20 Greatest Stage To Screen Adaptations


The parallels between theatre and cinema are ostensible and deceptive; and the nature of those parallels are such as to make the adaptation of a stage play into a film far more challenging  than the adaptation of a novel.   Sergei Eisenstein wrote in his essay, “Dickens, Griffith, and the Film Today,” that novels contain literary equivalents to fades, dissolves, close-ups, and techniques of composition and editing.  But the difficulty in adapting a play to film lies in the irreconcilable attributes of the concepts and physical temperaments that inform each, which can simultaneously appear alike.   Some academics believe stage plays easily and obviously lend themselves to big screen adaptations because both have a traditional resemblance of narrative structures, use actors to transmit dramatic actions, and use spoken dialogue.  But the majority of stage to screen adaptations have been disappointing due to perceptual differences that exist between the two forms.   The effusion of drama that sweeps across the stage may seem too claustrophobic and spatially limited on film.    The nuances of actors that seemed so engaging on stage may appear over-the-top on screen.   The dialogue that may have seemed multi-layered and rich with subtext as spoken by a stage actor can easily morph into endless chatter and exposition tripping from the tongues of film actors.

Great filmmakers who have accomplished acclaimed stage to screen adaptations understand the internal crisis of the stage play and the screenplay are antithesis because of the differences between stage continuity and screen continuity.  A story told on the stage is traditionally broken up by intermissions for practical reasons, like costume changes and stage set-ups.  Though the concept of act breaks is a convention sanctified by centuries of use, the narrative segmentation and pause disrupts the flow of the story, the opposite of the continuum of film.  An advantage that film has over theatre is that film can convey exposition through imagery, rather than dialogue.  Great filmmakers take these notions and turn an original work into something new without losing the soul and integrity of what it was formerly.  For instance, take Joseph Losey’s 1973 cinematic adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s play A DOLL’S HOUSE. 

Losey and screenwriter David Mercer reshapes the play’s narrative time without losing its dramatic force.   He expands the play’s universe by moving beyond the walls of the Helmer house, while maintaining the residence as the center of the drama.  Losey stretches the time frame of the play from three days to nine years, and has eight scenes set before the opening of Ibsen’s story.  Using the strength of film, and understanding its weaknesses, Losey transforms Ibsen’s play into a movie without betraying the essence of the source material.    These are the qualities of a great stage to screen adaptation. 

*Please note that I did not include musicals on this list.  Musicals deserve a separate discussion.



20.  “SECRET HONOR” (1984)  --  Play and screenplay by Donald Freed & Arnold M. Stone.  Directed by Robert Altman.

A speculative one-man drama where the character of President Richard Nixon is left alone to his own reflections, a bottle, and a loaded gun.  Though a work of fiction, SECRET HONOR is aided by a gut-wrenching performance by Phillip Baker Hall as he digs deeper into the truth of Nixon than any documentary can.  Filmed while director Altman was teaching at the University of Michigan, resulting in the crew consisting mainly of film students. 


19.  “THE WINSLOW BOY” (1999) – Play by Terence Ratigan.  Screenplay and directed by David Mamet.

Set in early 20th Century England, Arthur Winslow finds out his 14-year-old son has been expelled from The Royal Academy for stealing five shillings.  The son denies the charges as a false accusation.  What follows is a suspenseful and witty investigation from the Father as he defends his son’s name and honor.  David Mamet takes Ratigan’s play and reworks it to fit his modern cinematic and theatrical rhythms without losing the integrity of the original words.   Nothing is wasted, as Mamet’s economic directing leads every scene organically into the next, adding up to a satisfying and clever conclusion.  Not only do both movies THE WINSLOW BOY and AN IDEAL HUSBAND, feature Jeremy Northam as a character named "Sir Robert", his performances in those movies also won him the same two awards in 1999, the Evening Standard British Film Award's "Best Actor" & ALFS Award's "British Actor of the Year".


18.  “FALSTAFF (CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT)” (1965) – plays by William Shakespeare.  Screenplay and directed by Orson Welles.

Sir John Falstaff is the hero in this compilation of extracts from Shakespeare's 'Henry IV' and other plays, made into a connected story of Falstaff's career as young Prince Hal's drinking companion.   FALSTAFF is Orson Welles’  personal favorite of all his films but at the time of its release, critic Pauline Kael wrote, “The film came and went so fast there was hardly time to tell people about it, but it should be back (it should be around forever) and it should be seen.”  


17.  “CLOSER” (2004) – Play and screenplay by Patrick Marber.  Directed by Mike Nichols.

A scathing character study of two London couples as they engage in an ultimate game of partner swapping.  Clive Owen played the character of Dan in the original stage production, the role played by Jude Law in the film.  Marber’s language is achingly modern and cuts into the skin of his characters, leaving them wounded and vulnerable to the morbid curiosity and fascination of the viewer.   Mike Nichol’s tight and disciplined direction only emphasizes their wounds. 



16.  “THE RULING CLASS” (1972) – Play and screenplay by Peter Barnes.  Directed by Peter Medak.

