Adaptations to stage are always an interesting endeavour. If they’re from films, you lack the multiple locations, the special effects, the cast of thousands; from books, there are just so many details – from inner monologues to vast descriptions – to be dealt with.
Books can offer the most challenge, or at least the more common one. Once you’ve selected your novel, where to begin? Naturally you can’t put everything in; unless you’re dealing with something rather short, books will always have more luxury to spread out and spend their time on whatever they like. Perhaps Shakespeare could write plays that went on for many hours, but these days only the very deserving are allowed past roughly two and a half. Les Misérables is over three hours because it is an epic tale, well adapted and using songs and staging to convey the emotions of a book spanning several decades and over a thousand pages; Gone with the Wind, the musical flop of a few years ago, quickly became infamous for the way it rushed to include everything with nothing making any impact at all beyond hilarity. (By the way, yes, there was a Gone with the Wind musical, I am not making this up. Two, apparently.)
Funnily enough, musicals (of both epic and flop varieties) have become more popular for adaptations. Perhaps this is due to high-profile successes such as the aforementioned Les Mis, or Phantom of the Opera; it might also be thanks to the growing popularity of musicals in general. Analyse any way you wish. However, regarding the latter, it should be added that adaptations are increasingly popular from the producers’ perspective anyway thanks to their ready-made audiences. (See: Hollywood)
There are the old favourites, of course. A Christmas Carol receives, on average, between two and three new adaptations a year by a very conservative estimate. Key here is the fact that while everybody knows the story, there is always a market for it at a certain time of year when people are in the mood for some theatre. (As well as it being a timeless tale of redemption combining humour with frights and some glorious character development, but that’s beside the point.) The nature of theatre means that the popular ones can potentially keep being reinvented and restaged – a reason why some prefer the stability of a single film adaptation.
Besides, being an adaptation does not mean you can’t be respected: Woman in Black is basically the most terrifying thing I’ve ever seen on stage; The Mousetrap is the longest-running play in the West End. Like film, there are failures, and there are glorious successes.
But obviously this isn’t film. Adaptations invite all kinds of tricks of staging, in order to compensate for its differences and also to highlight them. No, in the musical adaptation of Lord of the Rings, they can’t use the power of cinema to make Bilbo disappear – and yet they manage it anyway. Somehow it has even more impact when it’s happening right in front of you. The Woman in Black is terrifying because, for all the simplicity of its staging, it makes you believe in what’s happening; it makes you as terrified as its main character by already making you believe in the simplest props before drawing you in further.
Naturally, some genres can be more difficult than others. Fantasy, for example, while popular, is a particularly awkward one, although one which can therefore result in the best effects. Productions of the Narnia books have to answer the question of how to have all those talking animals without looking silly, how to tackle the grand battles and the transition between statues and living things. Having now seen The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe twice now – once in London, once as a local amateur production – I can safely say that so far they have always risen to the occasion. Meanwhile, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials might have seemed something impossible to stage, and yet the puppet-aided performance of roughly five years ago was highly commended, and a similar approach for Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse is about to go on tour. In both cases, animals were needed for major parts of the plot, making them impossible to cut out but also to control on such a scale. Yet the challenge was met and produced something amazing into the bargain.
Effects aren’t everything though: there is also the matter of the writing. As previously mentioned, you have to navigate all those long descriptions and inner monologues, establish relationships and characters without the ability to flick back to check them, and condense it all into one sitting. Take a production of Pride and Prejudice: how to include all of that glorious narrative? The version I saw simply divided it amongst the characters, which on the one hand made sure it remained, but on the other could be jarring for characterisation. Then there’s the matter of converting sentences to scenes. Yes, in a play, rather than “he walked over there” he can walk while saying something else, but also instead of “they played a game” they have to actually play the game or remove that detail altogether. (Please ignore that my example would appear to be a very boring book indeed.) Elsewhere, how to avoid all of those scene changes? How to compensate when the book demands hundreds of extras? How to make the characters real? Given that a great deal of your audience knows the ending, how do you deal with that? Play up the inevitability with plenty of foreshadowing or just play it straight? To start listing examples of each and every approach for all of these here would probably go on forever, because one of the wonderful things is how there are so many approaches. Just one, Christmas Carol, has received pretty much everything right down to a one-man show.
Adaptations might seem an easy option, and they do have their advantages regarding attendance, but they are not without their own challenges. However, when done well, not only do they make for a good show, they are also capable of producing innovation and something spectacular, for the benefit of the stage as a whole. Truly, there is nothing quite like a challenge.