In For a Penny: Speaking My Language

Charles Lewis III, with thoughts on writing and voice.

August Wilson writing CAPTION: via The Goodman Theatre

August Wilson writing
CAPTION: via The Goodman Theatre

“I have to confess that I’m not a big movie person; I don’t go to a lot of films and I don’t know very much about the history of stage-to-film adaptations. [..] The way I see it, the stage tells the story for the ear, and the screen for the eye.”
– August Wilson, 2002 interview with John C. Tibbets for Hallmark

I recall Tom Hanks appearing on Inside the Actor’s Studio many, many moons ago and giving a pretty good Q&A with the students gathered. When one asked what it’s like to work in so many different mediums, his response was something akin to “Film is a director’s medium, television is a producer’s medium, the stage is the actor’s medium.” As I write this, I’m having a hard time finding a clip of it and am basing that quote on memory, so please forgive me if I’ve misquoted.

Still, I get what that quote is going for, even if I don’t entirely agree: the former two speak of who wields artistic control over their medium, which is not what I’d call the actor’s role in theatre. Perhaps if he added literature, he’d have said the author, but writing a play is very much a form of literature and the preservation of the playwright’s voice is a priority. In film, the author’s voice is secondary (or twenty-secondary) to an appealing visual; in theatre, the voice informs the visuals.

So when I heard that August Wilson’s Fences – a play I revere by an author I admire – was finally getting a film adaptation, my interest was piqued. When I read that it would be directed by, and most likely star, Denzel Washington, my heart raced. (And just in time for Black History Month!) When I read that the screenplay would be written by Tony Kushner… I tilted my head and raised an eyebrow.

Don’t get me wrong: I love Kushner as much as the next theatre aficionado and think he’s written two fine screenplays – Munich and Lincoln – for Steven Spielberg. But those were historical events adapted into Kushner’s own voice, something he does all the time. How is he at adapting the voice of another author, let alone one as linguistically distinct as August Wilson?

Similar to Wilson in the quote above, I had only a passing knowledge plays adapted for film: I knew of many plays adapted by their playwrights for film (Prelude to a Kiss, A Streetcar Named Desire, Tape); playwrights who tried writing original screenplays (Girl 6 by Suzan-Lori Parks, The Object of My Affection by Wendy Wasserstein), and the countless adaptations of Shakespeare, Greek drama, and so on. Yet I didn’t know much about the history of playwrights adapting OTHER playwrights for film (minus the Shakespeare, et al). I just figured that a playwright would be so protective of their work that one living during the film era would be sensitive about a colleague/rival taking their work to an unfamiliar arena.

With this in mind, I decided to research this specific history. I immediately eliminated all films that fell into any of the three categories above and set a rule that the play and playwright HAD TO have existed during the film era, thus creating the possibility for the playwright to have seen it. Just compiling the list was an eye-opening that I couldn’t even complete by the time I wrote this.

It revealed some interesting experiments, some of which I was already aware (Mamet’s adaptation of The Winslow Boy, Harold Pinter’s screenplay for Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth), but many for which I wasn’t (Dorothy Parker writing Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes, Hellman’s own adaptation of The Dark Angel). After looking over this still-incomplete list, I asked myself – regardless of the quality of the film itself – how well the playwright’s voice had been preserved, for better or worse. “How does this work as an adaptation?”

In some cases, the stage story (which will often be so long as to necessitate an intermission) was streamlined well for the shorter running time of a film, such as with John Logan’s adaptation of Sweeney Todd and Jay Allen’s screenplay for Cabaret. But there were a few cases in which the adapting playwright/screenwriter missed the point of the original work altogether, such as Tyler Perry’s screen version of For Colored Girls… and Jean-Paul Sartre’s screenplay for The Crucible. Again, regardless of how these films may act on their own merits, they represent what every author fears when they turn their work over to another. Of course, August Wilson is no longer around to express such concerns.

Which brings me to elephant in the room: there’s a natural concern Black people have when a White artist attempts to recreate Black voices or a White artist filters Black voices through their own point-of-view. I’m reminded of that scene from Spike Lee’s Girl 6 (again, an original screenplay by Pulitzer-winner Suzan-Lori Parks) in which hotshot White film director “QT” (played by Quentin Tarantino himself) condescendingly speaks down to the Black actress he’s auditioning. He boasts that he’s creating “the greatest African-American movie ever made… told from my perspective”. Given Tarantino’s history of tone-deaf recreations of specific non-White-male groups (including the early-20s women of Death Proof), it’s a surprisingly meta moment.

I wonder if Parks conceived that scene herself, or at Lee’s suggestion? Norman Jewison frequently recalls the years he attempted to make a film about Malcolm X with a screenplay by David Mamet. When Jewison felt he wasn’t hitting the mark, he asked Lee – then fresh off directing Do the Right Thing – for his opinion. Lee told him rather bluntly that Jewison was “telling the story a White man would tell”. Eventually Jewison dropped off the project and Lee took over.

It doesn’t mean that a White man should never adapt a non-WM male voice (or vice versa), it just means that those who are NOT White males have earned the right to be cautious whenever it does happen. If you hadn’t noticed, we have a bit of a bad history with that sort of thing.

Tony Kushner writing CAPTION: via PBS

Tony Kushner writing
CAPTION: via PBS

I’m very much a fan of Kushner and love that he’s doing this as a collaboration with Denzel Washington. I love that they’re working from Wilson’s own screenplay and believe that “[t]hey want to use everything Wilson has done. They want to use all of his words.”

And yet, as a theatre artist and film-lover (ethnicity aside for a moment), I wonder why an author with such a distinct voice would even bother with an adaptation if it’s only to preserve the original voice? I could only imagine what would happen if he ignored it, but it would still intrigue me as a Kushner experiment. Kushner is a great writer, but in a Tony Kushner way, not an August Wilson way.

When news of the collaboration broke, playwright Lynn Nottage took to her Twitter page to express skepticism similar to my own. She eventually deleted those tweets and wrote “#Replacejudgementwithcuriosity I’m enormously excited [..] Beauty must flourish”. I guess that’s the best any of us can hope for.

Charles Lewis III considers one of his proudest theatre accomplishments to be working with actors who worked with August Wilson.

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One comment on “In For a Penny: Speaking My Language

  1. Reblogged this on The Thinking Man's Idiot and commented:
    In which I use Tony Kushner’s adaptation of August Wilson’s “Fences” to discuss playwrights adapting other playwrights for film.

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