Turning classic movies into plays is just plain wrong

Classic movie ‘All about Eve’ is being turned into a play with Gillian Anderson. Why?

Bette Davis and Thelma Ritter in “All About Eve”. Margo Channing, played by Davis,  is among the most divine monsters in the history of cinema (1950). Photograph: 20th Century Fox

Bette Davis and Thelma Ritter in “All About Eve”. Margo Channing, played by Davis, is among the most divine monsters in the history of cinema (1950). Photograph: 20th Century Fox

 

Throughout Joseph L Mankiewicz’s indestructible All About Eve the characters, denizens of the New York stage, maintain clenched disdain for Hollywood. Open hostility never breaks out, but the sense prevails that the Dream Factory is a place “proper actors” go to exchange integrity for sacks of vulgar green.

“Although I am going to Hollywood next week to make a film do not think for a moment that I am leaving you,” the disingenuous, mercilessly ambitious Eve says at the close. “How could I? For my heart is here in the theatre.” The fading, but still potent Margo Channing, played with Wagnerian relish by Bette Davis, narrows her eyes at the sight of anything resembling a starlet.

Such artistic hierarchies are common. Some remain in place. Some eventually get dismantled. In 1950, when All About Eve was making its triumphant way across the world, Hollywood was just beginning to feel itself superior to television. That convention didn’t begin to waver until the turn of the century. But, for all the magnificence of Mad Men, The Sopranos and The Wire, few are the actors who would prefer an Emmy to an Oscar.

West End move

Such thoughts are prompted by the news that Gillian Anderson and Lily James have been confirmed as stars of an upcoming West End version of All About Eve. Replacing Cate Blanchett, who now has to be somewhere else, Anderson will play the part rendered eternal by Davis.

Gillian Anderson arrives for the Golden Globe Awards earlier this year, in Beverly Hills, California. Anderson will play the part rendered eternal by Bette Davis in “All About Eve”. Photograph: Valerie Macon/AFP/Getty Images)
Gillian Anderson arrives for the Golden Globe Awards earlier this year, in Beverly Hills, California. Anderson will play the part rendered eternal by Bette Davis in “All About Eve”. Photograph: Valerie Macon/AFP/Getty Images)

Margo Channing is among the most divine monsters in the history of cinema. Others around her are kinder. A few are less self-absorbed. But none has her useful cynicism.

For large parts of the picture, her suspicion of Eve – only Thelma Ritter’s characteristically astute attendant is on to the rising star from the start – seems like an older actor’s paranoia, but, as the ingénue’s schemes emerge, Margo confirms that sometimes they really are out to get you. James will play the creepy title character.

Saoirse Ronan

Ivo van Hove, acclaimed Dutch director of the recent Broadway version of The Crucible starring Saoirse Ronan, is to bring Mankiewicz’s film to the stage. He sounds like the right fellow. His take on Sidney Lumet’s Network with Bryan Cranston was a hit. He’s also had successful goes at The Little Foxes, Hedda Gabler and Antigone. If there’s a director capable of finding a theatrical equivalent for Mankiewicz’s cinematic flourishes then it’s that Dutch experimentalist.

The real Margo would be appalled to hear that somebody from telly was to take over her persona, but Anderson is not short of aggressive hauteur. One can imagine many worse ways of approaching this project.

Not right

Yet it still seems wrong. The apparent inversion of hierarchies is jarring. The suggestion, in 1950, that one might adapt a film for the stage would be as eccentric as the notion of adapting a forest or a train journey. Plays became films. Sometimes books became plays and then became films. When Broadway had hits such as A Streetcar Named Desire or A Man for All Seasons, the studios began circling and plotting the adaptation’s Oscar campaign. Nobody wondered when The Bridge on the River Kwai would make it on to the Great White Way.

The shift began with musicals. As long ago as 1993, Andrew Lloyd Weber put Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard into the West End. In the decades since, Billy Elliott, Spamalot, Hairspray, Legally Blonde, The Producers, Kinky Boots and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels have followed the same route.

What happened to the original yarn culled from unexplored parts of the imagination?

Disney created a whole new industry with versions of animated hits such as Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. The Band’s Visit, based on an Israeli film, just won the most gongs at the Tony Awards. The most nominated productions were film adaptation Mean Girls and – previously a TV show and a film – SpongeBob SquarePants.

Straight plays

Then there are the straight plays based on movies. The Graduate, Calendar Girls, Chariots of Fire, Fatal Attraction, Network and The Ladykillers have all been staged recently.

Never mind those old-school hierarchical notions. Two more serious issues rub against the flesh. A film is not just a script. Treat it as that and you misunderstand the nature of the cinematic art. At the same time, theatre is losing something if it lifts its visual aesthetic directly from the screen.

More worrying still is the suspicion that, in the narrative arts, tastemakers now believe audiences will attend only something they already know they want. That’s why we get endless Marvel adaptations. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child has just conquered Broadway and the West End. Something has curdled here.

What happened to the original yarn culled from unexplored parts of the imagination? “What a story! Everything but the bloodhounds snappin’ at her rear end,” Ritter’s character sighs in All About Eve.

That I’d pay to see.   

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