The problem with movies based on plays
And rising A-lister circles 'Beetlejuice 2'
What to watch
This is less a recommendation and more just some stray thoughts on The Whale. In all honesty, if you’re not an award season completist you can probably skip the movie — but it is worth discussing.
What are we going to do about movies based on plays? Hollywood keeps making them—often for award season—and they keep coming out the same, frustrating way. The Whale is a good film with outstanding performances, but even a director as imaginative and provocative as Darren Aronofsky falls into the trap of movies based on plays. The problem is that play adaptations often box in the filmmaker with their minimal locations and arch, unrealistic dialogue.
We go to movies to see ourselves reflected. The language of cinema uses edits, camera movement, various locations, and subtextual conversations to create a simulacrum of life that we’ve been taught over 100+ years to understand and accept. You can feel Aronofsky trying to use these filmic tools, but instead he’s limited by the script which seemingly doesn’t deviate much from the minimalist play. Movies based on plays need to break out of the theater’s constraints and embrace the new medium they finds themselves in.
In addition to this, plays often feature heightened emotions and exaggerated human interactions (in the form of dialogue) meant to work well on the stage—they’re playing to the back of the house—but often end up feeling too broad in the detailed medium of film. The Whale suffers from this as well, though the actors act the hell out of it. This staginess, now on display in the directing, writing, and acting, then creates the perfect storm of artifice that puts the viewer at arm’s length — or perhaps the length of the proscenium to an orchestra seat. These adaptive mistranslations can prevent us from suspending disbelief and investing wholeheartedly, which is probably the inverse of what the artists involved want.
This isn’t to say that no one should turn a play into a movie. The Father is a recent example of such an adaptation that uses the language of film to enhance its smaller story. Should Brendan Fraser win the Oscar on Sunday for The Whale, it would be completely earned. But something is rotten with movies based on plays, and we as viewers should be critical of ill-conceived attempts at awards glory.
For all past ‘what to watch’ recommendations, see the full list here!
What to know
Jenna Ortega circling Beetlejuice 2… Love something as much as Jenna Ortega loves Tim Burton projects. Seriously, if you’ve got a macabre or horror story, Jenna is in. Jokes aside, she’s eyeing the role of Lydia’s daughter, which of course she is, but also that’s quite fitting. Just as she brought the dead pan, killer energy to Wednesday Addams — so would she bring it here to Beetlejuice. This is good casting, if obvious, and because Ortega is in such high demand right now, I hope she gets a nice paycheck for this. 👻
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