Can’t we love a book enough to want to bring it to life on stage?
Summer is here, and so are the plays for kids. Last May I wrote about the booming turnouts for all the theatre and workshops for children in Mumbai. This year, sadly, something has changed. Audiences have been significantly smaller. One reason perhaps is that there may be too many new productions packed into these two months, which are dividing the audience.
The other, more likely reason is that April and May have been particularly hot and humid, and people have fled the city. Traffic was miraculously less, so I’m inclined to buy the latter. Anyway, now the rains are here, and the crowds are back, and the congestion on the roads is worse than before. But this is not what this month’s article is about.
Capturing the essence
Two new plays that I did catch this season were The Little Prince and Treasure Island. Both adaptations of novels, the former by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and the other by Robert Louis Stevenson. Both bonafide classics. Both not easy to adapt, particularly with constraints. Treasure Island is a swashbuckling adventure, a period piece set in shady inns, aboard ships, and on the titular island, while The Little Prince is a fantastical journey across planets, featuring a fox and a rose as prominent characters, and packed with little lessons of life. Both productions were very brave attempts, but also drew my mind to the complexities of adapting novels, particularly loved ones, to stage.
In principle, the idea faces some opposition. Some people feel that reading a novel is a very personal experience, meant for a one-on-one relationship between author and reader, with the reader’s imagination conjuring up images from the author’s words. Others feel that something is always lost in adaptation. Purists don’t like novels going to other mediums.
The book is always better than the movie.
The play couldn’t capture the protagonist’s turmoil.
Does that mean we shouldn’t try? Can’t we love a book enough to want to bring it to life? And if all goes well, perhaps put a spin on it?
We’ve attempted it time and time again, successfully on occasion. Recently we staged Under The Gypsy Moon, based on Srikanta, a Bengali novel by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay. The novel is expansive, with four volumes. The play was less than 90 minutes. While it couldn’t possibly cover all that ground, it captured the essence of the work rather well. I’ve written earlier about adapting the works of Ruskin Bond to the stage, thrice, with great success.
We faced some challenges with adapting Enid Blyton (a Five Find Outers novel, The Mystery Of The Pantomime Cat), Nick Hornby (we loosely and liberally adapted A Long Way Down for a short-lived comedy) Monika Schröder (Saraswati’s Way) and Hergé (aka Georges Remi, for a couple of Tintin adventures) for stage.
But we struck gold with L. Frank Baum (with a Hindi adaptation of The Wizard Of Oz), Daphne du Maurier (Rebecca), J.M. Barrie (Peter Pan), Mitch Albom (Tuesdays With Morrie), and Arthur Conan Doyle (with a hilarious take on The Hound Of The Baskervilles).
Of course, it all began with a grand failure. Some early success in the youth theatre circuit made me ambitious and I decided to attempt a stage adaptation of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? a novel by Horace McCoy, set in the darkest depths of The Great Depression. Sydney Pollack had managed to make a great film of the same name out of it so why couldn’t I do the same on stage?
Page to stage
Set in a dance marathon (a hideous practice to create entertainment with the offer of a reward, like the song and dance version of The Hunger Games), it had a cast and crew of nearly 30 people. And because I had acquired no adaptation skills back at the tender age of 22, the play has close to 50 blackouts.
I was essentially trying to put a film on stage with the lights going out for a scene change. I have, over time, gotten better at transitions, but my ineptitude back then led to a disastrous show, with walkouts, and some pretty sincere efforts to boo us off stage.
Sixty-odd productions and 15 odd years later I’m still all for adapting novels for the stage. If done right, there’s a great joy in seeing characters you have seen thus far only in your head living and breathing in front of you. As for imagination, theatre thrives on that.
There is a reason that so many popular plays find their roots in books. I saw a tremendous adaptation of A Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night Time. The theatrical sensation War Horse is based on a novel.
Les Miserables, Victor Hugo’s sprawling 19th-century epic, is one of the most successful, longest running musicals out there. Charles Dickens got the fabulous musical treatment with Oliver! The Color Purple has been made into a wonderful play, as has To Kill A Mockingbird.
I was surprised to find out that Fiddler On The Roof is based on Tevye’s Daughters by Sholom Aleichem, and The Phantom Of The Opera was originally a novel by Gaston Leroux. Even Wicked, which seems like it was created for the stage, is actually based on a novel by Gregory Maguire. Who would have thought that the wildly imaginative Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes would become Man Of La Mancha? The list is endless.
And the attempts are relentless. I recently came across the play script of The Kite Runner. Never crossed my mind, but someone did it, and all I saw was tremendous potential. I’d love to stage a Poirot novel, or a personal favorite, The Count Of Monte Cristo. Maybe I should look for some fencing classes on Just Dial.
Akarsh Khurana is a theatre producer and director and hence often broke. To cope, he writes and directs films and web series and occasionally acts, albeit reluctantly.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.