Why plays don’t make good movies.

Since I announced I was dipping my toe into the shark-filled movie waters a few weeks ago, I’ve gotten a lot of emails from screenwriters and playwrights asking me to consider adding their script to my slate.  My basket of scripts to read that sits right near my desk is overflowing with stuff that has piqued my interest.

But one thing that concerned me a bit was the number of emails I got from playwrights who said, “I wrote a play. It’d be a great movie!”

Maybe.

But most likely not.

Saying a play would make a great movie is like saying a tennis player would be a great baseball player.  Sure, tennis and baseball are both sports.  Sure, both sports involve swinging something and hitting a ball.  Maybe, there’s some crossover.

But how a tennis player is made is much different than how a baseball player is made.

Plays weren’t designed to be seen on a screen.  They were meant to be experienced live.  They were crafted for that in-your-face-the-actors-just-might-spit-on-you for a few hours, whether the playwright knows it or not.

For example, plays tend to take place in very few locations.  That’s partly a practical issue (it’s overly complicated and super expensive to have multiple sets), but also less moving parts allows the audience to focus on what plays are about . . . people.

Movies, on the other hand, go all over the map, literally . . . especially the big juggernauts.  Movie audiences crave action.  They buy that $12 – $20 ticket for a different rush than the people who buy a $120 – $200 ticket for a Broadway play.

Their different forms communicate differently, so when you forge one into the other, something is going to get lost in the translation.

Just like a tennis player might make a fine baseball player with a ton of training (translated to our world, that means a new writer), but he probably won’t ever go to the hall of fame.

Think August: Osage County, Doubt, Proof . . . all some of the greatest plays that we’ve produced in the last decade or so.  All made movies.  And all fine jobs.  But no where near as successful as the plays.

All of those plays won the Tony Award.  Yet none of them won the Academy Award.  In fact, none were even nominated.

In fact, of all the Tony Award Winning Plays since 1960, only two have gone on to win Best Picture (Amadeus and A Man For All Seasons).

Only SEVEN (including the two above) have even been nominated.

And six of those seven were prior to 1985 (shows you what modern movie audiences want to see, doesn’t it?)

So if you’re a writer or producer with a play, then work on that play.  And if you want to write or produce a movie, start over with something new.  You’ll have a much better chance of success.

 

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Comments
  • I totally agree – and I think that you can’t simply transfer a movie to the stage. Big Fish is a good example. I think the film struck a delicate balance between the truth and the lie – there was a slight exaggeration – the way stories do over time, that worked as the magic in the film. It seems like a Broadway stage show requires some dramatic exaggeration. The nuance gets lost in the physics of the live stage demands. So, for example, the witch in the haunted house scene – on stage became this over the top production number. There was no hope of the subtleties that made the film magical. I don’t think they should have ever attempted to adapt that film to the stage. At the very least, not as a musical…

  • I agree with everything you wrote. In addition, I think the demographic target audiences are very different. The people who are going to see “August: Osage County,” “Doubt,” “Proof” (IMO, not that great a transition screenplay from the stage play) are probably not the people going to see “Planet of the Apes,” “Transformers #312,” “Jump Street” or “X-Men.”

    I do believe that “August: Osage County” and “Doubt” (since they were mentioned in your article) were actually enhanced by filming – very personal stories having closeups giving us the opportunity to spy on the inner thoughts of brilliant actors is a wonderful thing.

    It’s just the wrong people are interested in going to see movies in general.

    All IMO only, of course!

    Love reading your newsletter everyday!

  • senorvoce says:

    Then why, oh why, is there this fetish for filming plays and showing them in theaters? Not only are they sub par, they will diminish the Broadway (or West End, or Met Opera) brand. Why pay for full prices tickets when you just wait for the filmed version, which drains every advantage live theater has going for it? Is this “revenue stream” worth the damage being done?

  • Lloyd says:

    I agree. I think some courtroom dramas cross over well. I never saw A Few Good Men the play, but it’s one of my favorite movies.

  • Jeffrey Sweet says:

    I mistrust blanket statements like this. Some plays make fine films, some don’t. Some plays make fine TV films. HBO has done pretty well with ANGELS IN AMERICA and WIT (both directed by Mike Nichols, and soon to direct MASTER CLASS) and THE NORMAL HEART. The plays that are multi-scene and move from place to place tend to adapt better. But some one-set plays, adapted well, do very nicely. Nichols made a classic out of WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? Peter Hall directed a dazzling version of THE HOMECOMING. Tonight I watched a DVD of William Wyler’s fine version of Sidney Kingsley’s DETECTIVE STORY. Wyler did pretty well with film versions of some other stage properties — DEAD END (Kingsley again), THE LITTLE FOXES, THE HEIRESS and FUNNY GIRL. ON GOLDEN POND was a better movie than a play, and DRIVING MISS DAISY did pretty well. HAIRSPRAY, CHICAGO and DREAM GIRLS made strong transfers, too. It’s a matter of the individual property, not something that a generalization can cover fairly.

