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Good Theatre Adaptation Movies (1995-00): Clothes Maketh The Man

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David Appleford itcherThere’s a fundamental difference between the taste of the average theatregoer and the average moviegoer, and it’s one you might never have considered. There’ll always be the exception, but in general terms, theatregoers enjoy period costume while research shows that the average moviegoer prefers his or her films in modern dress, and preferably taking place in America. ~ David Appleford

Adding to the Spectacle

In the theatre, a period costume production of any genre adds to the spectacle. If a theatregoer is so connected to what’s before them, watching characters in authentic looking period dresses, suits or uniforms is like witnessing a moment of history; audiences overcome the obvious artificiality of it all and find themselves temporarily lost in the moment. Not so with a fan of film. Unless it’s a Second World War movie, forget it; and even war films can be a tough sell.

You’ll always find an exception but broadly speaking if there are two things a modern movie audience has trouble dealing with it’s old fashioned language and old fashion costumes. They tend to go for the here and now, preferably with a few shiny cars, some gun play, someone slapping someone else around, and an economy of dialog. That’s why the years ’95 to 2000 are such an interesting time when checking films adapted from theatre. Most are period pieces in period costume.

The following five films adapted from the theatre are not only good, they all take place in the past and in costume. Not all were big at the box-office but if a movie buff wants to play catchup with movies they should have seen but didn’t, consider these.


Historical Theatre Movie Recommendations

‘The Winslow Boy’ (David Mamet, 1999)

Easy to do justice. Very hard to do right.

Writer Terence Rattigan’s ‘The Winslow Boy’ first appeared on stage in 1946. There was a film that followed in 1948 and it’s a good one, but there’s an edge to the 1999 production that grips you and it has everything to do with the cast, even if non are A-listers, plus it was adapted and directed by David Mamet.

The story of a pre-First World War London family defending the honour of its thirteen year-old son falsely accused of a petty crime was one that playwright Mamet wanted to direct on stage, but he couldn’t find interested backers. So he turned from the theatre to film, adapted the original script into a screenplay and found producers to support him.

To modern audiences, the crime of stealing a postal order, the old fashioned way of sending money through the mail, may not seem that big of a deal, but for the upper classes at the turn of the century, an accusation of that nature would have ruined the family. They would be ignored by friends and peers alike.

If you’ve never seen the Mamet production or you’ve never heard of the play, this is the definition of a must-see. It’s more theatre than film but it’s riveting.

‘The Crucible’ (Nicholas Hytner, 1996)

I have given you my soul; leave me my name!

Everyone knows ‘The Crucible.’ Despite all the shouting, it’s the play most school children fell asleep through during a matinee when their teacher forced them to see a local production. You won’t fall asleep during the film.

Set in 1692 in Salem, Massachusetts, ‘The Crucible’ is playwright Arthur Miller’s take on the Hollywood witch hunt of the early fifties when the industry was accused of harboring communists. Fearing a blacklist and eventual unemployment, while under oath, many famous Hollywood names of the time accused other Hollywood names. They pointed accusatory fingers. Hysteria followed. Many innocent actors and directors found themselves guilty by mere suspicion.

Miller took that theme and equated it with the seventeenth century witch hunt of Salem where an innocent woman is accused of working with the devil by a young girl who points an accusatory finger. Hysteria follows. For the film, Miller adapted his own play and was even nominated for an Oscar.

Starring big marquee-value names such as Daniel Day-Lewis, Joan Allen and Winona Ryder, ‘The Crucible’ is as fine an adaptation of a theatre production as you would want.

‘Evita’ (Alan Parker, 1996)

Sometimes it’s very difficult to keep momentum when it’s you that you are following.

You’d think that a musical as famous as ‘Evita’ would be a sure thing when adapted to the big screen. A couple of the songs were genuine Top 40 hits, it starred Madonna and was directed by a man who knows a thing or two about directing movie musicals and making them look really good on a widescreen, Alan Parker. Yet reviews were mixed and even though the film has finally turned a good profit, initially audiences went only in small packs.

The film altered some of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s score and even improved on some of the arrangements, but generally the film kept to what audiences had seen on stage while making it come alive with vivid images, good voices and the music left mostly intact.

