On Sunday I went to a panel/conversation with theater directors. There was a discussion over calling a play “text” or a “script”, and which is more accurate. One of the directors referred to a play as a poem open for interpretation. Which is, after all, the job of the director. To interpret the work of the playwright. Some playwrights exert more control over the process than others–Edward Albee approves casting of his work. And the Beckett estate has strict rules for the productions of his work, though he has been dead for decades. In the theater, the playwright is the center of the process. Everyone else works on the interpretation of the work, guided by the director. But another director, another time, another theater company, the play can be revisited or rethought. Which is what makes theater a living art form.
The other day I was driving and listening to an interview with Sue Grafton on NPR. She was talking about her Kinsey Millhone books, and how she has refused to let them be made into a movie. Her reason was three fold. First, producers buy the rights to characters, not stories, so the movie wouldn’t be faithful to the novels. Second, her readers had their image of Kinsey, and any casting would upset someone. Let her live in people’s heads. And third, she had adapted work for Hollywood, and knew what that process was. So she decided to keep her novels novels.
A friend of mine, a wonderful poet, takes some of her long form poetry and redacts it. She literally blacks out large portions of the text, honing it down to a chosen few words. Some of these redactions completely change the meaning of the original work. Others bring out a heartbreaking truth that had been layered over by words.
I am a consumer of words. Plays. Books. Poems. Screenplays. Short stories. Lately I have been thinking a lot about how important it is to respect the form. Musicals made into movies, books made into plays, plays made into TV shows. . .this cross fertilization has been happening forever. But with a critical eye, does it always work? Does the second incarnation play homage to the original, or does it usurp it? Is Shakespeare ever as good on a screen as it is on stage? (I can argue either side on that.) Am I glad that Kinsey Millhone won’t be a movie character? When I think of Stephanie Plum, I say yes. But when I think of James Bond, I wonder. And speaking of Bond–who saw Skyfall? I am still pondering, but it may be my favorite Bond movie. And I wonder if it is because it is a new story that also plays homage to the source material.
I recently saw a play that had been adapted from a novel. In my opinion, it didn’t work. The adaptation was too faithful to the novel. It needed to be cut, and adapted into the new form, that of a play.
Sometimes, often, I have an idea for one form, and then when I start working, the form doesn’t fit. A short story wants to be a novel, or a novella. Or an idea for a novel works as an outline, but when I am working on it, it barely hangs together as a synopsis. I am not a poet, but of late I feel compelled to try. So what to do–fight the work and keep trying to fit it to the form? Or admit defeat and adapt?
Do some of your ideas feel like they would fit better in a different form?
J.A. Hennrikus is the 2013 President of Sisters in Crime New England and the ED of StageSource. Her short story, “The Pendulum Swings, Until It Doesn’t” was published in Level Best Books Blood Moon last fall.