    • anita simons says:

      Finally a comment I can agree with and disagree with Ken’s blanket statement. I am always amazed after watching a movie to read in the credits that it started out as a film. It inspires me as a playwright to write whatever I want and not worry about the subject or set…theater people can work magic on a stage. Some plays make great movies and some movies make “so-so” plays or musicals. It works both ways. I know a producer is in the business of making money, but sadly that’s not why playwrights write.

  • Elisa Clayton says:

    I disagree! My case in point, “Driving Miss Daisy,” which won 4 Oscars including Best Picture. Also, if your only reason for making films is to win awards then the odds are not in your favor.

  • Randall David Cook says:

    “The King’s Speech” started out as a play. In fact, it was a draft of the play that stirred interest in the work being further developed into a screenplay.

    And I think it’s a bit simplistic to only focus on those films that won Best Picture after winning the Tony for Best Play. For example, “Driving Miss Daisy”, which won Best Picture but not a Tony because it didn’t hit Broadway till its revival. And many great, classic films started as plays and won or were nominated for many Oscars, just perhaps not Best Picture: “A Streetcar Named Desire”, “The Heiress”, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, “The Philadelphia Story”, “Dial M for Murder”, “Closer”, “A Man For All Seasons”, “Arsenic and Old Lace”, “A Few Good Men”, “You Can’t Take It With You” (which did win Best Pic), “Mister Roberts”, “On Golden Pond”, “Steel Magnolias” and many more, and that’s not including the musicals.

    And that doesn’t include movies made for television. HBO alone has done a great job with “Wit”, “Angels in America” and “The Normal Heart”.

    Plays can be and are often a great source material for film, but they have to be reconsidered for a different medium than the one in which they were originally created.

  • Marshall says:

    I agree about 90%. Exceptions: (IMHO) “Glengary Glen Ross,” “The Sound of Music” (come on! one of the best movies ever!) and the Dick Van Dyke, Ann-Margaret, Janet Leigh et al. version of “Bye Bye Birdie.” Have seen numerous stagings including one with the original score and 30 piece orchestra. The stage play just doesn’t work as well as the film. Will be curious to see if they make a movie of “Kinky Boots the Musical” (or a myriad of others) at some point in the future. From screen-to-stage-to-screen!

    Good luck with the film, Ken! Tedious, time consuming work, but if anyone can do the big screen, I’d bet on you! 🙂

  • Billy Flood says:

    Movies are about the big picture, broad strokes. Plays are about the little picture, details, intimacy etc. The two mediums are organically incongruous.

  • David Rigano says:

    I concur with those who have listed the plays which have successfully been transferred (making my search for plays adapted to movies unnecessary). I think in some cases it depends on the property. And also, how it’s handled. There are clear examples of plays that have made amazing movies, some even becoming more iconic than the original plays (Steel Magnolias and Driving Miss Daisy being the most obvious in that category).

    I’ll add in Frost/Nixon, A Raisin in the Sun, Sabrina, and Harvey to the mix.

    • David Rigano says:

      And forgot one of my favorites! The Compleat Female Stage Beauty which was translated on film to Stage Beauty, and I find the film to be dramatically more successful than the play.

  • Mark Nassar says:

    For the most part I believe you’re correct, but I think plays can succeed when they retain their intimacy in the transition. Another words, if the play takes place in one room, the film should stay in that one room as much as it possible. I had a play – “The Mayor’s Limo” made into a movie — “A Line in the Sand”. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BJ4LvorT1AE When the film gets outside the play’s one room setting the air was let out. A play is a pressure cooker. You take the lid off and it loses steam.

    A great example of the difference in play to film transitions are David Mamet’s two great plays – Glengarry Glen Ross, which was a very good film because it kept it’s intimacy and tension and American Buffalo on was blown out and lost all of the play’s tension.

    Considering the amount of plays made into movies against all movies made, they probably have a better success rate than the average film entry, but that’s most likely because they are proven stories and have roles that stars are attracted to. Summer blockbusters almost never win a best picture Oscar either.

