What is the art of translating theatre to cinema? Often, when I read Anna Karenina, I wonder if I am reading the great writing of Tolstoy or if I am reading the great English writing of the translator. “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” or, in the original, “Все счастливые семьи похожи друг на друга, каждая …”
In the same way, I have often wondered why great stage musicals so often translate into less-than transcendent movies.
I will always remember seeing Les Misérables for the first time on stage, and at the end of Act 1 wanting to join the French uprising!
But why, when watching the motion picture of the same musical was I left sitting in my seat wondering when the film was going to be over?
I don’t think the fault is with the Herculean efforts of the Oscar nominated cast and filmmakers, but rather with the language of cinema itself versus the language of theatre.
That is, the set gives an indication of the world and I fill in the rest.
Thus the epic sets and extras in the movie Les Misérables are very real, finite and fixed and therefore less dynamic and exciting than those that perfectly exist in my imagination when watching it on stage.
Moreover, and this is key, the realism of cinema fights with the expressionism of characters suddenly breaking into song. Song doesn’t happen in real life. And there is a disconnect in the suspension of disbelief. There’s real blood, real sewage and people dying on-screen, and people breaking into song. In reality people have enough trouble speaking their feelings, let alone singing them.
But it works on stage because the theatrical set design and lighting allow it to. As an audience, we bring something different to theatre than we do to cinema. I love Anne Bogart’s quote, “Unlike film and television, theater is unfinished until the audience completes the equation.”
Then, there are those wonderful contrapuntal musical battles between Javet and Jean Valjean and the other characters; when they are all singing different lyrics to the same melody or different harmonizing melodies ~ on stage all at once ~ as a theatre audience member I am free to look at whom and what I choose.
So powerful in theatre and completely impossible to do in cinema.
Or even worse, you do what Rodgers and Hammerstein insisted be done with their musical cinema adaptions of Oklahoma!, Carousel, The King and I, etc; which is to shoot largely in master shot, with very few close-ups (attempting, and failing, to duplicate the theatre-going experience on film).
This second technique entirely robs cinema of the core of its very power; to use editing and pacing while simultaneously juxtaposing different camera angles, camera movement, lens choices and shot sizes to tell the story.
Here cinema simply acts as the recording media and not an art form onto itself, creating the worst of cinema and the worst of theatre.
Finally, the dramatic story structure demanded by 100-years of developed cinema is different than what is required in the theatre. The perfect book of the stage musical does not directly translate into a screenplay – at all! The mandatory screenplay structure demands a different telling of the story.
Thus, theatre’s strength is actually cinema’s weakness, and cinema’s strength renders what is great about theatre, false.
Think of the great Broadway musical showstoppers; on stage these often are just an actor or actress alone on dark stage, lit with just a follow spot, transforming an audience.
What would you rather see? Barbara Streisand on stage with a solo spot, singing “Don’t Rain On My Parade!” or as it was rendered in the movie Funny Girl?
Equally though, there are moments when things are indeed better in a movie.
The visual mise-en-scene of cinema can, in the blink of an eye, convey a tremendous amount of exposition, without it having to be said or spoken about. It can be instantly seen and understood. Remember, we are first visual creatures long before we learn language.
What’s that saying? A picture is worth a thousand words.
This is largely because Fosse completely embraced cinema’s strengths while finding a way to keep and amplify the power of what was great about the stage show.
It was not a literal translation from stage to screen, but rather a complete adaption, morphing from one art form into the other, retelling the story in a new way.