Books as Plays

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time at the National Theatre, London

A couple of days a go I went to see a production of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time at the National Theatre in London. I loved this book and I was really excited to see how the company were going to handle performing it live. Which raised a question: why is it that I was excited to see a play but I worry about seeing film adaptations of books I like?

It’s an interesting question and one reason I can come up with is that I’ve seen so many bad film adaptations but plays and musicals have been more successful. I’m thinking mostly of Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse, another National Theatre production, which was an excellent working of the story using life-size puppets to play the horses that are so central to the story. War Horse has of course recently spawned a film version which I also thought was brilliant so maybe it’s not the best example. One thing that constantly confused me about the publicity surrounding the film is that it was constantly referred to as the film of the musical and the book seemed almost forgotten but that’s another issue.

Theatre vs film. Pictures: Kirk McKoy/Los Angeles Times and Andrew Cooper, SMPSP

Perhaps another reason is that presenting a story on stage presents a different set of challenges to filming a book. All the action has to be live and a lot of the tricks used in films just won’t work on the stage. For example a voice-over in a film is fine but try the same thing in the theatre and you’ll find your audience looking round for the speaker.

Having said that there are a lot of things you can do in the theatre which enliven a performance. Curious was performed in  theatre which has seats right around the small stage meaning that the set could only be very minimal to avoid obscuring the view. In fact there was no set used at all, clever use of lighting and physical performance allowed for the representation of household objects, trains and a whole street of houses without any need for large physical items. this is exactly the sot of performance which would not work on film but which draws you into a play and captures your imagination.

I think another important aspect is that stage actors tend to be less well-known than screen actors. So often people respond badly to casting choices for a film because that person isn’t who you picture playing a role. A lot of this is based on

Sorry Thandie.

physical characteristics which can be just as wrong in a theatre setting but a large part of it is also because having seen an actor in one role it is then hard to change our conceptions of who that person is. For example I’m afraid I have an abiding dislike of Thandie Newton for no reason other than I hated her character in ER. Since theatre actors are less likely to be as famous it is easier to accept them as just the character they are playing at the time.

Whatever the reason, I am enduringly sceptical of book to film adaptations whereas going to the theatre fills me with nothing but excitement in anticipation of seeing my favourite characters brought to life. Perhaps there’s another reason and that’s just that I love the theatre so much that I’m entirely biased and always will be. I think I can live with that.

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