There is a spectacular other-wordly train crash in “Avatar” that recalls the one in “The Fabelmans,” which in turn explicitly mimics the one in Cecil B. DeMille’s film “The Greatest Show on Earth,” because that’s the first movie that little Sammy Fabelman (obvious stand-in for filmmaker Steven Spielberg) ever saw, and he became obsessed with using his toy train set to re-create (and film) the crash in it.
A lover of legitimate theater might feel left out to see such insular homage to the history of film – trains, after all, figured in some of the earliest motion pictures (the Lumiere Brothers’ “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat,” 1895; Edison company’s “The Great Train Robbery,” 1903.) I could argue that the connection between stage and screen has been a strong one from the get-go — Edison’s early Kinetoscope showcased well-known vaudeville acts; as early as 1900, pioneering filmmakers were enlisting stage plays (Hamlet) and stage stars (Sarah Bernhardt)
But the truth in 2023 is that none of the ten movies nominated as Best Picture by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences were adapted from stage plays; most were original screenplays written by their directors (although two were adapted from novels.)
Still, watching these movies helped clarify for me not just what makes a good movie, but also what makes a good play. This is not to say I found all the movies good — I was frankly more disappointed than delighted by most of them – but they were all instructive, in the ways they differed or resembled the theater I review regularly as a critic. I set up the comparison by asking myself: Could these work as stage plays?
Each of the ten films is linked below to their pages on the movie review aggregation sites Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes
All Quiet on the Western Front
A story about the brutality, terrors and disillusionment of war could work on stage – it has worked on stage many times. But director Edward Berger’s German film adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 novel is numbing in its emphasis on grisly imagery, and its paradoxical effort to make World War I seem visually stunning, beautiful even. It’s no surprise that the film was also nominated for Academy Awards in production design, cinematography and visual effects. Spectacle has a place, certainly on Broadway, but it’s not prime of place; if it were, wouldn’t musicals like “Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark” and “Big” have made a big profit? It’s also unsettling to see a German take on this story; the French (both the chief negotiator and a young farm boy) are depicted as vicious and unfeeling.
Avatar: The Way of Water
I could make the same point about spectacle for this sequel to James Cameron’s 2009 blockbuster about the tall blue residents of the planet Pandora, which has also been nominated for production design, cinematography and visual effects.
But Cameron makes an effort to populate his wondrously imagined world with at least a few characters whose interactions feel dramatically credible, if not particularly fresh – the dynamics of Jake Sully’s family, the teens’ various behavior (bullying; trying to fit in); even the whale-like Tulkun outcast named Payakan has a definable personality and feelings.
In a good play, credible characters are essential.
Of course, neither the characters nor the story are what draw the big crowds to “Avatar,” which is framed by a series of battles between (down-to-earth) good guys (all the non-humans) and (tech-heavy) evil (most of the humans, or former humans.) It wasn’t always clear to me what the fights were about – until I realized that they were caused by the need to have some more awesome (only occasionally tiresome) special effects.
(A reader has pointed out that the original “Avatar” inspired Cirque du Soleil’s stage production “Toruk, The First Flight,” which re-created Pandora and its creatures mostly through large-scale puppetry.)
The Banshees of Inisherin
This folk-like story about the break-up of a friendship that toggles between the unreal and the revolting is saved by witty dialogue handled by a deft cast navigating carefully between the comedy and the darkness – a black humor that is familiar to Broadway theatergoers, since director and screenwriter Martin McDonagh is a five-time Tony nominated playwright. So, in other words, yes this could be a play on Broadway, although it wouldn’t be my favorite of his. How necessary is the isolated island location captured by the camera — those views of the windswept fields, and the waves of water that separate the island from the fighting on the Irish mainland? Not very, I would say, but the film’s sense of place could be established in a stage version with the right sound and projection design.
Filmmaker Baz Luhrmann ‘s brand of sensory overload already has been adapted as a Broadway musical, (Moulin Rouge), and Elvis (or perhaps the Elvis phenomenon) inspired the hit musical Bye Bye Birdie, albeit as a parody. It’s surprising, actually, that his songs have been featured only twice on Broadway, Rock ‘N Roll! The First 5,000 Years (1982) and All Shook Up (2005.)
The film highlights the importance of a charismatic performer (something we see currently on Broadway with Myles Frost’s portrayal in MJ the Musical)
Two of the most thrilling scenes in the movie – when Colonel Parker first sees him perform in “Baby Lets Play House,” and when he defies the authorities by performing “Trouble” – are accomplished to a large measure by the editing. As with “Moulin Rouge,” some clever director and designers would have to replicate somehow the bombarding effects created by all the fancy editing.
