Transforming plays for the screen involves more than just ‘opening up’ the scenes

Illustration suggests the written word and film reels
This season, a handful of movies based on successful stage works are vying for awards attention.
(Mari Fouz / For The Times)

Adapting books, plays and other forms of intellectual property for the screen has always brought its unique set of challenges, most especially how to make the film version as satisfying as the often popular, lauded, sometimes even iconic material it’s based on.

This season, a handful of movies based on successful stage works are vying for awards attention, with three — “The Boys in the Band,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and “The Father” — having the distinction of being scripted in part or in whole by someone other than the original playwright, unlike say, “One Night in Miami,” which was adapted by its original playwright, Kemp Powers.

So where do you begin when you’re brought in on such a project as either a collaborator or the lone writer? And how do you stay true to — yet also attempt to enhance — respected, high-profile work?


For Ned Martel, who shares script credit on the feature remake of the gay ensemble drama “The Boys in the Band” with Mart Crowley (who died last March), author of the groundbreaking 1968 off-Broadway play and its 1970 film version, it began when Martel was assigned by producer Ryan Murphy to work for him on the play’s 2018 Broadway revival.

From left,  Jim Parsons as Michael, Brian Hutchison as Alan and Tuc Watkins as Hank in a scene from "The Boys in the Band."
From left, Jim Parsons as Michael, Brian Hutchison as Alan and Tuc Watkins as Hank in a scene from “The Boys in the Band.”
(Scott Everett White / Netflix)

“I was mainly there to learn what Joe [Mantello, the show’s director] was getting out of these actors,” said Martel, phoning in from the Brooklyn set of “Halston,” the Netflix series he’s coexecutive producing. “And because I saw it in process, I could kind of quickly understand what the script would need … when a feature film took it out of that stage.”

Martel ultimately worked off both Crowley’s script for the original film and the pared-down new Broadway version. (Crowley and Mantello had cut the two-act play down to one intermission-free act.) In addition to many enlightening talks with Crowley, Martel also studied the writer’s papers (archived in the UCLA Library), including the original legal pads on which Crowley first wrote the play “in a kind of fugue state” over six days.

Although Martel added several opened-up scenes that took place before and after the story’s turbulent birthday party, as well as some flashbacks, he remained committed to honoring Crowley’s original text and intentions. “I did find myself proscribed out of respect that this man was sharing his friends with us, his life with us, his times with us,” said Martel. “His characters weren’t figments of his imagination, they were people he knew. I think that lends a kind of gravity that the audience should feel.”

Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s close relationship with late, great playwright August Wilson also had a major impact on his approach to adapting the Tony winner’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” “August wasn’t here, and I had to be his champion,” Santiago-Hudson said in a call from his Manhattan home. “I was trying to protect August as well as trying to satisfy Denzel [Washington, one of the film’s producers], Netflix, [director] George C. Wolfe and the August Wilson estate. And I’m trying to protect myself as well, because … I need to be pleased about the work that I’ve done and that I’ve honored an iconic figure — and a friend.”


Viola Davis is the legendary blues singer opposite Colman Domingo and Glynn Turman in this strong Netflix adaptation of August Wilson’s play.

Nov. 20, 2020

It was Santiago-Hudson’s 20-year association with Wilson as a writer, director and actor that paved the way for Washington, attached to produce films of each of Wilson’s 10 American Century Cycle plays (“Fences” was the first to be shot), to reach out to him. “When Denzel asked me would I be interested in writing it, I almost did a backflip,” Santiago-Hudson happily recalled.

The play, set during a volatile 1927 recording session involving famed, take-no-prisoners blues diva Gertrude “Ma” Rainey and her spirited bandmates, ran about 2½ hours on stage. The movie, in which Rainey (Viola Davis) has a more prominent role, comes in at a swift 94 minutes.

“An hour is missing from the actual words, but it’s not missing from the story,” said Santiago-Hudson, who has acted in Broadway productions of such Wilson plays as “Seven Guitars” and “Gem of the Ocean.”

“That was my challenge,” he continued. “If you’re going to take some words out, you cannot take anything that’s going to hinder the story. So how do I actually strengthen the story with the opportunity to have visuals for narrative as well?”

Olivia Colman and Anthony Hopkins in a scene from "The Father."
Olivia Colman and Anthony Hopkins in a scene from “The Father.”

Like Santiago-Hudson, Oscar winner Christopher Hampton (“Atonement”) has enjoyed a long relationship with the playwright whose work he was adapting. The difference: He wrote the screenplay for “The Father,” the story of an aging patriarch grappling with dementia, together with its creator — and the film’s director — award-winning French playwright Florian Zeller.

The trust they had established over many past collaborations made for an easy and equitable partnership here. “First of all, we had a sort of strategic discussion about what kind of adaptation it was going to be, how radical or how close to the play and all of those areas,” Hampton said during a call from London.

“I didn’t want to film the play.… That’s not very challenging,” Zeller said by phone from his Paris home. “His [Hampton’s] role was to make sure I was going as far as needed from the play to something very cinematic.”

Hampton explained their process: “Florian wrote a script in French, and I then translated it and rewrote it in English. He then did another draft in French. And I did a fourth draft in English, at which point we got together in Paris and sort of thrashed out the final draft.”

They both agreed that certain practical adjustments to the source material would be needed. “In the play, the disorientation of the main character is conveyed by bits of the set gradually disappearing,” Hampton said. “We needed to find a sort of cinematic equivalent to that, and what we came up with was to have the same space, the same apartment gradually being redecorated as the days went by.”

Zeller added, “I wanted the set to be like a labyrinth … as we go deeper and deeper into the main character’s soul.”