffer, John Malkovich and newcomer Uma Thurman were praised for performances. Interestingly, the one reservation some theatre purists had was the casting of Malkovich as the seductive rascal without a conscience, Valmont.

The play cast Alan Rickman, but at the time, despite a presence in theatre, Rickman was unknown at the movies. Many thought that while Malkovich might have looked good in tights, wigs and powdered makeup, he wasn’t quite as convincing when it came to the kind of slimy, seductive charm needed to conquer women in the way that Rickman did on stage.

In the film, Malkovich’s character seduces Michelle Pfeiffer’s. Behind the scenes, the actor was doing the same thing; he had an affair with Pfeiffer. Despite the reservation of purists, not only must it have added to the authenticity of the piece, it probably cut rehearsal time in half.

‘Shirley Valentine’ (Lewis Gilbert, 1989)

I’m not sayin’ she’s a bragger, but if you’ve been to Paradise, she’s got a season ticket.

Playwright Willy Russell’s 1986 script for Shirley Valentine was essentially a monologue, a one-woman play starring the wonderful Pauline Collins. The movie version opened everything up. Whereas in the play, Shirley talked directly to the audience and discussed everything from her life, her husband, her best friend to that trip to Greece, in the movie we get to see it all. Sometimes opening things up aren’t always as effective. Occasionally the telling is better than the showing.

However, even though the film may fall short of the play, the reason why you should see ‘Shirley Valentine’ is not only is it a perfect example of how, in this case, the play’s definitely the thing, but to enjoy Pauline Collins. Writer Russell had Collins in mind when typing.

If the film does anything it’s allowing us to watch the actress at her peak in the role tailored for her. She’s funny, charming, sensible and convinces that her middle-aged Liverpudlian housewife is deserving of a better life, and one that she will get once she goes to Greece. She couldn’t play it now, but at least the performance is captured on film for posterity.

The play continues to be performed around the world and many fine performers have played the leading lady, but it’s the film that shows you how it should be done. Whatever else she’s accomplished, Collins will always be known as the real Shirley Valentine.


Life With The Dull Bits Cut Out

When a play or a show is revised, theatre directors often redesign things. Sets are changed, costumes might look different or things are generally updated.

When a film is completed, it’s locked in time, a permanent record of a production that cannot be altered, unless the director happens to be George Lucas, then you never know what you’re going to get on a re-release. There may be an uneasy alliance between the two mediums but they need each other – one to create, the other to record. And there’s more to come. Keep reading.

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