A member of the House of Lords dies, leaving his estate to his son.  His son is insane: he thinks he is Jesus Christ. The other somewhat-more respectable members of their family plot to steal the estate from him.  Petere Barnes’ play was notorious for being ground-breaking and anti-naturalistic, which was the usual tone of English theatre of the time.  Nigel Green committed suicide soon after the film’s production.  On the DVD commentary, Peter O’Toole claims Green was extremely depressed throughout filming.  O’Toole agreed to work on THE RULING CLASS for free in exchange for a bigger paycheck for his role in MAN OF LA MANCHA released by the same studio later that year. 



15.  “A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS” (1966) – Play and screenplay by Robert Bolt.  Directed by Fred Zinnemann.

Based on the true story of Saint Sir Thomas More, the 16th-century Chancellor of England, who refuses to endorse King Henry VIII's wish to divorce his aging wife Catherine of Aragon.  The title reflects 20th century agnostic playwright Robert Bolt’s portrayal of More as the ultimate man of conscience and principle.  As one who remains true to himself and his beliefs under all circumstances and at all times, despite external pressure or influence, More represents "a man for all seasons".   According to Welles, he directed his own scenes.


14.  “ARSENIC AND OLD LACE" (1944) – Play by Joseph Kesselring.  Screenplay by Julius J. Epstein & Phillip G. Epstein.  Directed by Frank Capra.

Cary Grant plays Mortimer Bruster, a newspaperman known for his diatribes against marriage, takes a quick trip home to tell his two maiden aunts he just got married.  While trying to break the news, he finds out his aunts' dark hobby is killing lonely old men and burying them in the cellar.  This classic Frank Capra dark comedy sat on the Warner Brothers’ shelf for years.  It was made in 1941 but wasn’t released until 1944, because by contract, it wasn’t allowed to open until the Broadway production closed.   Grant donated his entire salary to the U.S. War Relief Fund.  Joseph Kesselring originally conceived the play as a heavy drama, but a friend, reading the half-finished play, convinced him it would be much more effective as a comedy.


13.  “ANGELS IN AMERICA” (2003) – Play and teleplays by Tony Kushner.  Directed by Mike Nichols.

Tony Kushner’s award-winning seven hour play in two parts is an epic phantasmagoria look at the year 1985 and the social and political implications of the AIDS crisis.  Full of unexpected dramatic twists and turns, ANGELS IN AMERICA is rare theatre that holds up a snapshot of America.  Both Robert Altman and Neil Labute had consider directing this HBO mini-series before Mike Nichols came onboard.  


12.  “EQUUS” (1977) – Play and screenplay by Peter Shaffer.  Directed by Sidney Lumet.

Peter Shaffer’s disturbing play is about a psychiatrist (played brilliantly by Richard Burton) who investigates the strange incident of a seventeen year old boy who savagely blinded six horses with a metal spike.   Shaffer shaped his play around a true event he had heard about.  The producers initially didn’t want Burton for the lead role due to his growing reputation as an alcoholic.



11.  “ROSENCRANTZ  & GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD” (1990) – Play, screenplay, and directed by Tom Stoppard.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are two minor characters from HAMLET.  Tom Stoppard cleverly builds a journey around the two men who have no control of their own destiny.   Like all of Stoppards play, ROSENCRANTZ & GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD is bursting with wit and word-play, weaving new dimensions of inversion and self-reference.   Watch in awe of the verbal acrobatics of the game of questions.


10.  “VANYA ON 42nd STREET” (1994) – Play by Anton Chekhov, play translation by David Mamet, screenplay by Andre Gregory.  Directed by Louis Malle.

Louis Malle’s last film before he passed away.   Shot on an undecorated stage with the cast in their street clothes, VANYA ON 42ND STREET pays complete homage to Chekov’s work by bringing a bare-bones productions that services itself completely to the play UNCLE VANYA.   What at first seems like a casual first rehearsal slowly and quietly turns into a deep examination of the human condition.  Chekov’s work is notorious for their difficult shift in moods and context, but Malle handles each scene masterfully. 


9.  “DEATH OF A SALESMAN” (1985) – Play by Arthur Miller.  Directed by Volker Schlondorff.

This 1985 TV movie of Arthur Miller’s timeless American tragedy showcases one of Dustin Hoffman’s most moving and devastating performances.  It was as if Miller himself had written the role specifically for Hoffman’s strengths as an actor.  Hoffman went on to say this was his favorite acting experience.  The original Broadway production of DEATH OF A SALESMAN opened at the Morosco Theater on February 10, 1949, ran for 742 performances and won the 1949 Tony Award (New York City) for the Best Play.  It also won the Pulitzer Prize in Drama the same year.


8.  “HAMLET” (1948) – Play by William Shakespeare.  Directed by Laurence Olivier.

Olivier gives one of his finest performances as Hamlet.  Many consider this the definitive version of Shakespeare’s beloved play.  With this film, Olivier is the first person to ever direct themselves to a Best Actor Oscar.  Roberto Benigni is the only other person to achieve this with LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL.   This HAMLET is the first English sound film of the play and also the first non-American film to win Best Picture.


