Any time someone utters the phrase “The book was better,” they are likely referring to a related film adaptation. It’s the debate of the ages: book nerds and film lovers constantly butting heads over the two. Yet, there is a whole entity of adaptations that no one seems to be talking about—the literature to play adaptation. Despite the fact that some of the most famous theater productions of all time are based off of books —“Les Misérables” or “Wicked,” anyone? — the partnership of literature and theater has gone somewhat unnoticed.
UC Berkeley’s campus drama organization, BareStage, has two book-to-play adaptations in its current season. It put on the adaptation of George Orwell’s “1984” in October and will end its season with “Carrie,” based on the Stephen King novel, next semester.
Off campus, Aurora Theatre is in the midst of its run of “Everything is Illuminated” — a play based off of the eponymous novel by Jonathan Safran Foer. And Central Works recently closed its run of “Chekhov’s Ward 6” based off of a short story by Anton Chekhov.
In the case of “Everything is Illuminated,” an intricately complex novel driven by a surrealist tone, the stage may provide for a better-suited atmosphere. The story follows Jonathan, a young Jewish man, as he travels to Ukraine to explore his grandfather’s past, who spent time there during World War II, with the help of two tour guides. The tour guides have a crazy dog that clashes with Jonathan.
The film adaptation of this book, of course, uses a real dog. Aurora’s stage production does not; they instead opted for sound effects and convincing acting. The director, Tom Ross— who is also the artistic director of Aurora — found this choice to fit the tone of the book.
“That’s part of the fun of the theatricalization of it is trying to figure out how these realistic things happen on stage in more of an abstract way,” Ross said in an interview with The Daily Californian.
The stage, like literature, prioritizes themes and characters over movement and aesthetics. This allows for plays to really bring the core of a book to its center. A major part of “Everything is Illuminated” is the author’s distinct themes and styles, which connect to larger elements of the novel. Ross found that the stage allowed him to convey the author’s style visually.
“I tried to use expressionism to translate the writer’s magic realism,” Ross said. “It’s his aesthetic turned into a stage form.”
Aside from the thematic and stylistic benefits the stage provides, there is a logistical reason for theater companies to invest in book-to-stage adaptations.
Central Works, which only produces world premieres, has done dozens of adaptations, the most recent being “Chekhov’s Ward 6.” Gary Graves, who directed the play and also wrote the adaption of the short story, spoke about the practical reasons for turning to literature.
“It’s partially about finding a connection point with a new audience,” Graves said in an interview with The Daily Californian. “If a play is new, people have no understanding or connection to it. So with, ‘Chekhov’s Ward 6,’ for example, Chekhov is the connecting people. Maybe people have heard the name, or they’ve read the story.”
That connection point works with film too. But theater has a certain element that is inherently unique—it is not meant to completely absorb the audience member into a seamless fallacy. It is meant to present a live production with the notion that it is staged and contrived in the back of audience members’ minds.
“I’m going to borrow a little something from Tony Kushner — one of the things that’s wonderful about theater is its inability to create a totally convincing reality,” Graves said. “Theater is a thinking medium. It allows for provoking the audience to wondering what is this really about, what is really going on.”
Once a company makes the decision to bring a work of literature to the stage, the process becomes about which parts of the work should be transferred to the play’s script. Like film, many cuts need to be made and theater presents even more limitations, since space and the number of actors needs to be considered. Furthermore, there is the question of what to do with all of the prose that is not dialogue. What makes the theater stage so applicable to adaptations, regardless of these limitations, is the close relationship between the audience and what is happening on stage. In the case of small theater, the audience may be in the middle of the action at times. Attention is fervently kept, as actors are working to tell these stories live, right in front of the crowd’s eyes.
“How to decide what to put in the play, that goes back to, as a playwright, as the adaptor, what do you want to say with this story?” said Graves. “And, there’s so much that isn’t dialogue — with that, the question is, what are they doing? You can create meaning through manipulation of the stage picture. Relationships are established and being actively conveyed to the audience.”
There’s a reason why plays are often read in English classes, studied right alongside novels and short stories. Literature and theater have always had a close relationship and are now becoming increasingly more intertwined.
As two mediums in which the words come before the visualization, it only makes sense for this overlap to create successful stage shows. Literature and theater are in tune with each other in a way that makes for successful themes and character-driven stories. Even with scenes for characters cut, readers will recognize the core of the story they love being played out on the stage. They get the experience of connecting with the story in an intimate, bursting setting — it’s coming to life right in front of them.
This partnership will likely be sticking around for many more literature-to-play adaptations to come.
Contact Nikki Munoz at [email protected].