Alphabetical Movie – His Girl Friday
His Girl Friday is about the newspaper business in the same way that Casablanca is about running a nightclub. The characters in the film work for a newspaper but what they really do is engage in entertainingly witty banter while, theoretically, doing their job.
Coming from a background in theatre (and by “background in theatre” I mean “I have a degree in theatre that I haven’t used in twenty years”), I find that I often look at films and jump to the conclusion that they are based on a play and when I jump to that conclusion, I’m usually right.
The dialogue tends to be denser, the locations tend to be limited and there are typically fewer characters.
His Girl Friday takes place almost entirely in two locations, has a very limited cast (about ten important speaking roles) and has dense, rapid fire dialogue. Based on a play? You bet!
The language of modern filmmaking makes it harder to recognize but still, a small cast is a dead giveaway. When I watch a film like Closer and see that there are only four characters, I immediately assume that the film was adapted from a play. Indeed, it was.
What I especially enjoy about stage to screen adaptations is the dialogue. Sure, Tarantino hammers out some impressive dialogue. Dialogue, however, is the most important part of a play and it is very easy to spot in a film. The Battle of Helm’s Deep kicks ass but the characters don’t spend a lot of time sitting around tables having great conversations about it.
Contrast with Glengarry Glen Ross, which is all about the dialogue. Even Frost/Nixon, which is disguised very well, is driven by the dialogue between the two main characters.
Once you start to notice it, you can’t miss it. You watch a film thinking “I’ll bet this was based on a play” and you’ll go home to check and see if you are right. At least that is what I do. It’s like playing movie origin “Jeopardy.”
What is based on a play, Alex?
What is based on a novel?
What is based on a toy line?
In the earlier days of cinema, a lot of films were based on plays. Even Casablanca was based on a play. Today, unless one is adapting Shakespeare, fewer films seem to be based on plays. Of this year’s nine nominees for Best Picture, War Horse was the only one with that distinction.
I haven’t actually see War Horse yet but I presume that a significant amount of the story involves sharply written dialogue in which the characters have deep personal conversations with the horse.
What tends to be done more and more is to find ways to make the theatrical more cinematic, which makes sense. There was a time when you could make a musical like West Side Story, which feels theatrical in spite of some of the more impressive dance set pieces that could never have been created in a theatre, and the audience wouldn’t notice.
Contrast that with Chicago, which feels much more cinematic. We know it is based on a stage play but it very much looks like a movie. I think modern audiences want that. They don’t want to see a musical on a soundstage. They want to see a musical in the “real” world.
I imagine the reason we see an effort to make stage plays more cinematic is reflective of the way movies have become bigger than theatre could ever hope to have been. Films are grand and operatic and while they frequently lack sharp dialogue, they can take us wherever we need to go (Helm’s Deep) and can populate the screen with as many characters as they want.
If you are adapting a play, you feel the need to be grand and operatic. I don’t know if that is a good or bad thing. It’s probably both.
Still, I do get more intellectual engagement out of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead than I do out of Bad Boys.