Any attempt to compare the stage and film versions of Charles Fuller 's best-known work must start from the assumption that it's impossible for a movie director to preserve exactly the features of a theatrical work. It is also not desirable to do so. There are, to be sure, some...
Any attempt to compare the stage and film versions of Charles Fuller's best-known work must start from the assumption that it's impossible for a movie director to preserve exactly the features of a theatrical work. It is also not desirable to do so. There are, to be sure, some films that are merely "photographed plays," but for the most part, a successful transfer from stage to screen must accomplish something at least outwardly different from the theatrical work. If not, the whole purpose of filming it is in some sense defeated.
A Soldier's Play uses the theatrical conventions of soliloquy, for instance, in a way that, if literally portrayed in film, might seem artificial. Film is a naturalistic medium in which the ideal is to depict something that looks as if it's actually happening. In Norman Jewison's A Soldier's Story, this is accomplished in the external scenes, for instance, where the killing of Sgt. Waters (Adolph Caesar) is depicted. On stage, of course, it's impossible to show "outdoor" events literally, and the playwright does not even try to do so. In this respect, one could judge the film as "succeeding" in a way the play does not. The illusion of film is that although the audience members know that what they are watching is fiction, it could, conceivably, be "real" in the way that action in a theater, on stage, cannot be.
That said, in the case of A Soldier's Play, the similarities between stage and film versions outweigh the differences. In general, Hollywood does not have a good track record of faithfulness in adaptations of novels and plays for the screen. Even in the case of a film like The Godfather (1972), for which the screenplay was written by Mario Puzo, the author of the novel, the movie alters and, arguably, even distorts several key elements of the book.
A Soldier's Story does not do this. Apart from those changes that are necessary in order to transfer the play to the screen and actually enhance the artistic qualities of the cinematic version, the film does not markedly change the basic content of the play in terms of themes, plot, and characters. If something is lost in transition, it is the immediacy of watching the actors on stage in the presence of the audience. In a soliloquy, one gets the feeling, correctly, that a character is speaking directly to the people seated in the theater and is, in fact, communing with them. It's impossible to convey this immediacy in the cinema, despite the aforementioned other advantages that film does have over the theater.