In this week’s Wall Street Journal “Sightings” column, I write about Fences and Manchester by the Sea, and what those two films teach us about the differences between writing for the stage and the screen. Here’s an excerpt.
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Denzel Washington’s “Fences” and Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea,” which both received best-picture Oscar nominations this week, have deep roots in live theater. “Fences,” of course, is the long-awaited screen version of August Wilson’s 1983 play. Not only did Wilson, who died almost 12 years ago, leave behind a draft of the script that has since been posthumously revised by Tony Kushner, but five cast members, including Mr. Washington (who doubled as the film’s director), Viola Davis and Stephen McKinley Henderson, starred together in the play’s 2010 Broadway revival. As for “Manchester by the Sea,” it was written and directed by Mr. Lonergan, whose “You Can Count on Me” and “Margaret” are among the finest films of the past quarter-century—yet Mr. Lonergan, like Wilson and Mr. Kushner, is also a playwright, one of the best we have.
None of this would have been stop-press news a generation ago. It used to be taken for granted that audiences across America would flock to big-screen versions of hit plays like “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “The Odd Couple” that they weren’t able to see on stage. But times have changed, and while such major plays as “August: Osage County” and “Doubt” are still turned into films on occasion, it’s been years since any of them made more than a minor box-office splash.
Will “Fences” break that losing streak? Any director who seeks to turn a first-rate play into a movie of equal quality, after all, faces formidable obstacles going in, the biggest of which is that film, unlike live theater, is a fundamentally visual medium. A movie that is scrupulously faithful to the play on which it’s based can end up being visually unadventurous and stiff-jointed. If, on the other hand, the screenplay departs significantly from its source material, you may end up with a distortion, even a perversion, of what the playwright meant.
The problem with this argument is that many film critics wrongly elevate it to the status of an incontrovertible principle….
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Read the whole thing here.
James Earl Jones and Courtney B. Vance perform a scene from the first Broadway production of August Wilson’s Fences, directed by Lloyd Richards, on the 1987 Tony Awards telecast:
Denzel Washington and Chris Chalk perform the same scene from the 2010 Broadway revival of Fences, directed by Kenny Leon:
The trailer for the 2016 film version of Fences, which opens with an excerpt from the same scene. The role of Washington’s younger son is played by Jovan Adepo: