Good afternoon, dear readers,
It is time that I make a confession: I am not only a book junkie. I am also a theatre junkie. And so it always makes me very happy when these two loves of mine are merged.
I’ve been thinking lately about the choice to adapt a book for the stage, and what kinds of books (if, indeed, there is a particular kind) are more suitable for a theatrical adaptation. I haven’t reached any grand conclusions on this topic, but I thought it’d be worthwhile to discuss some recent theatrical adaptations of books regardless (and if any of you reach a grand conclusion of some sort, please do share it with me!).
When I first learned that Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun Home was in the works to be turned into a musical, I was torn between delight and terror. Such sentiments are probably understandable to anyone who has ever heard that one of their favorite books is going to be adapted to another form. On the one hand, I was thrilled by the mere idea of seeing this beyond fantastic book come to life. On the other hand, I was petrified at the thought that the musical would butcher the original material. The narrative is certainly not “traditional” musical material: the book frankly discusses homosexuality, is told in a nonlinear manner, and contains tons of literary allusions. My trepidation, however, could not win out over my intense desire to see the show. So, last fall, I purchased a ticket to see Fun Home. One month later, I purchased another ticket for Fun Home. A month after that, I purchased a third ticket to Fun Home.
If it’s not clear by now, I love the show to bits.
What struck me as I watched the show (and then watched it again, and then watched it again . . .) was how perfectly suited Fun Home actually was for a musical. Handling challenging/”not-discussed” subject matters through song made perfect sense; songs are, after all, all about those moments and emotions when words or music alone fail. And the non-linear format of the book lent itself beautifully to a musical format, given that (at least for this musical) so much hinged upon emotional currents rather than linear time, a narrative style that does not always work in film. I can’t write much more without getting incoherently fan-girl-esque and gushing all over this blog post. Suffice to say that this the show was, and remains, one of the best live shows I have ever seen, and I am already eagerly anticipating its transfer to Broadway this spring.
Speaking of Broadway, another of my favorite books can currently be found in theatrical form in New York’s theatre district: Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. This novel tells the story of Christopher Boone, a fifteen-year-old boy living in England, who decides to investigate the murder of his neighbor’s dog after he is initially accused of the crime. Although Haddon never states it explicitly in the book, critics and readers (as well as the book’s blurbs) say that Christopher has high-functioning autism. This autism presents Christopher with unique challenges, such as not understanding social cues or being able to empathize in a traditional manner, but it also gives him a novel way of seeing the world.
Christopher’s individual perspective is brought fully to life by the theatrical adaptation. Christopher is both the narrator of his own play and a character within it, able to both position his fellow characters and be himself positioned. The set design functions as a sort of mirror of Christopher’s mind. The floor, ceiling, and walls of the stage are composed of cubes. These cubes can open up like panels, be used by the actors to either walk in geometrical patterns or break those patterns, and can be either physically drawn upon or used to depict digital images (as shown in the photo). This apt scenic design gives us access to how things look from his individual perspective just as the novel does, while simultaneously retaining a barrier between him and us (his audience). This sort of set design would be harder to pull off in film or television, as it is not particularly realistic. In theatre, however, such notions of reality are already more easily broken down. This play also comes with my soaring recommendation.
Unfortunately, I am unable to tell you to see the last book-to-theatre adaptation I want to discuss, as it is no longer running. But this play nonetheless deserves discussing because it is another instance that I believe reveals much about the choice to adapt a book into a theatrical work. This past summer, Book-It Repertory Theatre in Seattle adapted Michael Chabon’s beautiful Pulitzer-Prize winning novel: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. The novel tells the story of Joe Kavalier and Sam Clay, cousins who become successful figures in the comic book industry in the ’30s-’50s. Although I initially had no idea how this novel could become a play — this novel that spans a dozen years, covers events in multiple countries, contains interludes of stories from the cousins’ comic books, and is riddled with dense prose and literary allusions — I was immensely curious to see what Book-It would do with this material. I was even more curious when I learned that Book-It was adapting this 700-page novel into a 4-hour play. That might sound like something of a nightmare to sit through at first, but luckily, every adapted minute was worth watching.
Once more, the very things I’d worried about ended up being the play’s greatest strengths. The entire stage became one of Kavalier & Clay’s comic books, filled with cartoonish moving set pieces and comic-book-style sound effect bubbles with onomatopoeia. The characters also now and then narrated their lives as though they were characters inside of a comic book, e.g. “Joe felt very foolish” or “Sam did not know what to say.” Such devises both heightened the presence of the main characters’ comic books while also empathizing thematically the narratives these characters used to construct their own lives, their fictions and various self-portrayals.
I still have yet to reach any grand thesis regarding the decision to turn a particular book into a theatrical piece. I do think it worth noting, however, that in these examples, the choice to dramatize a book seems inherently linked to the book’s material rather than an arbitrary decision.
Until next time, dear readers,