Adapting Novels to the Stage Summary


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 549 words.)

Paring the Story

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The average novel is longer and has more scenes than are practical to perform onstage. With a few exceptions, such as Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh (pr. 1946) and Strange Interlude (pr. 1928), modern audiences will not sit still for more than three hours. When Shaw’s Back to Methuselah premiered in New York in 1922, it took three nights to stage and was a flop. Bram Stoker assembled a group of actors, including the famous actress Ellen Terry as Mina Murray, for a onetime reading of Dracula shortly after its publication in 1897. His production consisted of five acts and forty-seven scenes, lasting four hours. However, his purpose was to establish his legal ownership of the dramatic rights to the story, and he never repeated his attempt. In 1979, The Royal Shakespeare Company mounted an eight-and-one-half-hour production of Charles Dickens’s Nicholas Nickelby that achieved some success as a theater “event” but in general, the limitation of audience attention span seems unlikely to change, arguably because a twenty-first century audience reared on cable television’s fast-paced Music Television (MTV) channel may not be willing to sit still for even three hours.

One adaptation method is to strip the novel’s plot down to the bare essentials. One of the longest novels ever adapted to the stage is Les Misérables (1862) by Victor Hugo: It is more than one thousand pages in the unabridged version. However, because the intricate plot threads sooner or later converge on the central character, Jean Valjean, the original French adapters Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel chose to concentrate on him in their original 1980 adaptation. The...

(The entire section is 700 words.)