Friday, March 14, 2008

From the Mouth of Arthur Miller: The Nature of the Adaptation

“I had never thought to make a play of [the real event that formed A View From the Bridge] because it was too complete, there was nothing I could add. And then a time came when its very completeness became appealing.”

That’s what Arthur Miller wrote as an introduction to a published edition of his revised A View From the Bridge, his 1955 play about a man driven to sacrifice his name and honor out of an unspoken love for his niece, a daughter figure in love with a spellbinding illegal immigrant.

I found this an interesting quote because there is a strange hypocrisy at work among stage people, myself included. As writers, we crave to find our own entry into a story, some way to make it personal and workable to us. We don’t just adapt a life story, for example, but we alter it to fit our own interpretation. If this doesn’t happen—this interpretation of the work—we become critical, call the musical “faux,” and walk away lamenting the easy path taken by the show’s creators.

However, when Hollywood takes on a property, we are not so forgiving of any attempts to personalize a work. Most people, it seems, found the new scenes in the recent A Raisin in the Sun to be unobtrusive, but most did not welcome them with open arms. We accepted Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street without ever agreeing to the cuts to Harold Prince’s original version. To me, I never accepted the add-ons Arthur Miller himself gave the film adaptation of The Crucible, insisting that showing the girls in the forest steals from the mystery of the unraveling of the events.

The problem is that most pieces of creative work are personal. They are somehow a reflection on one’s own ideas and worldview. I recently contemplated how a book would adapt to the stage, and I found myself attempting to interpret the story and characters, not only to breathe some life into them for the new dimension but also to find my way into the story, someone else’s story. I was doing exactly what I dislike Hollywood doing. This is not unusual—the few other works I’ve contemplated adapting for the stage were all rooted in my interpretation—but it still makes me a hypocrite of sorts.

Perhaps the criticism for whether an adaptation is a bastardization or a blessing lies in the success of the work. No one ever complains about the alterations made to the movies of The Sound of Music or Hairspray because they work so beautifully. If Hello, Dolly! or Guys and Dolls had been immensely entertaining, I guess no one would mind the changes.

the Broadway Mouth
March 14, 2008

No comments: