The wicked stage has offered some of the greatest human dramas ever written, and in the 20th century, American theater–specifically the Broadway stage–entered into a golden age not seen since the days of Shakespeare. Audiences flocked to see the latest stage dramas, as did Hollywood producers. Long before the ilk of Hairspray, Shrek and Legally Blond attracted tourist audiences to pay outrageous prices for seats at a Broadway show, Hollywood used to look to Broadway for movie fodder. Countless films found their origins in stage shows.
Unfortunately for some bankrollers, what worked on stage didn’t always make a sound transition to the big screen, as evidenced by some recent cinematic duds. August: Osage County, anyone? Rent? The Producers? Fortunately for cultured audiences, though, plenty of stage classics do succeed in adapting their allure to movies, often with original cast members reprising their roles. The films listed here–in no particular order, to be clear–rank among the best adaptations from stage to screen. While some make simply great entertainment, others evolved into some of the greatest films ever made, and will continue to be treasures for future generations. These fifteen rank among the best, though there are countless more we could mention.
Amadeus took the world by storm in 1984, scoring Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor. It remains a seminal classic of latter-day cinema, and one of the best films of the 1980s. Audiences still marvel at the towering achievements of the film…so much so they often overlook it was a play first.
And one hell of a play it was! Early productions featured Sir Ian McKellen (who snagged a Tony), Tim Curry and even Mark Hamill. Needless to say, when Milos Forman, the Oscar winning director of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest signed on direct, just about every actor in Hollywood camped out on his doorstep to test for the leads. Imagine their collective gasps when one of the frat boys from Animal House won the titular role, and when an actor best known for Fruit of the Loom commercials scored the plumb role of Salieri.
Forman’s film maintained the poetic language of the play, the complex characters, and added an entirely new level of musical celebration to the proceedings. F. Murray Abraham scored a Best Actor Oscar, catapulting him out of obscurity and into a career as a lauded character actor.
14. My Fair Lady
When Hollywood mogul Jack Warner bought the rights to the smash hit musical My Fair Lady, he paid an unheard of sum of $5 million, inciting a collective gasp from tinseltown. Warner predictably set the film on track as a major blockbuster, featuring an all-star cast. Ironically, had Warner cast his original choice for the male leads—Cary Grant and James Cagney—the movie probably wouldn’t have been nearly as good. Fortunately, both Grant and Cagney had the foresight to turn down Warner’s offer, insisting that he retain the original Broadway cast of Rex Harrison and Stanley Holloway. Audrey Hepburn won the female lead of Eliza Doolittle, and what had been a smash on stage became a smash in cinemas.
Yet even more than fifty years after release, My Fair Lady swirls in controversy. An unknown actress named Julie Andrews had played Eliza on Broadway to great acclaim, though Warner scoffed at casting her in the film version, citing his considerable monetary investment. When Andrews scored raves for her performance in Mary Poppins the same year, Hollywood cried foul at Warner. Andrews won an Oscar for her performance, while Hepburn didn’t even get a nomination despite strong notices. Her snub, and Andrews’ win—possibly due to the sentiment over not getting the role of Eliza—remain hotly debated today.
13. The Sound of Music
Julie Andrews struck again—and by playing a nanny again—with Robert Wise’s mega-adaptation of The Sound of Music. The material seemed unlikely for a hit: a nun, a frigid widower and some Nazis all sing and dance for three hours. Wise, the acclaimed protégé of Orson Welles, ordered several songs cut from the stage version and had the plot somewhat restructured. Composers Rogers & Hammerstein also added two new songs for the film version, which quickly became standards. Veteran actor Christopher Plummer took on the male lead, and the production filmed on locations in Austria.
The initial reception of the film, at least from critics, was a negative one. They attacked the movie as overly sentimental, trivializing of Nazism and generally corny. Audiences flocked in droves to see it, however, and it became one of the biggest movies in history. It won a whopping five Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. The film enjoys a strong cult following today, including annual sing-along screenings at the Hollywood bowl… God help us.
12. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf
Edward Albee’s play about an alcoholic middle-aged couple and their dysfunctional marriage caused a stir on Broadway in 1962. Set over the course of a single night, the couple, named George and Martha, play host to a younger couple, Honey and Nick. As the four get more drunk, fights break out, exposing faults in their marriages and in their sanity. Given the story and the play’s three-hour runtime, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf made for bitter medicine at the theater. That audiences flocked to the play is even more perplexing.
Former theatre director Mike Nichols made his debut behind the camera for the film version, which starred Hollywood’s first tabloid couple, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Writer Edward Albee protested their casting, considering them both wrong for their parts. Nevertheless, the film opened to rave reviews and strong box office. Even more impressive, the script underwent virtually no changes from stage to screen, apart from one scene change and the addition of two extras. Otherwise, the dark lunacy of Albee’s work remains intact, and all four main cast members scored Oscar nominations, with Taylor and supporting actress Sandy Dennis taking home the gold.
11. Angels in America
Following the success of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Mike Nichols became one of the hottest directors in Hollywood, directing smash hits like The Graduate (for which he won an Oscar), The Birdcage and Primary Colors. In the early 2000s, Nichols decided to take on what he would consider his magnum opus: an HBO adaptation of the “unadaptable” two-part Pulitzer Prize winning play, Angels in America.
Set in the mid-80s at the height of the AIDS crisis in New York, the play followed two couples in the mist of relationship crises, and intertwined their lives with the real life figure Roy Cohn, Judaism, Mormonism and the coming new millennium. In total, the full play ran six hours, which made a screen adaptation almost impossible. Besides the elephantine runtime, the content also presented a problem with censors: the play featured full frontal male and female nudity, gay and straight sex scenes, and an intimation that God had abandoned humanity.
HBO allowed Nichols almost total creative freedom, and the director delivered. Angels in America won more Emmys than any other production in history up to that time, and Nichols considered it the best work of his career. With a cast that boasted Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson, Mary-Louise Parker, Jeffrey Wright (who came to fame in the original stage production) and Patrick Wilson, it swept the acting categories at the Emmys, as it did every other award it was nominated for. The film came at a time when George W. Bush had called for a constitutional amendment to prevent gay people from marrying, and the honest passion of the characters called the LGBT community and their allies to arms to stand up for their rights.
The 1990s revival of Chicago took Broadway by surprise. The show, which first played in 1975, had a strong run and earned good critical notice, though it slipped into obscurity after it closed two years later. The show, which revolved around a pair of murderous women who become celebrities courtesy of their scheming lawyer and trial antics. In a post-OJ Simpson world, the story suddenly had new resonance, and Hollywood took notice. The elements of jaded cynicism in the plot had only become more hilarious over time.
Then Development Hell claimed Chicago. A revolving cast which included Madonna, Goldie Hawn, Charlize Theron and Cameron Diaz, came and went while a number of writers and director struggled to crack the script. The play relied heavily on theatrics, didn’t lend itself well to film where audiences didn’t take so well to breaking the fourth wall. Enter Bill Condon, the Oscar winning writer of Gods and Monsters, and director-choreographer Rob Marshall. Operating on a conceit of Condon’s–that the musical numbers took place inside one character’s head–Marshall crafted stylish movie that maintained most of the stage version’s hilarious wit. It became a runaway hit, winning Best Picture, and helped to revive the stagnant movie musical genre.
9. West Side Story
When Broadway aficionados compose their lists of best scores to ever grace the stage, West Side Story makes just about every roster, often at the top. The musical, which debuted 1957 borrowed its plot from Romeo and Juliet, reimagining it as a conflict between New York street gangs. A young white man falls in love with a Puerto Rican girl, and the actions of their friends eventually push them to tragedy. Robert Wise signed on to direct the film version, and in an unusual move, granted stage choreographer co-director credit. The production was a stormy one, to say the least. Wise had wanted an all-teen cast, while Robbins demanded that the performers all perform their own stunts and dance numbers. Tensions ran high between Wise and Robbins, who pushed the cast to the point of exhaustion. Fearing for the health of the performers, and with Robbins’ habit of shooting numerous takes dragging the production behind schedule, Wise fired his co-director. Robbins promptly had a nervous breakdown!
Despite the cost overruns and the physical demands for the actors, West Side Story became a smash on release, nabbing a Best Picture Oscar, and becoming one of the rare instances where two people—Robbins and Wise—shared the Best Director Award. George Chikaris took home a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, as did his co-star Rita Moreno. Moreno’s Supporting Actress win made her one of the few performers in history to win a Grammy, Tony, Emmy and Oscar award.
