A Play on Film: Top 10 British Stage-to-Screen Adaptations

Photo of Kath Middleton
12 January 2017

Shakespeare dominates the landscape of British films that are adapted from plays, but there are plenty of others worth discovering. Here are 10 of them.

The History Boys (2006)

This is as faithful as a theatre adaptation can get; rewritten for the screen by the original playwright, British institution Alan Bennett, performed by the same cast as the original National Theatre production, and directed by Nicholas Hytner, artistic director at the National Theatre. A Dead Poets’ Society for working class Britain, The History Boys portrays an eccentric teacher striving to inspire students through the medium of poetry, and culminates in their Oxbridge interviews. It launched the careers of James Corden, Dominic Cooper and Russell Tovey, and should be revisited for a reminder of their abundant talent.

Equus (1977)

Much was made of Daniel Radcliffe’s decision to distance himself from Harry Potter by starring in the 2007 stage revival of Equus Peter Shaffer’s tale of a young boy, Alan Strang, who has a sexual and religious devotion to horses as a result of childhood events. Many believe the hero’s struggle with bestiality is a metaphor for homosexuality, as Shaffer himself was a homosexual. Here, Peter Firth, who has played Strang many times on stage, locks horns with psychiatrist Richard Burton, arguably one of the best theatre actors in history. The film resulted in Burton’s seventh and final Academy Award nomination, and a challenging yet compelling viewing experience.

On Golden Pond (1981)

Powerhouses Katharine Hepburn and Henry Fonda, both rewarded with Best Acting Academy Awards for their performances in this movie, play family figureheads lending biting humour to a nonetheless deeply moving film. Norman and Ethel Thayers are an elderly couple staying at their summer cottage on the titular pond, a relaxing vacation that transforms into an in-depth look at Norman’s relationship with his daughter, played by real-life daughter Jane Fonda. Marrying belly-laugh humour with familial angst, On Golden Pond is a wonderful example of a film powered by the theatrical values of great dialogue and committed performances.

Little Voice (1998)

Written especially for Jane Horrocks, stage production The Rise and Fall of Little Voice tells of social recluse LV who is discovered to have an amazing talent for voice mimicry by her selfish mother’s seedy, talent scout boyfriend. Here, Horrocks reprises her role for the screen opposite British greats Brenda Blethyn and Michael Caine. The performances are top-notch all round – Caine snagged the Golden Globe and Blethyn received an Oscar nod – but it is Horrocks’ astonishing ability to recreate the vocals of Judy Garland, Shirley Bassey, and Marilyn Monroe that has to be seen to be believed.

An Ideal Husband (1999)

It takes a starch-stiff upper lip and a devilishly arched eyebrow to match the razor wit of Wilde’s words; luckily, Rupert Everett possesses both. Before he pondered on the importance of being E(a)rnest, Everett tackled the role of Lord Arthur Goring, who is tasked with salvaging a friend’s reputation after the appearance of blackmailer Mrs. Cheveley. Starring future Academy Award winners Cate Blanchett and Julianne Moore, the film treats Wilde’s beautifully constructed social satire with sensitivity as well as affection: it is littered with meta Wilde references including an in-movie performance of ‘…Earnest’ and a green carnation buttonhole.

Death and the Maiden (1994)

Stripped back to one location and three actors, Death and the Maiden is a masterclass in building suspense through dialogue and character development alone. Sigourney Weaver gives one of her best and most underrated performances as Paulina Escobar, a political activist in an unnamed Latin American country, for whom memories of a previous traumatic assault are triggered by the sound of a neighbour’s voice (Ben Kingsley). Convinced he was her tormentor, Escobar restrains and tortures him in hopes of extracting a confession. Riveting from start to finish, the film – based on a play of the same name by the Chilean Ariel Dorfman – keeps you guessing until the very end.

East is East (1999)

Drawing on his own childhood experiences, playwright and screenwriter Ayub Khan-Din’s portrayal of British-Pakistani family life in multicultural Britain is set in 1971 but appears strikingly relevant to the modern day. Using typically British self-deprecating humour to satirise arranged marriage, organised religion, and confusion over seemingly simple things like nationality, East is East is a small but hilarious film that deals with the important struggle to embrace and reject a cultural heritage in equal measure.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)

Critics worried whether Johnny Depp would do justice to the part previously played by such vocal giants as Bryn Terfel and Michael Ball. He plays it intelligently, crooning Sondheim’s haunting melodies with a purposefully raspy edge. Helena Bonham Carter shines as the tragically comedic Mrs. Lovett, serving up Todd’s murder victims in her tasty meat pies, while Sacha Baron Cohen delivers a memorable cameo as rival barber Pirelli. But it is Victorian London, grimy and macabre, that most impresses itself on the audience psyche. This is the only film adaptation of any of his works that has passed muster with Sondheim, and it easy to see why.

Marat/Sade (1967)

Theatre purists and film buffs alike will be enchanted by Peter Brook’s adaptation of Peter Weiss’s play-within-a-play, showing a portrayal of the assassination of revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat as performed by the inmates of an insane asylum some fifteen years after the revolution, and penned by its most famous inhabitant, the Marquis de Sade. The stage production is notoriously wacky, performed behind bars so that the modern audience act as contemporaries, and this adaptation is suitably surreal. Disturbing and difficult, dealing with the questions of what constitutes right and wrong, sanity and insanity, the film has been hailed as a masterpiece.

Finding Neverland (2004)

There have been numerous film adaptations of Peter Pan, but it was not until this adaptation of Allan Knee’s play that most discovered the sorrow behind the whimsy of J. M. Barrie’s classic. Here, Johnny Depp gives an uncharacteristically restrained performance as the soft-spoken playwright with a childlike imagination who becomes enraptured with a widow and her four sons, using play to offset the tragedy that has befallen them. Freddie Highmore gives a remarkably mature performance as Pan’s old-before-his-time namesake. At once inspiring and heartbreaking, it has a resonance to rival Barrie’s own writing.

By Kath Middleton

Kath Middleton is a qualified doctor and aspiring screenwriter originally from Wales, now living in London. At 10 years old her favourite film was Reservoir Dogs, which says all you need to know. View her blog on movie plot-holes at http://plotsinker.wordpress.com

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