On plays based on novels…

Last week I accompanied a trip to see a stage adaptation of Lord of the Flies at Birmingham’s Rep Theatre, with a group of year 10 (9th grade) students currently studying Golding’s original novel. The play is a touring production that has received good reviews elsewhere. Indeed, it was a success as a piece of drama, but I left the theatre feeling that there as something missing, or rather that the thing that I had seen was only half the thing it purported to be. We were still left with the same image of naked boys shivering in the cold light of true authority, complete in this case with the sound of retribution in the form of helicopter rotor blades. And we were still required to make the same ultimate reflections on the darkness of man’s heart. But the play felt lighter somehow, flimsier, its imperatives lacking the punch of Golding’s prose.

A rational, critical voice in my head tells me I should view the play as a work of art in itself, unbound by expectations derived from a reading of the novel. And perhaps it is my and my students’ current immersion in the novel that is to blame here for clouding my judgement of its stage cousin. I might be making unfair comparisons between the conceptual depth of a novel and the dramatic immediacy of a play: apples and oranges. But there is another voice that says that to base a play on a novel in the first place is to invite such comparisons. In fact, the success of the newer piece as a work of drama relies in some part on comparison with the original prose.

I am reminded of a particularly unsuccessful adaptation of Animal Farm that I saw some years ago. It is not a book that I think transfers well to the stage. In the production I remember the actors wore shoes on their hands to signify the hooves of the animals. The resulting animal impressions had the feel of a workshop exercise rather than a piece of polished performance drama. The whole mise en scene ended up being a distraction from Orwell’s original allegory rather than an extension or augmentation of it. Although the Lord of the Flies performance was much better, I am still left with the feeling that what I have seen is akin to the vague memories of a text read long ago and partially forgotten, rehashed as well as can be expected from its fragments.

In contrast, another recent theatre trip took us to see Antony Sher as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman in Stratford. Another unfair comparison perhaps; in this play the tragic weight of the text is not undermined by its attempts to live up to a precursor. Or perhaps not. On leaving the theatre on that occasion, I was thinking of the echoes of King Lear in Willy’s tragedy and the very human desperation that Miller (and Sher) captured in his dying moments and their immediate aftermath. But Miller’s play is a whole thing in itself. It is not an addendum to something else. As a result, I didn’t feel this sense of being ever so slightly short-changed.

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