8. Sweeney Todd
Stephen Sondheim has always tried to deconstruct the musical genre, and in 1979, he did something very unorthodox: he created a horror musical. Based on the English legend of a murderous barber, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, caused a stir when it opened. A tale of love, obsession, murder and cannibalism, it had great cinematic promise though the subject matter made it difficult to adapt. Leave it to visionary director Tim Burton to finally get Sondheim to agree to a film adaptation to bring Sweeney to the screen.
Translating Sweeney Todd to screen ruffled the feathers of some die-hard fans, as Burton and writer John Logan decided to cut some of the more theatrical bits from the script. The casting of Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter in the leads also caused a stir, as neither were known for their vocal abilities. The final film, however, an odd blend of humor and terror, is nothing short of spellbinding. The stellar cast doesn’t make the mistake of trying to belt songs on screen; instead, they perform in sensuous whispers, making the film as unconventional as it is compelling.
7. One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest
Before he tackled Mozart, Milos Forman tackled insanity by adapting Ken Kesey’s popular novel One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest into a blockbuster with Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher. The book had become a successful stage production which played on Broadway in 1963 starring Kirk Douglas. Douglas knew a plumb role when he found one, and optioned the play and novel for a film adaptation. Ten years passed before he would see the film go before the cameras, and as such, Douglas had to bow out of the lead, having aged too much for the role.
In adapting the play, Forman went back to the original novel for structure and plotting and, indeed, the film owes more to the novel than to the stage version. On the other hand, the film does retain several key elements from the play. Nurse Ratched’s character is portrayed as more feminine than her literary counterpart, and actor Danny DeVito recreated his stage performance as Martini for the movie. The final film version swept the Oscars, including the “Big Five”—Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Screenplay—and has since become a seminal classic.
Cabaret radically changed the musical genre and became a major hit upon its release in 1972. Based on Christopher Isherwood’s seminal novel I Am A Camera about hedonism in Berlin just prior to the rise of Nazism, the film began as a popular play in 1966. When esteemed director Bob Fosse signed on to direct the film, his first edict was to demand the script be rewritten to more closely resemble the novel, and that all the musical numbers take place in a theatrical environment. What had been standard bust-out song and dance numbers on stage became part of the environment of the film.
The movie allowed stage star Joel Gray to reprise his role as the Puckish Master of Ceremonies, though the key roles of singer Sally Bowles went to a young Liza Minnelli, while the male lead went to Michael York.
It’s ironic that today people view the film as a Minnelli vehicle—York and Gray deliver masterful work as well. For that matter, Minnelli is actually miscast: Sally Bowles is meant to be a singer of questionable talent, while Minnelli sings, acts and dances as well as anyone in any musical in history. Cabaret took home Oscars for Best Director, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor, and continues to enchant audiences today with its great performances, choreography, and spectacular music. Every film student in the world should explore Cabaret’s unconventional brilliance.
5. Dangerous Liaisons
Glenn Close gave what might well be the performance of her life (which is saying something) as the scheming Marquise de Mereteuil in Dangerous Liaisons, an adaptation of Christopher Hampton’s smash play of the same name. The story revolves around the backstabbing and seduction of French aristocrats just before the revolution. The Marquise plots with the Count Valmont to seduce and destroy the reputations of their social rivals for sheer amusement… and because the two might just be in love with each other, but don’t know how to show it. Instead, the two prefer to scheme and inflict cruelty as a show of power.
The film adaptation did what the stage adaptation never could. Filmed on location in France and sporting a lush budget, it recreated 18th century French society with stunning accuracy. Moreover, it also allowed some of the best actors alive time to shine. Along with Close, John Malkovich, Michelle Pfeiffer, Uma Thurman and Keanu Reeves round out the cast. Pfeiffer and Close both nabbed Oscar nominations—and Close should have won. For proof, look no further than Close’s final scenes. The animal emotion she displays will curdle the blood.
