STAGE TO SCREEN: Adapting the Classics

STAGE TO SCREEN: Adapting the Classics If you like your classics unadorned and pristine, you should probably steer clear of the new “Importance of Being Earnest” film. Hot-air balloons, tattooed tushes, medieval fantasies, Lady Bracknell’s racy past—this isn’t your grandfather’s Oscar Wilde.

If you like your classics unadorned and pristine, you should probably steer clear of the new “Importance of Being Earnest” film. Hot-air balloons, tattooed tushes, medieval fantasies, Lady Bracknell’s racy past—this isn’t your grandfather’s Oscar Wilde.

I’ve always thought of Wilde’s plays as a bridge between the Victorian and modern eras, with his more incendiary material couched in what Wilde called an “exquisitely trivial” format that helped make the notions a bit more palatable. Director/adapter Oliver Parker has shifted the setting from 1893 to 1900 and, as a result, placed Wilde squarely among the moderns.

“I like fraying the edges of authenticity, looking for strands that would tease the piece into modernity,” says Parker, who directed a more staid adaptation of Wilde’s “An Ideal Husband” in 1999. “The dialogue is extraordinarily sharp, and I was very interested in finding a way to not make it stilted and old-fashioned. I tried to give it a bit of fizz. At the same time, I also hoped to tap the emotional vein of it a little more.”

One way to find this blend was to add jazz into the mix. The sight of Algernon pounding out some boogie-woogie piano is certainly a bit jarring, but Parker feels the idiom is a sound metaphor for his conception of the piece: “You need a strong discipline, but once you’ve got it, you can be loose.” Parker, who is convinced that Wilde used Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a frame of reference, also brought much of the romantic action outdoors to illustrate “the country having an intoxicating effect on the lovers.”

It’s surprising that Parker began with “An Ideal Husband,” which would seem to have far less box-office appeal than “Earnest.” “I’d always thought about ‘Earnest,’” he says, “but I was worried that it was too essentially theatrical. I was very reassured by how Wilde’s comedy seemed fresh in ‘An Ideal Husband,’ which gave me the confidence to go ahead with it.” One welcome spillover from “Husband” was the casting of Rupert Everett, the closest thing we have today to the classic Michael Redgrave/George Sanders school of rakish Brits. He is joined by Colin Firth, Reese Witherspoon, Frances O’Connor and Dame Judi Dench—“always my ideal Lady Bracknell,” Parker says. (Interestingly, Parker has cast one American and one Australian actress in each of his Wilde films—Julianne Moore and Cate Blanchett in “Husband,” Witherspoon and O’Connor in “Earnest.”)

The overall tone of this “Earnest” is surprisingly knockabout, even zany. Parker, whose only film besides the two Wilde outings was the decidedly non-zany “Othello,” says he enjoys creating a setting conducive to such hijinks. “You have to create a strong context first and then make it free,” he says. “If you establish an atmosphere where the actors can relax and have some fun, spontaneous things can happen. You can’t bank on them, but they’re more likely to happen.”

Like so many directors, Parker has run into his share of trouble getting projects up and running: “I’ve been very busy not making movies.” But one particular project—“Fade to Black,” a period murder mystery that features Orson Welles as a lead character—has been in the works for several years now. The plan had originally been to do “Fade to Black” between the two Wilde films, but “once the idea of ‘Earnest’ got rolling, there was no stopping it.” Parker hopes to shift back to the thriller now.

***

I may have been a bit remiss in calling attention to two smaller adaptations, one already on screen and one on its way. I had never heard of either My Big Fat Greek Wedding or The 24th Day, probably because they appear to have been Los Angeles phenomena, but both have apparently caught Hollywood’s eye. The former started as a one-woman show by Second City alumna Nia Vardalos, and it seems to have hit a nerve: “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” has already turned a profit, and CBS is molding the story into a possible midseason series. Both filmed versions have an expanded cast (Andrea Martin and Lainie Kazan appear in the film), but Vardalos still stars in the film as well as the series pilot. I’m curious to know more about the stage background of this piece; can anybody out there help out?

Noah Wyle and Peter Berg starred in the premiere of Tony Piccirillo’s The 24th Day back in 1996, and Piccirillo has just begun directing his own film adaptation in Philadelphia. Here’s a rare case where the stage production actually had more star power: The two leads this time are James Marsden (“X-Men”) and “Felicity” star Scott Speedman. Again, any information on this would be appreciated. I know it’s a drama that deals with AIDS, but that’s about it.

***

Your Thoughts: Do you like your adaptations straight up or with a twist? Are any playwrights “sacred” in terms of modernizing? What period or writer do you think benefits most from the occasional tweak? And I would welcome any information about “The 24th Day” or “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”

Eric Grode is New York bureau chief of Show Music magazine, assistant editor of The Sondheim Review and a theatre critic for Back Stage.