The Whale: Screen vs. Stage, or why I loved the play, but not the movie

Some movie critics called “The Whale” stagy , which I consider ironic, since I saw the stage play a decade ago, and, although both the play and the film are written by Samuel D. Hunter, I loved the play and did not love the movie, despite its attention from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences which nominated it for three Oscars: Brendan Fraser for best actor, Hong Chau for best supporting actress, Adrien Morot, Judy Chin and Annemarie Bradle for best makeup and hairstyling (both Fraser and the stylists won.)

Why would I feel differently about more or less the same story?

The answer says something about the inherent differences between stage and screen.

In both the 2012 play (which I saw at Playwrights Horizons) and the 2022 movie (which I saw at the Angelika Film Center), Charlie, a 600-pound man in his forties who makes his living as an online writing instructor, is trapped in his body, and in his house. He refuses ever to go to the hospital, even when in acute distress. During the course of the week in which the story unfolds – a week we’re made to understand will be the last of his life — he is visited, first, serendipitously by a stranger, a missionary named Thomas, then by Liz, Charlie’s nurse and only friend. For the first time in years, he meets  his estranged, angry teenage daughter Ellie, and then his ex-wife Mary.  We learn that Charlie left them when he fell in love with one of his students, Alan, who was just a few years younger than Charlie. But Alan, rejected and humiliated by his religious father, stopped eating and wasted away. After Alan starved himself to death, Charlie began in effect to  eat himself to death. 

I remember liking the terrific performances (especially Shuler Hensley as Charlie, but also the then-unknown Cory Michael Smith as the missionary and Cassie Back as the enabling Liz.) I relished the subtle humor (in particular the spot-on student essays that Charlie had to read.) I found resonant the themes about optimism and empathy. But I think I most appreciated the play for its centering around a character you rarely see depicted with such complexity and heart. 

Hunter and director Darren Aronofsky have made some changes. In the play, Thomas is Elder Thomas, and explicitly Mormon – a missionary with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints; he and Charlie discuss passages specifically from the Book of Mormon. Alan’s father was a Mormon bishop who rejected Alan as a Mormon;  Liz, who was Alan’s sister, explicitly hates Mormonism. 

All of that is changed in the movie, to a fictional religious order. The change feels like a business decision more than an artistic choice. (Mormons buy movie tickets too)

They also changed the surprising backstory of Thomas, from the unlikely one in the play to one that feels even less likely in the movie

There are some sensible changes too. In the play, Ellie was two years old when she last saw her father; in the movie, she was eight. This makes Ellie’s anger, and Charlie’s affection for her, feel more rooted in their actual life experiences.

But the changes in the screenplay aren’t significant enough to explain my change of heart.

A factor could be that the times, and my tastes, have changed. After all, Hunter wrote “The Whale” at about the same time as “A Bright New Boise,” the play that first gained him acclaim, and I was disappointed by the revival of “Boise” that just opened Off-Broadway.

But I think it’s mostly the different approach the film takes as a film.

Now, the filmmakers are actually more faithful to the stage play than is usual. The film does not “open up” the story; it’s still primarily a single set, Charlie’s home, which enforces a feeling of claustrophobia.

But the film, for example, makes less of an essay on Moby Dick that Charlie finds strangely calming, (we find out why only near the end.) It and.the story of Jonah and the Whale figure prominently in the play, and if their meaning was elusive on stage, it clearly connected to the title. Their meaning is even harder to grasp in the movie, a medium where images matter more than words.

The main reason for my different reaction  is unquestionably because the film makes a fetish of Charlie’s body, which becomes almost a separate character from Charlie the individual – a proud achievement of filmcraft. We see Charlie taking a shower, his enormous belly cascading over the lower half of his body. There are close-ups of Charlie gorging himself, the grease from the food staining his shirt and his face, accompanied by Robert Simonsen’s melodramatic score. 

I won’t disparage Brendan Fraser’s performance – Charlie’s personality does make its way through the  folds of expertly sculpted prosthetic fat, especially through the eyes – although it’s hard to ignore that he benefits from a long Hollywood tradition of rewarding glamorous movie stars who are willing to surrender their vanity. But the effect of such a hyper-naturalist depiction achieves close to the exact opposite of the effect of the story on stage, where such a depiction wouldn’t even have been technically possible.  Charlie – the gay man, the fat man, the secular man from Idaho, the far-from-perfect friend and lover and family man – was humanized on stage. Charlie, the body, is dehumanized on film.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

2 thoughts on “The Whale: Screen vs. Stage, or why I loved the play, but not the movie

  1. The director of the film plays up Charlie’s fatness as a big, ridiculous joke, something to be laughed at and disgusted with. It’s a cheap ploy and way to sell movie tickets with a similar appeal of buying tickets to see the geek at the carnival. Nearly everyone who sees this movie will be made to feel “superior” to Charlie, who has given up on life and is committing suicide by overeating.

    1. @Buckus Toothnail

      What are you talking about? No the movie did not make charlie the butt of jokes, nor does it try to make us disgusted with him. The movie paints a character who is like many people, especially in our modern age. He is self-destructive, unable to control his life and has nothing by broken relationships to mend. Using addiction to band-aid over trauma is very 2023, broken relationships?? Loss of control and will? There is a lot to empathize with and if you went into this movie and just saw a funny and disgusting fat man then that is a you problem and you are projecting a bit much.

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