5 Favorites Redux #23: Favorite Stage Adaptations

Welcome to 5 Favorites. Each week, I will put together a list of my 5 favorites (films, performances, whatever strikes my fancy) along with commentary on a given topic each week, usually in relation to a specific film releasing that week.

While novels have been adapted more frequently for film than stage plays, the latter has a long and storied history of big screen successes. William Shakespeare’s plays, unsurprisingly, were the first adapted with numerous in the 1900s and 1910s. However, the earliest non-Shakespearean adaptation might be 1907’s Kameliadamen. The stage play on which it was based, The Lady of the Camellias, was self-adapted by Alexandre Dumas from his own novel. After that comes 1910’s The Blue Bird, which was the first taken from a play written originally for the stage. Since then, hundreds of plays have found their way into the cinematic lexicon. As to Shakespeare, his first adaptation was King John in 1899 followed closely by Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet in 1900.

That makes adapting stage plays to the big screen a rather old concept. Musical adaptations are a bit newer considering the advent of sound, but that’s a topic for another week. With so many options available, I thought I would take a look at my favorite adaptations from stage plays. My only rule is that the play cannot be adapted from another medium, including films translated into stage plays and back again into movies. During my research, there were far too many films that fit the description to adequately sift through. Therefore, the below is a bit of an abbreviated list. There are likely other adaptations that I probably prefer over these, but this list is pretty solid otherwise.

Gaslight (1944)

Based on a 1938 play by Patrick Hamilton, George Cukor’s adaptation puts Ingrid Bergman in the lead role as the wife of a domineering man (Charles Boyer) who is attempting to drive her crazy by convincing her that the strange happenings inside the house are only in her imagination. The film’s success helped the term gaslighting enter into the modern lexicon, a term the United States has become all too familiar with in the last four years.

Bergman is stellar as a woman slowly losing her grip on reality as the film progresses. Boyer is at his menacing best while Joseph Cotten, May Whitty, and an incredibly young Angela Lansbury in her screen debut all provide strong support. The film was nominated for seven richly-deserved Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. Bergman and the film’s art direction were the only two winners. This is one of the earliest classic films I remember watching as a young man and its compelling narrative has stuck with me for decades.

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

After a successful run on Broadway, actor Marlon Brando leveraged his success into a film career starring first in Fred Zinnemann’s The Men, but breaking through with a smashing success in his second feature, A Streetcar Named Desire. Reprising the role he originated on stage as Stanley Kowalski, Brando plays a working class brute who butts heads with his sister-in-law Blanche DuBois (Vivien Leigh) in an adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ legendary play.

Leigh was already a huge success by the film’s release making her the only actor in the film to replace a Broadway original, taking over from Jessica Tandy. Kim Hunter and Karl Malden reprise their stage roles as well. Terrifically acted and gorgeously staged, Elia Kazan’s classic was one of three major achievements in its year of release (alongside An American in Paris and A Place in the Sun). While it did not take home the Oscar for Best Picture, it did take home awards for four of its twelve nominations for Actress, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, and Art Direction. Brando went home empty-handed, a failure that would be rectified three years later.

Driving Miss Daisy (1989)

As anyone who knows me knows, this was the film that got me into the Academy Awards, which ultimately led me to create this site. Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Alfred Uhry, Uhry adapted his work to the big screen with Jessica Tandy starring as Daisy Werthen, a 72-year-old wealthy Jewish woman who is forced to take on a black chauffeur, played by Morgan Freeman. Over the next 25 years, Daisy overcomes her prejudices as she comes to understand the similarities between the anti-Semitism she has faced and the struggles Hoke faces as a black man living and working in the South during the turbulent Civil Rights movement.

Filmed by Bruce Beresford, the film won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1989 with Tandy taking the Best Actress award while co-stars Freeman and Dan Aykroyd received nominations. The film’s fascinating exploration of race relations in the American South of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s gives the audience a poignant glimpse into the discrimination of the period through the eyes of two people, each of whom are struggling against oppression in their own unique, but familiar ways.

Tandy and Freeman are superb and while the film itself might feel a touch dated now, that fact does not undermine the film’s importance. It remains one of my favorite films of all-time as it was the first film to ignite my passion in cinema with its haunting exploration of American history.

Richard III (1995)

When adapting Shakespeare to the big screen, some strive for direct realism (such as the films of Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh). However, the thematic elements have often made terrific out-of-time adaptations such as this Richard Loncraine rendition released in 1995 with Ian McKellen in the title role of Richard III.

Set in an alternate timeline of England in the late 1930s, the film follows the events of the play Richard III set against a backdrop of fascism with Nazi symbolism everywhere. This fascinating approach is highlighted by McKellen’s bravura performance along with a talented cast in support that includes Annette Bening, Jim Broadbent, Robert Downey Jr., Kristin Scott Thomas, Maggie Smith, and myriad other noted British actors. To use the Third Reich as an inspiration for the self-destructive history of British monarch Richard III is fascinating and inspired with few films before or after it that could rival this haunting production.

The Birdcage (1996)

This one might be a little bit of a cheat as the film was a remake of the 1978 Franco-Italian comedy La Cage Aux Folles, which was in turn adapted from a 1973 stage play of the same name by Jean Poiret. Starring Robin Williams and Nathan Lane as a gay couple who host their son’s (Dan Futterman) fiancée’s (Calista Flockhart) conservative parents (Gene Hackman and Dianne Wiest) for dinner. A hilarious feature adaptation, its roots in a stage play are just connected enough to merit inclusion here.

Williams was at his comic best, but Lane and Hackman were delivering two of their finest comedic performances ever. Also hilarious is Hank Azaria as Williams and Lane’s flamboyant Guatemalan housekeeper delivering Oscar-caliber work. The film explores the insidiousness of conservative ideology in the late 1980s and early 1990s by demonstrating the seeming normalcy and lack of normalcy that Williams and Lane’s lifestyles exhibit. It also creates the kind of picture that can help foster understanding between different viewpoints, highlighting the importance of tolerance, acceptance, and the most fabulous set of soup bowls ever filmed.

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