Challenges – Novels or Playwrights

Category: Literature
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“Directors who take novels or playwrights always faces some challenges when adapting them into films. While trying to stay faithful to a novel or a play, a director has to condense several hundred pages of words by turning it into a theatrical two-hour film, like the film I will be talking about, The Color Purple. They have to be able to captivate an audience’s attention and risk facing criticism in regards to their faithfulness to the literary work. Film adaptations allow directors to use their creativity. Playwrights, like Fences, can also limit a director’s creativity with dialogue-heavy monologues and limited scene locations. Directors have to choose what to keep and what to omit which can make or break a film, leaving those who have read the material upset and those who haven’t read the material confused as they don’t understand the entire context. A novel gives directors more freedom to adapt into a film than a play.

In The Color Purple a novel by Alice Walker, Steven Spielberg took on the challenge of adapting her novel into a film. As with many novels written in the first person, Spielberg had to avoid using excess voiceovers and use the show, don’t tell approach; this could be a challenge as the novel is based entirely on Celie’s letters to God. Spielberg brilliantly portrayed that image of the letters by putting a focus on the mailbox several times throughout the movie. When directing a novel based film, directors have to take a novel and split it up in three parts: beginning, middle, and end, and decide which parts to keep and which parts to omit. These decisions can greatly affect a film. As Alice Walker said in reference to her novel being adapted into a film, “Remember the movie is not the book”. Spielberg was successful in displaying the overall theme of the book in his film adaptation of overcoming adversity. In the novel, Celie overcomes adversity through her letters to God and later to Nettie, and instead of Spielberg showing Celie writing letters, he brings the letters to life. Spielberg was creative in producing a visual narrative when portraying Nettie’s time in Africa, which was probably the most interesting part of Walker’s novel. He achieves this by crosscutting scenes between Celie reading the letters and Nettie being in Africa. Spielberg uses this technique to create suspense as the crosscutting continues between Celie daydreaming of her kids in Africa during a traditional ceremony as she holds the razor to shave Mister but is filled with rage and is thus interrupted by Shug.

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When a director is faced with what parts to keep and what parts to omit, he can face backlash for not staying true to the film. In, The Color Purple, this can be seen when Spielberg revises Shug’s character by portraying her as being motivated by her problematic relationship with her father. He’s a preacher who doesn’t agree with her lifestyle and it isn’t until she’s married and comes singing into his church that he finally accepts her. This new subplot that Spielberg adds a powerful affirmation of patriarchal values which is completely different than the novel. Although Spielberg remained faithful to the novel, he still added his own elements and subplots but still embedded the theme of strong powerful images of affectionate women connecting with one another forming a sisterly relationship, woven together in a rich black culture.

Taking a play and turning it into a film has some of the same challenges faced by directors of film based novels, but they face challenges of their own. Like novels adapted into films, the decision of what to keep and what to omit presents itself as a challenge for directors. Plays often have long monologues which can easily become dull and boring to audiences, so directors have to think differently than the audience and adapt. Plays that are dramas are often confined to one or two locations that can seem claustrophobic on screen. And films without any action or special effects can be difficult in captivating audience’s attention.

In the film Fences, based on the play by August Wilson, Denzel Washington’s challenge was taking a dialogue heavy play and turning it into a film-worthy movie. While he stayed faithful to the play, he was successful in portraying the emotions through the characters with his camera-work, involving little movement, making it more about the actor, and captivating the audience, he does this for example with Rose’s monologue scene about giving up her dreams, and the “Why don’t you like me?” scene with Troy and his son. Another challenge a director has when adapting a play into film, is making the film not seem and feel like a play. Since plays take place in one small area, any landscapes or the ability to show a journey is usually conveyed with stage lighting or props; adapting them into a film can be a challenge as a director may be obliged to use different camera angles and distances. This can be applied to Fences: as it was filmed primarily in one area, with the exception of the addition in the film with a scene switching from the familiar back yard to a bar, which was used as a cinematic devise to convey the passage of time. Washington’s success is attributed to not only his star power, but Viola Davis and Stephen Henderson as well and his ability to move the action around the limited locations. His use of camera is always with the actors, as if the camera is listening as closely as the person watching it is. His biggest challenge was transforming his cinematic freedom throughout the film, leaving those watching the film feeling like they’re watching the actual play on screen, as if they’re watching something “real” taking place right before their eyes.

A novel gives a director more freedom to adapt into a film, than adapting a play. They have more leeway in deciphering what they want to include in their film, leaving the novel up to their own interpretation. Whether they are being true to the novel or not. In plays, it’s literally written in black and white; what a character’s dialogue is, what the scene setting is, stage directions, etc. It really leaves no room for a director to be more creative, unless he decides that he wants to “borrow” the idea/theme of a play and completely change it. Overall, directors of film adaptations of novels or plays face challenges, but it is always important to keep in mind that while some may not seem true to the source material, the directors use it as their canvas to bring their imagination to the screen.”

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Challenges - Novels or Playwrights. (2021, Jul 03). Retrieved from