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Critic’s Notebook: When going from stage to screen, things change in between

The art of adaptation, as the rash of movies derived from plays this season attests, is never easy. The best artistic looters of all time — Shakespeare, the Greek tragedians — recognized that independent vision is everything. Borrowing didn’t inhibit them in least. Their goal, of course, wasn’t to duplicate but to create something autonomous. Heck, Shakespeare wasn’t beyond taking a freehand with history itself.

Contemporary purloiners tend to be less independent. They struggle under a self-imposed obligation of faithfulness. The danger is that in moving from one medium to another, the adapter neither preserves what’s distinctive about the original nor discovers anything fresh in a new form.

Film directors who fall too much in love with a play risk getting caught in such a limbo, yet passion is a necessary prerequisite for anyone seeking to transform a work from stage to the screen. Striking the right balance between freedom and fidelity can be elusive. There are many ways to get it right, as Elia Kazan’s “A Streetcar Named Desire,” Orson Welles’ “Chimes at Midnight,” Bob Fosse’s “Cabaret” and Mike Figgis’ underrated “Miss Julie” reveal with their varying degrees of latitude from their source material. And just as many ways to get it wrong, as exemplified in recent years by “Doubt,” “The History Boys” and the musical “Nine,” all of which fell woefully short of the old theatrical magic.

How did some of the more notable stage-to-screen conversions fare this fall? Here’s a view from a theater critic who likes nothing better than spending his off-nights in darkened movie houses.

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“The Ides of March,” based on Beau Willimon’s play “Farragut North,” which had a run at the Geffen Playhouse in 2009 in a production starring Chris Pine and Chris Noth, is directed by George Clooney, who collaborated on the screenplay with Willimon and Grant Heslov. This insider drama about political operatives waging war on the campaign trail is given a darkly elegant makeover that’s snappily paced and, with one crucial exception, convincingly acted. (Ryan Gosling takes on the role assayed by Pine of the boy-genius press secretary, and though Gosling is one of the finest film actors working today, his emotionally heavy reticence isn’t an especially good fit for a quick-draw spinmeister.)

Clooney wisely recognized that the triggering action of Willimon’s play involving a clandestine meeting wasn’t large enough for a big-screen narrative. (Truth be told, the trust-breaking event wasn’t substantial enough for the stage either, but in the theater, the piece found momentum through its Machiavellian banter.) The solution to a problematic plot, however, isn’t more plot. Clooney and his fellow writers keep adding to the store of incidents in an attempt to magnify Gosling’s character’s interior journey when they should have reworked the story from scratch. The result is a polished piece of filmmaking that’s marred by the unshapliness of its morality tale.

“A Dangerous Method,” David Cronenberg’s film based on Christopher Hampton’s play “The Talking Cure,” produced at the Mark Taper Forum in 2004, as well as on John Kerr’s book “A Most Dangerous Method,” has provocative intellectual subject matter. A personal look at the founders of psychoanalysis, Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud, the movie focuses on an intimate relationship Jung had with Sabina Spielrein, a troubled yet highly seductive patient who became a psychoanalyst herself after her recovery, influencing the work of Freud and Jung and intensifying the rivalry between them.

This is a highly literate drama (Hampton wrote the screenplay) with a distinguished cast that includes Michael Fassbender as Jung, Viggo Mortensen as Freud and Keira Knightley as Spielrein. Cronenberg, not known for making decorous films for tea-sipping academics, plunges us immediately into the grotesqueries of Spielrein’s hysteria. Unfortunately, this sort of mental distress is difficult to capture on camera. Spielrein’s symptoms are flamboyantly theatrical, yet Knightley’s portrayal of them seems like a calculated performance. She grunts and stammers and flails in a manner that doesn’t so much invoke someone in the throes of mental illness as an actor laying it out there for award season.

Onstage, Knightley’s work probably wouldn’t seem as contrived as it does under the lie-detecting scrutiny of the close-up. Naturalism and hyper-theatricalism aren’t necessarily incompatible, as Vincent Cassel’s adroit portrayal of Otto Gross, the drug-addicted psychiatrist at odds with both Freud and Young, reveals. Nor are cerebral themes about psychological and sociological conflicts incongruous with the moviegoing experience. The stage may be more accommodating, but what detracts from Cronenberg’s accomplishment isn’t his ambitious content — it’s his occasionally misguided boldness, which lessens the effect of what is nonetheless an absorbingly intelligent film.

