From Stage to Screen

It might be no more than yet another sign of the slow death rattle of Hollywood, the slow, wheezing sound of the balloon deflating as originality continues to be usurped in favour of that most valued of commodities – the ‘sure-fire’ hit,  however it never stops being frustrating to go and see a film you loved on stage only to realise that those complex, live-wire characterisations by total unknowns have been replaced by a type-A, blank-eyed, lantern-jawed hero who only ever appear against a backdrop of  an elegiac piano-based score while using a script so simplistic it might have been rejected by Dan Brown…

Welcome to Hollywood Does Theatre – an opportunity to see your favourite plays on the big screen: re-scripted, re-cast and re-duced substantially in quality. Well that may not be entirely fair, it can be argued that given the right play with the right cast and a sympathetic director the results can be substantially more enjoyable than the original play. This play went on to do be quite popular as I recall…

The beginning of last year saw the crowning of The Kings Speech, whilst towards the end of the year Terence Davies took on Terence Rattigan in a version of ‘The Deep Blue Sea’. The critical consensus seems to have awarded it the label of solid, if unspectacular. Davies is such a talent and,due to his relative inactivity, under-appreciated master of composition that it could hardly fail to overwhelm the visual  but it is also clear that he is a huge admirer of Rattigan and if anything the material is handled to reverently. By the end the audience is left wondering, as splendid as all the constituent parts are, why they are watching a film of a play that felt outdated even at the  time of its original release back in 1952. (I mean this was released in 1951 and within moments our obsession with emotional reticence looked about as old-fashioned as our obsession with the Empire: 

So what is on the slate for 2012?

1) Warhorse (Released: 13 January)  

Unless you had been living in a cave you could scarcely have failed to notice the Warhorse phenomenon that has developed over the last 5 years.  Initially a  hit as a book for Michael Morpurgo, it tells the story of the relationship between a young soldier and his horse. It is a unashamed tear-jerker and touches on just about every emotional heartstring going.  So it is, perhaps, no surprise that it eventually found its way into Spielberg’s mitts. If there was ever a director who has mastered the blockbuster, wide-angle lens camera pan set to a not-too-obvious but vaguely familiar stringed background, then it is the man who directed E.T., Close Encounters and Band of Brothers.

Perhaps more surprisingly is the fact that in between the book and the film came a play that has been both critically lauded and a  commercial smash wherever it has played.  And each and every review poured praise on the inventiveness and skill of the puppetry of the horse in evoking an anthropomorphic reaction to the creature. At times zyou can barely hear the actors over the sound of sobbing in the aisles. So naturally Spielberg has removed the puppet.

Well it pulls about every Spielbergian trick out the book – it seems you can’t move in his trailers without risking an eye to an errant violinist’s bow. This is movie-making not film-making. It is a statement of intent but a statement that seems to have fallen on deaf ears among the critics that appreciate the quality but feel there is an absence of heart. So Puppets 1: 0 Spielberg.

2) Coriolanus (Released: 16 January)

The  moment that I heard that Ralph Fiennes was directing Coriolanus I was excited. By all accounts it has been a project that has been eating away at him over the years since he first starred in the role. My enthusiasm did diminish somewhat when  I discovered it would also be starring Gerard Butler (Star of similarly-Shakespearian classics: 300 and Machine Gun Preacher). However the initial photos coming out from the set looked intriguing and the premise of modernising the location to a war-torn central European country had promise.

I saw the film at its première at the London Film Festival in October. On one hand it is not a film without flaws but on the other these flaws can be attributed to the play rather than the production. It is hard to know what inspired Fiennes to choose Coriolanus – he must has a deep affinity with the play because it has a ludicrously complex premise, even by the exacting standards of Shakespeare’s latter work. It stars a deeply unsympthetic lead,  no clear redeeming hero and a plot that revolves around the mandates that should lead people to govern. Coriolanus is a de-facto populist dictator who unfortunately hates the populace. He is not a man who asks for sympathy and he is not a man who will receive it.

Look its Shakespeare, it isn’t meant to be easy. However that trailer is undoubtedly kick-ass and you can get most of the way through it without even realising that its by Shakespeare. A gritty war film underpinned by dynamite performances by Fiennes, Jessica Chastein and Vanessa Redgravem, even Butler does his best. More importantly, Shakespeare deserves this after the thousands of people who willingly paid money to watch Roland Emmerich piss all over his grave in ‘Anonymous’.

3) Women in Black (Released: 10 February) 

The Women in Black has been frightening West End audiences for over two decades and given the popularity of horror films alongside their usual lack of imagination, it is a surprise that no aspiring film-makers have landed on it before. As we have come to expect, this production will strip out all that was loved about the stage version;after all no-one in Hollywood is going to bankroll a ghost story that stars a couple of actors and defiantly traditional effects (even if it does star Harry Potter).

However you could also argue that there won’t be much left once you strip back the stagecraft. There is not a great deal of flesh on the bones of Susan Hill’s story. It does a perfunctory job that is elevated to much greater heights by the skill of the cast,  a reliance on traditional tricks and a group-think audience mentality that they are going to be scared.

Hmm…child voice narrator: check; scary puppet toys: check; scratched-out eyes on photos: check; mysterious writing on walls:check. Well it looks like we have all the  ingredients we need for a mildly disappointing ghost story.

4) Les Miserables (Released: Unknown)

Oh dear. Oh dear. It was inevitable that someone would option this given its staggering success on stage. There are a few glimpses of light in what will otherwise be a horrendously turgid affair. Hugh Jackman as Valjean seems a strong move – an all-singing, all-dancing Wolverine would be exactly what this shockingly boring musical needs; sadly I doubt his Admantium Claws will also be making an appearence.

The casting of Russell Crowe as Inspector Javeart is  interesting to say the least. Interesting because it means someone saw Russell Crowe performing  in 30 Odd Foot of Grunts and thought: well what I need to do is inflict this clear and  inescapable talent onto a global audience. Only days ago it was confirmed Amanda Seyfried and Taylor Swift were joining the cast. Truly we are approaching the end of days.

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