It’s difficult to know why theatergoers were generally disappointed while moviegoers were generally okay with it. Maybe it was because Antonio Banderas as Che looked nothing like the Che Guevara of the theatre piece, or that Madonna could never live up to several terrific Evita’s of the stage.

In truth, Banderas was surprisingly good – give that man a recording contract – and while Madonna would never have been the personal choice of many, she doesn’t get in the way. She may sing without the theatrical passion of, say, Elaine Page – Tim Rice’s first choice – but Madonna campaigned so hard to get the role that eventually persistence paid off, not to mention that globally speaking, the name Madonna was the most famous of all names considered.

Turn up the speakers and watch it in hi-def; it looks and sounds outstanding.

‘An Ideal Husband’ (Oliver Parker, 1999)

To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance.

Oscar Wilde is one of those names modern moviegoers have kind of heard of but they’re not sure why. Theatregoers consider him one of the greats, and he was. His writing was extraordinarily witty and that’s how you can sum up this film version of his play, extraordinarily witty.

Safely boasting a great cast, including Cate Blancett, Minnie Driver, Julianne Moore and Rupert Everett, ‘An Ideal Husband’ is a beautiful looking period piece of nineteenth century manners revolving around honor, blackmail and past misdeeds. And if that doesn’t excite you, consider this for some added flavor while watching the film.

At a time when being homosexual was a crime, Oscar Wilde was arrested during a run of his stage production under the legal banner of gross indecency. Amazingly, all the actors in his play at the trial actually testified not in his defense but against him, which didn’t help. His name was removed from poster credits, and even though the comedy was a theatrical hit, it was a hit on its own terms, not because of the name of the once celebrated man who wrote it.

If you look at the poster for the 1999 film, you won’t see Oscar Wilde’s name above or below the title. It’s not that present day audiences would care if the writer was gay or not, it’s that for moviegoers the name of Oscar Wilde is not exactly a box-office draw in the way it is at the theatre. But rent it, all the same. If gross out, f-bomb laden comedies of today just seem a lazy way to get the laughs, watch how it should be done.

‘Hamlet’ (Kenneth Branagh, 1996)

…and by a sleep to say…

I know what you’re thinking. Wait a minute, you’re saying, wasn’t ‘Hamlet’ on an earlier list? Well, yes it was, but that was a different film and there’s an important reason why the 1996 version needs to be here; several, actually.

Where the Mel Gibson version cut the text in half, this later version has everything in there, all four hours of it. But it had other things that are pure cinema. It was shot in widescreen 70mm which makes everything look spectacularly eye-catching in the way those giant epics of the past looked. Plus, the cast had everyone. Would you believe Robin Williams, Jack Lemmon, Billy Crystal, Judi Dench, and Charleton Heston for starters? Then there’s theatrical greats like John Gielgud and Derek Jacobi, plus – and this is where it gets a little surreal – British audiences should brace themselves for this one: Ken Dodd. I’m not kidding.

Director Kenneth Branagh cast himself as Hamlet and there is so much to admire it’s hard to know where to begin. In addition to making everything look and sound so cinematically exciting, Branagh did something interesting with the costumes. It remains a period costume piece but that period actually looks modern compared to the seventeenth century setting of the original.

Knowing how moviegoers prefer their films with a present day look, Branagh updated the piece to the nineteenth century. Somehow, with all of those the strapping uniforms, kinky leather boots and sexy lacey shirts, characters in costume appeared surprisingly modern even if the language remained Elizabethan. You have to hand it Branagh; he really knows what he’s doing.

The epic film earned four Oscar nominations. One of them was for Alexandra Byrne’s costume design. As long as four hours doesn’t seem overly daunting, you have to see this and on the biggest monitor you can find. It’s stunning cinema.


Turn Off Your Phones

When it comes to movies adapted from the stage, the trend of the following next ten years had movie makers turning to what was once the leading genre of movie entertainment that somehow turned to box-office poison; the musical.  

Maybe the moderate success of ‘Evita’ changed minds, but for whatever reason, musicals adapted from the stage started to make a presence in the following decade. Keep it here to find out how.

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