This month sees the release of Fences, Denzel Washington’s buzz-attracting adaptation of August Wilson’s 1983 play. The film’s trailer suggests powerful entertainment, full of emotional characters, moral debates and tour-de-force performances. Such things are a feature of some of the most acclaimed and influential American plays of the twentieth century and bringing this to the screen has challenged filmmakers for decades. With a confined location and potentially “stagey” action, Washington is the latest to attempt to avoid the genre’s pitfalls. For inspiration he need look no further than two classic adaptations: the 1951 adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire and the 1966 version of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
The two films are both magnificent pieces of cinema, but do not forget the qualities that made the plays so beloved in the first place. This is first and foremost in the dialogue, which reaches levels of sheer brilliance in both texts and is left largely untouched by Ernest Lehman’s revision of Albee’s work and Williams’ adaptation of his own. By being true to the power of the language in the plays, both films had to battle with the censors and pushed the boundaries of what could be said and implied on screen, venturing into dark, hateful and sexually-charged territories that helped advance the cinema of the age. Whilst Albee’s and Williams’ dramas have similarly forceful impacts on the audience and both films are shining examples of how to adapt them, the routes taken by directors Mike Nichols and Elia Kazan in getting there differ in many places.
One key difference in the two films is in the casting. For Streetcar, three of the four major players from the original Broadway production (Marlon Brando, Karl Malden and Kim Hunter) were retained for the film, with director Elia Kazan also staying on board. The crucial role of Blanche DuBois was taken by Vivien Leigh, who had starred in Laurence Olivier’s London production. By contrast, none of Mike Nichols or his cast had experience of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? on the stage. This difference puts Fences closer to Streetcar, as Washington and Davis have already starred together on Broadway, hopefully helping the sparks to fly between them on screen.
What Mike Nichols did have however, was two of the most famous screen stars of the day in Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Coming off the back of Cleopatra, they were known for their turbulent, media-baiting off-screen relationship, adding an extra layer to their portrayals of a crumbling marriage. Such recognisable faces together on screen makes the film instantly seem more a part of the cinematic canon, rather than the theatre.
Now Streetcar, of course, had possibly the biggest turbulent-yet-brilliant star of them all – Marlon Brando, a man who Los Angeles Magazine once described as being “rock and roll before anybody knew what rock and roll was”. Yet, this was one of the first films Brando made and as great as he may have been on stage, Kazan’s film brought him to a wider audience, kick-starting his legendary career. In fact it was co-star Vivien Leigh that would more likely have been cast for her star-power, having had the success of box-office sensation Gone with the Wind some years earlier.
No matter how apt their casting was, Nichols and Kazan inevitably faced the challenge of making their adaptations seem cinematic enough to warrant having made them in the first place. Kazan takes the more subtle approach, using less visual tricks than his counterpart. Having said that, he makes good use of close-up on a couple of occasions; for instance, when Mitch roars through the curtain to Stanley, filling the screen with both his face and his voice. Kazan chooses to hone in on Blanche during her most reflective moments too, making use of the cinematic medium in adding voices off-screen to help probe deeper into the cracking psyche that is such a big part of the play.
Kazan and Williams, in their collaboration, make smart decisions on what to keep and what to change from the original script too. The film starts differently to the play, opening the action out into the streets and a bowling alley to establish the milieu of Stanley and Stella’s lives and show Blanche as being a stranger on their turf. Having said that, certain scenes are rightly kept in their original confined settings, such as Blanche and Stanley’s infamous stand-off towards the end, where there is a palpable sense that she is being hunted down by him.
Lehman opens out the setting of his script too, but in a way that feels wholly natural. He, too, knows what to leave alone and the film successfully recreates the oppressive intensity of the married couple’s home that is crucial to the play. This is partly done by removing the score from the majority of the scenes inside the house. Instead, we get a soundtrack of vicious insults and acerbic put-downs. Like Kazan, Nichols favours close-ups due to the inherent inability to achieve the same effect in theatre. His visual invention goes further than this however, as he plays with perspective, focus and a dividing of the audial and the visual to help build tension, dive inside his characters minds and create fascinating visual metaphors.
As far away from the original scripts as the films go, they are still character-driven pieces whose power lies in their dialogue and emotional turmoil. As such, they are still dependent on their performances. This is where they really soar. Leigh, Hunter and Malden all won Oscars for their work in Streetcar but it was Brando who would become the real winner. The word “iconic” is overused these days, but Brando, exuding his raw, animal sexuality, kneeling at Kim Hunter’s feet after his uninhibited cries of “Stella!!” truly lives up to the word. Burton and Taylor are similarly mesmerising. They bring vital chemistry and intense screen presence to an already ferocious script. Burton has a weary, sardonic wit that masks a nasty aggression and deep hurt whilst Taylor is a simple whirlwind of energy and emotion. Together, they are capable of being moving, funny and utterly electrifying as they slowly wind up to top capacity in scenes of bruising hatred and bitterness.
Let’s hope Washington and Davis can live up to their legacy.