Adapting Novels to the Stage Analysis

Early Adaptations

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Before the twentieth century, adaptations of famous novels in theater were more common because the concept of intellectual property was in its infancy, and adapters did not feel obligated to pay royalties to or get permission from the original authors. For instance, shortly after its publication, several playwrights adapted The Vampyre (1819), by John Polidori, to the stage in Great Britain and France because of an erroneous rumor that the famous Romantic George Gordon, Lord Byron, was the true author. James Fenimore Cooper’s novels were popular as well. Ten of his first fourteen novels were adapted to the stage all over Europe. However, the single novel most often adapted in the United States was Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Or, Life Among the Lowly (1852), by Harriet Beecher Stowe. There are twelve known versions and at least four hundred touring companies that played nothing else. The most famous adaptation was by George Aiken, produced in 1852. It had six acts that were performed over two nights and required extensive scene construction and painting. Polidori, Stowe, and Cooper never received royalties.

Dialogue and Music

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Many novels have little or no dialogue, while, with the exception of a few stage directions, a play is driven by and consists entirely of dialogue. When the Heywards adapted Porgy, for instance, they had to add dialogue because most of the novel consists of narrative.

It may be more important for dialogue to be faithful to the spirit of the original rather than to the letter, especially if the novelist’s purpose was satire. The dialogue for Herbert Field’s A Connecticut Yankee (pr. 1927), based on Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), combined archaic English with 1920’s slang, especially in the song “Thou Swell.” King Arthur’s lines are based on the utterances of President Calvin Coolidge, and Merlin’s speech sounds like a mixture of thirteenth century Sir Thomas Mallory and twentieth century New York journalist Damon Runyon.

Because a play is heard, one way the stage can add value to the original novel is to include music. Even if electronic books become commonplace one day, it is unlikely they will include original music of the quality of a Rodgers or Lloyd Webber production. Furthermore, since musicals generally have a larger budget than nonmusicals, it may also be feasible to include more characters and scenes.

In South Pacific, songs reveal the character of the singer and take place logically within the action rather than interrupting it. Nellie Forbush’s songs, such as “I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy,” are conversational, straightforward, and bright. Émile de Becque’s songs, such as “Some Enchanted Evening,” are complicated, passionate, and yet thoughtful. Marine First Lieutenant Joe Cable is a Princeton graduate, his fiancé attends Byrn Mawr College, and there is a job waiting for him after the war at the family’s law firm of Cable, Cable, and Cable. However, he falls madly in love with Liat, a seventeen-year-old Tonkinese (Chinese-Vietnamese) girl who would be unacceptable to his family and social circle back home. He expresses his internal conflict in the songs “Younger than Springtime” and “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.” A recurring story line in the book was the absence of female companionship, especially for the enlisted men. This is reflected in the song “There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame.”

Choreography and Spectacle

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

In addition to the importance of dialogue and music, the visual experience is important in a play. If there are scenes that lend themselves to dance, the visual can enrich the experience. When Rodgers and Hammerstein adapted Margaret Landon’s novel Anna and the King of Siam (1944), based on the diaries of Anna Leonowens, as The King and I in 1951, they engaged Jerome Robbins. He staged “Getting to Know You,” “Shall We Dance?” and “March of the Siamese Children.” The latter had no words, yet the music and body language reveal the relationships between the king and his children. His biggest challenge was the ballet sequence “The Small House of Uncle Thomas.” Rodgers suggested he approach it from a comic perspective, and the result was the combination of Asian movements with the melodrama of the Stowe novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), on which the ballet sequence is based.

The so-called megamusical enjoyed a boom in the 1970’s, 1980’s, and 1990’s. Sometimes the producers used novels as sources. They were characterized by spectacle, mobile scenery, and computer-generated special effects for light and sound. Special effects are nothing new. When William Young adapted Lewis Wallace’s 1880 novel Ben-Hur in 1899, the production featured a treadmill to simulate the chariot race. In Les Misérables, the stage revolved, and the sets included a barricade to simulate the 1832 uprising. The Phantom of the Opera required extensive modification of the Majestic Theater in New York. The stage had to have ninety-six trapdoors to move scenery. A chandelier descends from the ceiling and crashes onstage. More than one hundred candles rise from their own little trapdoors in the Phantom’s lair.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Bach, Stephen. Dazzler: The Life and Times of Moss Hart. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001. Covers the life of one of the theater’s most successful playwright-directors of the mid-twentieth century. Chapter 23 examines Hart’s adaptation of Shadows Move Among Them; chapter 24, his aborted attempt to adapt Edna Ferber’s Saratoga Trunk; and chapter 27, the adaptation of Camelot, which he directed.

Douglas, Kirk. The Ragman’s Son. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988. Chapter 30 describes the author’s unsuccessful attempt to bring Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest to Broadway in 1963 with himself playing McMurphy, and the early chapters concern Douglas’s early career as a New York stage actor.

Hutchinson, James M. Dubose Heyward: A Charleston Gentleman and the World of “Porgy and Bess.” Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2000. Heyward and his wife Dorothy adapted two of his novels to the stage. Chapter 4 describes their first nonmusical adaptation of Porgy to the stage, chapter 7 concerns the much more famous George Gershwin opera Porgy and Bess, for which Heyward wrote the book and much of the lyrics, and the last chapter includes the less successful adaptation of his second novel, Mamba’s Daughters.

Logan, Joshua. Josh: My Up and Down, In and Out Life. New York: Delacorte Press, 1976. The passages describing the adaptations of Mister Roberts and South Pacific are very detailed.

Nolan, Frederick. Lorenz Hart: A Poet on Broadway. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. Describes the staging of A Connecticut Yankee, the ill-fated Chee-Chee, and Pal Joey, Hart’s masterpiece.

Rodgers, Richard. Musical Stages: An Autobiography. New York: Random House, 1975. This book includes several accounts not only of adapting novels to musicals such as A Connecticut Yankee and South Pacific, but also of adapting novels to nonmusical plays that Rodgers produced.

Skinner, Cornelia Otis. Life with Lindsay and Crouse. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1976. Although Clarence Day’s Life with Father (1935) is not a novel, but rather a series of personal reminiscences, the process by which Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse adapted the book is the same as adapting a novel.