Pondering Plays vs. Movie Remakes

So I admit I have a generally negative reaction to most movie remakes, yet I never tire of going to Oregon Shakespeare Festival or out to the ACT Theater here in Seattle and seeing another Lear, Othello or A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This got me questioning myself: what is the difference?

I believe that for me there is a fundamental difference in how I look at them. I see plays as a story crafted for the stage, crafted as a core story and framework for a vision, crafted for interpretation and adaptation in how that vision is expressed and shared. Crafted for a live interpretation and telling of a story, for performance. Changeable, like music and dance. Movies, film I see as a story with a strong vision the director and his or her collaborators: script writer, cinematographer, actors, composers, editors, animators worked on together to develop, polish and share with a moviegoing audience. Not exactly a static piece but more akin to a painting or an illustrated story like Alice in Wonderland.

Live theater is just that, live. You have a script and a stage set and the actors perform night after night acting telling living the story line by linear line; yet no two nights will be identical. Actors play off of one another and the vibe exuded by the audience. An audience that came expecting a “light” drama and laughs at lines that are not meant to be funny can throw the rhythm and feel off…at the same time an audience that literally holds its breath during an intense scene can breathe life into a performance and this almost symbiotic partnership develops where the actors may all have their best night ever. Someone may miss a cue one night or ad-lib and there is no cutting or perfecting and some nights that ad-lib might just work beautifully and inspire a slightly tweaked performance from another actor, some nights this might throw everybody off just a beat. No two performances are the same. We, the audience delight in that, in seeing a slightly different take on a back room in a dumpy apartment, an island, a forest, an empathy for a character and what motivates them, a gesture that fills out the empty spaces in the dialog.

A movie may be a story originally envisioned by the director, or based on a novel or event or even a favorite stage play. The vision is set, fixed intentionally to inform a specific story. It is crafted over time and not necessarily as a linear sequence. The lighting and camera angles may have been hashed and rehashed to set just the right mood. The final scene of a film may have been shot first to take advantage of weather, light, season. Actors scenes may have been done in one take or many many takes over several days to get just the perfect pacing, inflection, mood. Ad-libs may have been adopted and used as-is, polished or may have been cut. Different pieces of different takes might even be edited together like a collage, but in the final print we view a cohesive, linear whole and the story unfolds as envisioned by the director et. al. Each viewing, the film remains substantially the same, except in the eye of the beholder…we catch things the second time around we missed before, a subtlety in lighting, a brilliant cut or long shot, things we’ve experienced between viewing one and viewing two have changed our outlook so we relate more or less strongly to feelings, messages, characters and we count on certain things…a favorite line from a favorite actor delivered with just the perfect inflection and pacing. We, the viewer also delight in that.

I guess my initial skepticism of movie remakes arises from a respect for a particular director’s vision; if I want to see an Almodóvar or Malick or Coen brothers film, I want their own signatures of dark humor, humanity, vision, camera angles, lighting story telling.

As to plays, if I want to see a Shakespeare, Ibsen, Shaw, Luce, or Letts play, I’m looking forward to the playwright’s dialog, lyricism presented as intended: performed live by another director, another cast and crew. How the stage set and lighting will be crafted, what will this particular director and these actors bring to the play, will it be in period costume or updated and will if so, will that work? Is the audience a sympathetic one and help create an ideal receptor for the actors?

So the difference for me: a movie is more akin to a favorite book or a painting I may never tire of looking at; while a play is like a favorite song and I find joy in hearing the many voices in which it can be sung.

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