Everything Everywhere All At Once
There is a play in the relationship between the mother and daughter, and the experience of this immigrant family, especially in their interaction with “the state” (in this case, the IRS.) There is a truth to the acting in these more straightforward scenes. It’s perhaps worth mentioning that it’s apparently a star-making vehicle for Broadway veteran Stephanie Hsu (Be More Chill, SpongeBob SquarePants.) She is one of the three actresses in the film who were nominated for an Oscar for their performance in it.
But the sci-fi aspect of the movie makes it impossibly messy and overstuffed for a stage version, a triumph of (or at least a vigorous exercise in) film editing, for which it has been Oscar nominated.
This could work beautifully as a play, which is ironic because it’s about the magic of the movies, but not so surprising, because the screenplay was cowritten by Tony Kushner, the award-winning playwright. Yes, it shows you how young Sammy grew to love filmmaking, but it’s as much about the dynamics of this specific family, and it explores the needs and conflicts of an artist – the major conflict being between their life and their art (which is underscored by the story of both the mother and the great-uncle)
A good play says something about life; the best say something to me about my life
Rotten Tomatoes (91 percent)
This story about a fictional female orchestra conductor tells a story about art and power, abuse and cancel culture – all issues given daily coverage of late. It’s an opportunity to present some great music, and for a great actress to take on a challenging role. This movie is full of words; the first scene is an interview that goes on for a long time.
In a play, words matter. So too in this movie
“Tar” does skirt the line between intellectual and pretentious, but even that makes us think. There is in this movie a strong invented character, and a strong plot, although director and screenwriter Todd Field frequently resorts to oblique storytelling techniques. The film is oblique about the behavior that leads to Lydia’s downfall. In the tradition of old-fashioned drama, the death that sparks the plot occurs out of view — a former student commits suicide; there is the unmistakable suggestion that she was the unwilling target of Lydia Tar’s seduction (one in a long line) and that her rejection of the advances led to Lydia’s blackballing her in the industry. It’s hard to know whether a stage version would need to spell this out more directly.
Top Gun: Maverick
A sequel made 36 years after the original blockbuster, this is full of soaring flights in mid air, interrupted by clunky dialogue and a clichéd story. Tom Cruise impresses with his eternal youth and consistent cool macho posing, although not his acting. The movie felt like something more than just escapist entertainment; it felt like a pact between longtime star Cruise and his fans. I couldn’t see this as a play – but it may be a lesson about the power of celebrity in America, to which Broadway is certainly not immune.
Triangle of Sadness
Supposedly a black satire about the super-rich, this film is too sprawling and undisciplined to translate well to the stage – and, while the shirtless models in the first of the film’s three sections would certainly attract an audience, the copious vomiting aboard the ship during the cruise in the second section would repel one. After the ship is sunk by pirates, a few passengers are stranded on a desert island, where the ship’s toilet attendant, because of her superior survival skills, takes charge. The last of these segments suggests inspiration from “The Admirable Crichton,” the 1902 comic stage play by J.M. Barrie, or, just as likely, the TV series “Gilligan’s Island.”
This is a quintessential art house movie, eerie and gentle in a way that feels unreal, an imposition of a poetic sensibility. But its gentleness seems like a political act of defiance against the grotesque true story that inspires the film: In a Mennonite community in Bolivia little more than a decade ago, some of the men systematically drugged the women and girls with a spray meant for farm animals and then raped their unconscious bodies; the community’s elders initially told the women who woke up in pain that their attacks were caused by ghosts, or demons, or were the wild workings of a “female imagination.” This went on for years until the men were caught, and sent to prison.
Adapted from the 2018 novel of the same name by Miriam Toews, “Women Talking” is as if “Twelve Angry Men” were set among eight women in an isolated religious community who have been kept from learning to read or write, but have gained wisdom through the hard labor of their lives. It’s not the fate of a defendant that they are debating back and forth in a hayloft, but their own fate: Given an ultimatum by the community’s elders to forgive the men who had attacked them or be excommunicated, the women gather to debate their options in response: Should they do nothing, or stay and fight, or leave the community?
“Women Talking” could certainly work as a stage play, taking place as it does mostly in a single setting, rooted as it is in words, taking us through a subtle suspenseful philosophical and emotional journey, and dependent on the exquisite performances of an ensemble. Most of the elements of the film could easily be translated for the stage; the voiceover narration, for example, could become a series of monologues. But there are interspersed throught the film sudden short scenes, no longer than a few seconds – close-ups of a woman’s bloodied dress, or a mouth or dripping in blood – that suggest the horror the women lived through, and are specific to the medium of film.