7.  “THE PHILADEPHIA STORY” (1940) – Play by Phillip Barry, screenplay by Donald Ogden Stewart.  Directed George Cukor. 

Divorced socialite Tracy Lord is preparing for her second marriage, but things get complicated by the simultaneous arrival of her ex-husband and an attractive journalist.  Phillip Barry wrote the play specifically for Katherine Hepburn, who ended up backing the play for a percentage of the profits.  The play was a huge success on Broadway, and was Hepburn’s first triumph after a string of box office disappointments. 


6.  “GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS” (1992) – Play and screenplay by David Mamet.  Directed by James Foley.

David Mamet’s Pulitzer Prize winning play is a blistering look at corporate America and the way we lose our humanity and sense of decency in the daily grind.   Mamet based the play on his experiences working in a real estate office, and the film has been used by companies as a guide on how to sell and not to sell.   The famous scene with Alec Baldwin (see above) was not in the original play and Mamet wrote it specifically for the screenplay.


5.  “INHERIT THE WIND” (1960) – Play by Jerome Lawrence & Robert E. Lee.  Screenplay by Nedrick Young & Harold Jacob Smith.  Directed by Stanley Kramer.

Based on a real-life case in 1925, two lawyers argue the case for and against a science teacher accused of the crime of teaching evolution.   The play is a parable that fictionalizes the 1925 Scopes Trial as a entry point into discussing the McCarthy trials.  The title of the play comes from the King James Bible, Proverbs 11:29, “He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind.” 


4.  “A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE” (1951) – Play Tennessee Williams.  Screenplay by Tennessee Williams & Oscar Saul.  Directed by Eliza Kazan.

Marlon Brando’s iconic role as Stanley Kowalski is the highlight of this classic film.  Brando is the total incarnation of brutal realism and sexual danger as his Kowalski  engages in a culture clash with Southern belle Blanche Dubois.  Shot in just 36 days, Kazan’s production was ground-breaking in concept:  as the film progresses, the set of the Kowalski apartment actually gets smaller to heighten the suggestion of Blanche's increasing claustrophobia.  Shockingly, Brando has said he privately detested his character. 


3.  “AMADEUS” (1984) – Play and screenplay by Peter Shaffer.  Directed by Milos Forman. 

One of the greatest plays and movies about genius and the creative process, AMADEUS tells the story of Antonio Salieri who is jealous that God seemingly favors Mozart with divine inspiration.   While the play focuses more of Salieri, Shaffer reworked the screenplay with director Milos Forman to explore both composers.   When the stage production of AMADEUS came to Los Angeles in 1983, Mark Hamill was cast as Mozart.


2.  “WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF” (1966) – Play by Edward Albee.  Screenplay by Ernest Lehman.  Directed by Mike Nichols.

One literate and profane night becomes a harrowing descent into two tortured souls, a middle-aged New England professor and his magpie wife who decide to entertain another younger couple.  Highly controversial for its treatment of adult themes and language, the movie was the first to use the word "screw", “bugger” and the phrase "hump the hostess" on screen.  Elizabeth Taylor gained nearly 30 pounds for the role.   According to a 2005 interview with Edward Albee, producer Ernest Lehman hired himself to write the screenplay for $250,000. Albee also claims that when Mike Nichols and stars Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor read the script, they hated it so much that, unknown to Lehman, they changed all of the dialogue back to Albee's play save two lines.  Haskell Wexler’s stark black-and-white photography underlines the themes of the story and mood of the characters. 


1.  “THRONE OF BLOOD” (1957) – Play by William Shakespeare.  Screenplay by Akira Kurasowa, Hideo Oguni, Ryuzo Kikushima, Shinobu Hashimoto.  Directed by Akira Kurasowa.   

Akira Kurasowa’s samurai version of Shakespeare’s MACBETH is considered by many critics and filmmakers as the definitive version of the play.  An impressive feat considering the rich cadence of Shakespeare’s English is entirely missing, the setting shifted to medieval Japan, and the action of the play greatly simplified with much of the play’s conflicts internalized by making the external world an objectification of the main character’s mind.  In Kurosawa's own words, "It was a very hard film to make. We decided that the main castle set had to be built on the slope of Mount Fuji, not because I wanted to show this mountain but because it has precisely the stunted landscape that I wanted. And it is usually foggy. I had decided that I wanted lots of fog for this film... Making the set was very difficult because we didn't have enough people and the location was so far from Tokyo. Fortunately, there was a U.S. Marine Corps base nearby and they helped a great deal; also a whole MP battalion helped us out. We all worked very hard indeed, clearing the ground, building the set. Our labor on this steep fog-bound slope, I remember, absolutely exhausted us; we almost got sick."  THRONE OF BLOOD is a masterpiece of cultural transmission and universal dramatic expansion.  Kurosawa reduces the role of language and creates a striking series of tropes, which lends to heighten our understanding and alter our perceptions of the world in which we live.

Mike Le is a writer/producer living in Los Angeles.  He is also the creator of the Hollywood webcomic DON'T FORGET TO VALIDATE YOUR PARKING

You can follow Mike Le on Twitter:  @DFTVYP


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