  • Larry says:

    We got to see A Few Good Men when it was on the original road show, and in the Playbill it said “soon to be a major motion picture starring Tom Cruise…” etc. Well, we LOVED the stage play, and then we LOVED the movie as well, in a completely different way. So obviously, SOME plays can make the jump, but they are not the same script and they must be adapted by people who know how to make movies. It’s one play that I’m disappointed is never seen in revival.

  • Randall David Cook says:

    Oh, and I forgot another recent play turned into a Best Picture nominee, possibly because it’s incredibly hard to imagine it as a play: “Beasts of the Southern Wild”.

  • Norma Kramer says:

    I agree with Ken 100% ! I think the reason is, those who want to do a crossover think erroneously that it will be easy work, because someone else did the hard foundation work and sadly that it could be easy money which it rarely is because the conversion rarely is as good as the original ! Artists do your own work it’s far more satisfying.

  • One of my favorite films of all times – Strictly Ballroom started out as a play.

  • Zanne says:

    A-MEN! But you forgot to add (totally my opinion) that plays have much more depth (as novels) than a screenplay because screenplays try to please everybody. Also, plays being live, you can’t freely walk around and go to the bathroom and eat and …), so you have to focus more on the subject matter at hand.

  • Jonathan Mann says:

    A very interesting subject. You have made a good case for your theory with these stats on how few Tony-winning plays win Academy Awards. But awards are not the sole barometer of success in film. Top-grossing Broadway shows are more often nominated than top-grossing films.

    And haven’t:

    a) the Disney-fication and Vegas-ization of Broadway
    b) the tendency to play it safe/repeat the tried and true when choosing and adapting material for Broadway
    to a certain extent brought more of the commercial, mass appeal approach of blockbuster films to making theater and to what often gets produced on The Great White Way?

    The social impact and artistic achievement of any theater or film production is what really matters.
    Whatever has or has not happened in the past is instructive but should not limit consideration of good writing created for the stage that could, in the right hands, be transformed into the basis for a powerful film.

  • George Rady says:

    Complete agree… and drifting through the comments I think there are some good points being made (that I won’t repeat…)

    I will take note that I LOVE watching the Met HD Broadcasts – which should cut against my bias that Live Theatre and Movies are simply just TWO different art forms – but I don’t go to watch this “live” broadcast as a movie… I go to see some up close and personal – GREAT – singers excuting their craft with a with a precision that approximates a Sports Event with GREAT Players at the top of their Game.

    Now – contrast that with Movie Musicals – NOT. The only Movie Musical that I thought successful were, say Julie Andrews in “Sound of Music” or “Chicago” because the work reconceived the Stage Version… rather than just document it – as was the case with “The Producers” which took Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick’s work and cast it in celliod stone… and sink it to the bottom of the ocean. I think the element of being done “live” is a consideration. I think thee element of capturing an iconic performer is another… I think the reconception of editing that allows people to dance in a way that is physically impossible on the REAL stage is another… and, conversely, “Newsies” has some of t he BEST dancing on Broadway… a lot taken right from the movie… and the movie falls FLAT!

    I think I would end with the Writer!

    Any writer who thinks their paly would make a great movie – or vice versa – simply is blinded by the over arching desire to see their work done!

    But I believe (at least this is true foor me) that one sets out to write a “play” or a “movie” and – while that may change in the process – the inner voice, echo in the ear, visualization, INSPIRATION take One Form OR the Other… NOT Both!

    I would write a Play to be Performed. I would write a Movie to be Composed.

    But very interesting topic!

  • George Rady says:

    btw – excellent point with a myriad of examples about NOT focusing on the “Best Picture” since those are voted on my the Academy… kinda like the politicians voting for themselves… and number of plays have been made into great movies but I think a re-imagining takes place… or a consumate actor steals the spotlight.

  • kevin Davis says:

    Hey Ken, you probably already thought of this, but why not produce “The Great White Hope” as a movie? I think Will Smith is much more a movie actor anyway.

  • David Merrick Jr says:

    Filmmaking is a VISUAL medium, while Theater is mostly a VERBAL one.

    Hence the disconnect….

  • That which film and theater share is communicated differently with film a visual medium and theater one more steeped in language. The best of both theater and film will succeed in expressing ideas that provoke, amuse and entertain. As a writer who has written for theater of which some of this has been adapted to film, the same narrative can work on a stage or a screen, but is the narrative the same? My experience with both mediums suggests that the visual imperative of film and the language imperative of theater will demand the narrative change to suit the medium. Can both succeed?

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