Theatre has been colonizing cinemas at an alarming rate in recent years, whether through broadcast productions like those of London's Royal National Theatre or fully fledged film adaptations such as Quebec director Denis Villeneuve's Oscar-nominated movie Incendies, based on the play by Wajdi Mouawad. This year's Toronto International Film Festival is no exception, featuring at least eight films that grew out of plays.
Why make that leap from stage to screen in the first place?
Reason 1: To capture a great performance before it disappears
TIFF examples: Barrymore, Billy Bishop Goes to War
Adaptation style: Stagey
Stages of development: Christopher Plummer won a Tony Award in 1997 for his performance as actor John Barrymore in William Luce's one-man play; he reprised the role last January in Toronto before Barrymore film director Erik Canuel zoomed in on him with his cameras.
Billy Bishop Goes to War, John Gray's intimate musical about the First World War flying ace, may have a less illustrious Broadway history – it closed after 12 performances in 1980 – but it's always proved a smash success in Canada, most recently at Toronto's Soulpepper Theatre. Eric Peterson, who co-wrote the show and is known for his small-screen work on Corner Gas and Street Legal, has performed Billy since the play was born, and Barbara Willis Sweete's film captures what is likely his last kick at the can.
Stage connections: Both these films wear their origins in live theatre on their sleeves and have theatre names involved as producers – Livent's Garth Drabinsky in Barrymore's case, Soulpepper head honchos Albert Schultz and Leslie Lester in Billy's.
Reason 2: To capitalize on the popularity of a hot playwright
TIFF examples: Killer Joe and The Deep Blue Sea
Adaptation style: Faithful
Stages of development: Tracy Letts was raised to the top ranks of American playwrights with his family drama August: Osage County (currently in development as a film), but long before the Chicagoan penned that Pulitzer Prize bait, he tackled Texas trailer trash in the deliciously disturbing 1993 black comedy Killer Joe. Its most infamous scene involves forced fellatio on a fried-chicken drumstick.
Passions are more restrained in the work of the late British playwright Terence Rattigan, who would have turned 100 this year. Though this attribute once made the mid-century playwright seem hopelessly old-fashioned, his well-made plays about repressed upper-middle-class Brits – like The Deep Blue Sea's suicidal heroine Hester Collyer – have regained critical favour in recent years.
Stage connections: Killer Joe director William Friedkin (of The Exorcist fame) previously brought Bug, another Letts play, to the screen in 2006. The Deep Blue Sea was first turned into a film in 1955, starring Vivien Leigh as Hester, while the new version is directed by Terence Davies and features Rachel Weisz in the lead role.
Reason 3: To bring a theatre classic to the movie-watching masses
TIFF examples: Coriolanus, Faust
Adaptation style: Updated.
Stages of development: Ralph Fiennes played Shakespeare's betrayed Roman hero in London and New York 11 years ago, and now he makes his directorial debut with a screen adaptation of Coriolanus that keeps the original dialogue but moves the setting to contemporary Europe.
Acclaimed Russian director Alexander Sokurov, meanwhile, diverges even farther from his theatrical source with Faust, riffing on Goethe's play with a “freestyle fantasy version.” It arrives in Toronto having picked up the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.
Stage connections: Coriolanus's cast includes Fiennes in the lead role and stage legend Vanessa Redgrave as Volumina, while Tony-winning playwright John Logan ( Red) adapted the screenplay. As for Faust, in his review for Variety, Jay Weissberg writes: “Forget Marlowe, Goethe, Gounod and Murnau, or rather, lay them aside, and an over-familiarity with Faust's previous incarnations will likely hinder understanding.”
Reason 4: Because the story or structure is worth stealing
TIFF examples: Monsieur Lazhar and 360
Adaptation style: Loose
Stages of development: In Monsieur Lazhar, Quebec filmmaker Philippe Falardeau has taken Evelyne de la Chenelière’s one-man play Bachir Lazhar, about an Algerian immigrant who becomes a Montreal schoolteacher, and fleshed out the title character's hitherto unseen classroom. (Good thing he has experience working with child actors.)
With 360, director Fernando Meirelles ( City of God) and screenwriter Peter Morgan have been inspired by Austrian dramatist Arthur Schnitzler's 1900 play La Ronde, which is a series of scenes between different pairs of lovers. Their new ensemble drama stars Rachel Weisz (there she is again), Jude Law and Anthony Hopkins in a modern-day daisy chain that spans the globe.
Stage connections: Luc Déry and Kim McCraw, the producers of Monsieur Lazhar, have a solid success rate in turning Québécois plays into film – they were behind Incendies. The Queen screenwriter Morgan, meanwhile, has experience writing for the stage, notably with his West End and Broadway hit Frost/Nixon, which was then, of course, turned into a film.