4. A Streetcar Named Desire
Playwright Tennessee Williams changed everything with A Streetcar Named Desire, his play about changing gender identity, class, and sexuality. Needless to say, when Hollywood tapped a film version, tinsel town opened up a dark canister of issues. To be fair, the movies tried to do something extraordinary from the get-go, casting three out of four of the leads with the actors that originated the characters on stage. Kim Hunter, Karl Malden and an unknown Marlon Brando found themselves heading to Hollywood from New York. Leading lady Jessica Tandy, who would go on to a great film career of her own later in life, found herself left behind, replaced by cinematic superstar Vivian Leigh. Even stage director Elia Kazan found himself transplanted to a soundstage.
Kazan strove to maintain so much of what he and Williams had achieved on stage, right down to the nymphomania of the main character. The screenplay contained few deviations from the stage script, and Kazan coached his actors into a new level of realism. Though censors demanded certain cuts to the film (which thankfully, have since been restored), it nonetheless caused a sensation on release. Leigh, Hunter and Malden all won Oscars, and A Streetcar Named Desire, apart from being hailed as the greatest work of American drama, became one of the great American movies.
3. Glengarry Glen Ross
American capitalism has a knack for ending up the subject of scathing theatrical critiques, among them David Mamet’s award-winning play Glengarry Glen Ross. It proved a big hit when it played on Broadway, with critics praising it as one of the great works of American drama. Hollywood came knocking shortly thereafter, and Mamet signed on to adapt his script to the big screen.
Glengarry Glen Ross follows a group of desperate real estate salesmen in Chicago who use underhanded and often disgusting techniques to convince clients to invest in land sales. If the salesmen treat their clients with disrespect, they treat one another with utter contempt. Lest among the office is the once-prosperous salesman Shelly Levene who has fallen on desperate times. Conspiracy and office backstabbing ensue, all underlined by poetic dialogue.
The film version one-ups the stage incarnation by featuring some of the best actors alive: Al Pacino, Kevin Spacey, Johnathan Pryce and Jack Lemmon, who nabbed an Oscar nomination for his performance. Writer David Mamet also added a new role—written for and played by Alec Baldwin—that provides one of the film’s best scenes. The movie proved a wild critical success, and actors everywhere continue to study it as a masterwork.
2. The Miracle Worker
The Miracle Worker remains one of the most often-performed plays in the American repertoire, with dozens of productions every year. The life story of deaf-blind activist and author Helen Keller and her teacher Annie Sullivan, it moved audiences from its first previews in 1959. When Hollywood came calling for the movie rights, it did something very wise: it maintained the director Arthur Hill in the helm position, and kept the two actresses in the leads. Anne Bancroft had already become a movie star by the time she did The Miracle Worker, and her work in the film would lead to her Academy Award win. In the role of Helen Keller, an unknown actress named Patty Duke took on the difficulty of portraying a deaf-blind character.
The Miracle Worker feels tame by today’s standards, with stiff supporting characters and some soapy plot twists. What feels timeless, on the other hand, are the performances of Bancroft and Duke that reach startling levels of intensity. Duke in particular impresses the most: at only age 15, she injects the child Keller (who is eight in the film) with a key intelligence—she may not speak or see, but she is smart enough to know how to take advantage of the people around her. Duke too scored an Oscar, initiating a long screen career. Despite the frequent productions since, no actors have yet to touch the work of the original cast.
1. Hedwig and the Angry Inch
What a strange topic for a musical: an East German expatriate who undergoes a botched sex change operation and becomes a rock star? If the subject of Hedwig and the Angry Inch seemed bizarre on stage, it too raised eyebrows in a film version. Even more amazing, it made it to Hollywood before Broadway.
Hedwig began as an experimental one-man show. Essentially, the lead actor spoke a single monologue that encompassed the entire story punctuated by some awesome rock numbers. When original writer/star John Cameron Mitchell signed on to write, star and direct an indie film adaptation, observers let out a collective grunt on intrigue. A movie about a German transsexual who starts a rock band? Who would want to see that?!
Then they saw the film. Mitchell did something amazing: he’d fleshed out characters mentioned in the stage version to full roles while maintaining the plot and wry humor of the script. Above all, his own performance—by turns hilarious, bitter, pensive and heartbreaking—anchored the film. His Hedwig bridges the gap between nationality, sexuality, gender and even split personality. The movie became an instant cult classic, and later, helped the stage version finally make it to Broadway, too.
Have a favorite adaptation we didn’t mention? Tell us in the comments!
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