Plays are an older art form than novels, dating back to the ancient Greeks, but the theater often looks to the younger medium for new material. The most obvious challenge to adapting a novel to the stage arises from the fact that authors intend their novels to be read, whereas playwrights, with the exception of George Bernard Shaw, intend their plays to be seen and heard. A play is a visual and auditory experience, while reading a novel is a literary and imaginative one.
A great advantage of adapting a best-selling novel to the stage is that there is a ready-made audience for it. On the other hand, this fact can be a disadvantage as well, in that the members of that audience may have strong views of what the characters should look like and how they should sound, and (inevitably) what portions of plot and subplots should be retained or eliminated in the process of adapting a narrative originally designated for a different medium. When Andrew Lloyd Webber (music and book), Richard Stilgoe (book and lyrics), and Charles Hart (lyrics) adapted The Phantom of the Opera in 1988, both the advantages and disadvantages were even greater, because so many people had seen one or more of the movies previously adapted from Gaston Leroux’s novel Fantôme de l’opéra (1910; The Phantom of the Opera, 1911).
Adapting a novel is no guarantee of success. Henry James attempted to adapt his 1876-1877 novel The American to the...
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