“Coriolanus,” few people’s favorite Shakespeare tragedy, is directed by Ralph Fiennes, who stars in the title role of the heralded Roman warrior unable to modify his martial character for the slicker demands of statesmanship. With a screenplay by John Logan, the adaptation smoothly recontextualizes the play by setting it in a war-torn urban setting with 21st century technology and omnipresent media. This is as much an action film as an auteur treatment of a coolly regarded classic. Acted with bloody commitment by Fiennes and featuring a stellar supporting cast that includes Vanessa Redgrave, Jessica Chastain, Gerard Butler and Brian Cox, the work falls short of the sum of its impressive parts.

Not that it’s not often thrillingly pulled off. But a question remains — what exactly is the point of the exercise? Shakespeare’s play is a political meditation on the tension between civil and military orders, centered on a character — a killing machine, really — who is courageous yet deeply flawed and difficult to identify with. The play can be heavygoing in the theater, but it is only through the full weight of its precisely articulated debate that its meanings are conveyed. Fiennes, whose striking performance is admirable if not revelatory, has found ways to modernize the tempo. He has also made connections between the anarchic strife of Shakespeare’s drama and that of our own age. But all the scenic shortcuts and rhetorical truncations — the clever assignment of whole plot points to news ticker crawl — leave us with a slimmed-down version of a tragedy that will have purists wanting more and action film buffs wanting still less.

“Carnage,” Roman Polanski’s take on Yasmina Reza’s international hit comedy “God of Carnage,” is the least successful of this cavalcade of film adaptations. The play, which enjoyed a popular run at the Ahmanson Theatre with its original Broadway cast last year, presents an unusual challenge in that its premise (involving two privileged sets of parents negotiating the aftermath of a spat that occurred between their sons at a neighborhood park), is irredeemably stagy. The screenplay, a collaboration between Reza and Polanski, has a devil of a time keeping all four parties trapped in the stylish Brooklyn apartment in which politeness quickly gives way to belligerence in a roller-coaster ride that in the theater was brutally funny but here comes off as just as a quarrelsome waste of time.

An accomplished cast has been assembled — Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly, Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz — but the actors are led astray. Striving for realism, Polanski inadvertently throws into relief all that is contrived about the situation. The characters played by Winslet and Waltz keep trying to slip out of the apartment but are constantly being forced back inside by a script that irrationally insists that’s where all the action will take place. Mike Nichols faced a similar quandary in his film of Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” But in Albee’s drama the focus is on the battle between Martha and George. That conflict is character-based rather than situational (and quasi-philosophical) — and doesn’t feel half as claustrophobic as a result.

Polanski gets the tone all wrong. He siphons the laughs out of what is essentially a tragicomic sketch. He rams his camera too close to his mugging actors (Foster’s face is like an Easy Reader of strained emotions) and rubs the audience’s noses in the spew of vomit that in the theater was a riotous signal that farcical hell has broken loose but here becomes a symptom of Polanski’s directorial self-importance, his compulsive need to puncture bourgeois self-regard. The only thing that works about “Carnage” is the invented scenes involving the boys set against a picturesque New York background — anything to get us out of that apartment!

The announcement that Steven Spielberg was turning “War Horse” into a movie blockbuster was something of a head-scratcher. How would he manage to translate a work that was notably in the theater chiefly for its majestic puppetry? The stage drama, adapted by Nick Stafford from a novel by Michael Morpurgo, won the 2011 Tony for best play, but the production’s artistry was concentrated in the imaginative design and in particular the way the animals were animated through objects. Would Spielberg turn this into a bloody “National Velvet” crying jag by employing actual animals?

This is an epic intended for a wide audience, and so anthropomorphic schmaltz is part of the deal. But Spielberg, working with a screenplay by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis, manages to convey in purely cinematic terms not just the insane nightmare of World War I but the seemingly limitless capacity of human destructiveness. The vulnerability of Joey, the brave steed at the center of our keyed-up sympathy, is powerfully exploited. Not everyone will be able to keep their eyes open as the poor horse tries to survive the hell he’s been thrust into. But the movie communicates with as much force as the stage version the hideous waste of war.

“War Horse” is overcooked, but as popular entertainment it packs an almost overwhelming punch. One could quarrel with the sentimental overkill, but Spielberg understands that the measure of any artistic work, be it an adaptation or a completely new invention, is how well it holds its own ground. Art lives insistently in the moment. If one isn’t moved or challenged or made to think, no reference to what came before will make it seem otherwise.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com


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