Film-To-Stage vs Stage-To-Film – which one is better?

Film-To-Stage vs Stage-to-Film adaptions – does one work better than the other?

The practice of adapting popular films for the stage seems to have found its niche in UK theatre audiences, with numerous musical and straight productions having come to the West End over the course of the past few years. Film-to-stage adaptions have become a genre all of their own within the industry and have, as a rule, proven popular with theatre-goers – indeed, Tim Rice recently raised the question of whether there is still an appetite for musicals which aren’t jukebox, revivals or adaptions in response to the early closure announcement of his new musical From Here To Eternity, which is set to close after just six months in the West End. Currently playing in West End theatres are such musical adaptions as Billy Elliot and The Bodyguard, and an original stage play of 1987 film Fatal Attraction is soon to open, while on their way are the musicals of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Made in Dagenham and an adaption of Shakespeare in Love. Let’s not forget either, the film-to-stage adaptions which are making their way around the UK with touring productions, such as Dirty Dancing and Ghost The Musical.  

Some have fared better than others in the West End, but isn’t that always the way? West End audiences are generally very receptive to adaptions of films, although there are always concerns as to whether they can successfully transfer from the big screen to the stage, and these days, their arrival is usually accompanied by a select chorus of voices bemoaning the entrance of another ‘unoriginal’ show. There is certainly a place for them in the West End however.

As the popularity of film-to-stage adaptions has grown, so has that of its counterparts, and the reversed practice of taking much-loved theatrical productions from the stage and putting them onto the big screen has grown to become something of a sensation in the last couple of years. Andrew Lloyd Webber teamed up with director Joel Schumacher for a movie version of his highly successful musical The Phantom of the Opera in 2004 which, although not a complete failure, did attract some major criticism regarding the singing ability of the film’s cast – particularly Gerard Butler who played the lead role of The Phantom. The 2008 film adaption of Mamma Mia, the jukebox musical based on the songs of ABBA, was much more warmly received upon its release, although certain cast members came under fire for their voices too. The 2011 film of War Horse directed by Steven Spielberg and the 2012 film of The Woman in Black starring Daniel Radcliffe followed and both garnered positive reviews, but it was the big screen adaption of classic musical Les Miserables that really made a noise. A concerted effort was made to feature a cast whose vocal abilities measured up to their acting abilities and a notable difference to previous musical film releases was that every actor/actress sung live instead of miming to pre-recorded vocals. The film received favourable reviews and was a hit with fans of the stage musical.

The success of Les Miserables has paved the way for the film adaption of another popular musical: Wicked. Plans for a movie version have been in discussion since 2004, but talk has increased following Les Mis and now rumours are abounding as to the date of its eventual release and who will be starring in it. Idina Menzel, who originated the role of ‘Wicked Witch’ Elphaba in the stage production, has said in the past that she would love to be involved in the Wicked film in some way, although it wouldn’t be a case of her reprising her stage role as the actress herself has admitted she’s too old to play the part now. Theatre fans would no doubt love to see cameo appearances from her and her co-star in the original production, Kristen Chenoweth, who played Glinda, though. The latest rumours are that the film has been set for release on 29th October 2015 and that One Direction’s Harry Styles is leading the running for the role of Fiyero. The names of Stephen Daldry and Lea Michele have also been linked to the project, the first to direct the film and the second to star in it as Elphaba. When decisions have been made and the cast finally announced, there will be contrary opinions regardless of whether it swings in the favour of trained stage performers, unknown actors or star names. I’m already hearing outraged cries against ‘stunt casting’ and the over-riding view appears to be that Wicked will sell itself without the need for famous faces such as hugely popular boyband members… I feel no desire to get dragged into the debate, but I will say that the Les Miserables film had a cast comprised of actors from both the stage and the big screen, all of which had varying levels of fame, and the resultant combination worked perfectly in my view. Wicked film makers would do well to consider the casting example that Les Miserables set, as well as how it tackled vocal performances. One would hope that the time and consideration that has already been put into the idea of a Wicked film would suggest that the producers are looking to get every aspect of it right rather than just rush out film which can capitalise on the popularity of the stage musical.

The relationship between the stage and screen is one of give and take, but one side must inevitably come off better than the other and when it comes to film-to-stage vs. stage-to-film, I would say that musicals which have transferred to the big screen have a higher chance of success than when the process is reversed. Adapting a classic film into a stage show comes with a number of problems which aren’t as evident when doing it the other way around. For instance, lead roles in a film are usually defined by the actor/actress who plays them – audiences associate the characters with those particular artists which can lead to resistance when new faces are introduced. On the stage, the cast are continually changing and roles are portrayed by a wide variety of stage performers, so an attachment to one particular artist isn’t so readily formed as it is with films. Another example would be that a stage production is limited by the theatre in terms of the setting of scenes and effects and putting it on to the big screen will ultimately make it look bigger and better and take the story to new heights. There are things that can be achieved on film that you just can’t simulate in a theatre venue, so while a theatrical show can benefit from the freedom the movie-making process offers, film in comparison, have to face numerous obstacles and limitations in order to overcome the challenge of the stage and successfully transfer from the one medium to the other. There are some film which would perfectly lend themselves to the stage, such as Baz Luhrman’s Moulin Rouge, but most of the time it just won’t be worth it. As a fan of both theatre and film, my thought is that I would much rather see a big screen version of a musical than a stage adaption of a movie.

By Julie Robinson (@missjulie25)

Content updated 7th October 2014

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