You’d be forgiven for thinking us playwrights have run short on ideas, and our desperate idle fingers are grasping toward our bedside table book stacks for inspiration. Popular books being adapted to stage plays is simply all the rage.  Have playwrights run out of ideas? Definitely not. There is something to it though, clearly.

In Australia, we’ve had a perpetual line-up of our best playwrights adapting our best literary works for years on end;  Tim Winton’s Cloud Street, Tom Wright’s adaptation of Joan Lindsay’s Picnic At Hanging Rock, Kate Mulvaney’s well-received stab at Craig Silvey’s Jasper Jones, and Leah Purcell’s much-lauded version of Henry Lawson’s The Drover’s Wife (although you might be hard pressed to draw much of a straight line between Purcell’s compelling stage version and Lawson’s 1892 short story of the same name) are some of the more celebrated hits.

Currently in the pipeline are stacks more Australian literary classics bound for stage productions-  Peter Carey’s Bliss (also adapted by Tom Wright, busy lad) and Ruth Park’s The Harp in the South, Parts 1, 2 and 3, dammit, (also adapted for the stage by Kate Mulvaney, busy, busy lass).  This is just a tip of the adaptation iceberg. It’s been going on for years, love.

Crickey, they’ll be dusting off and busting out with A Town Like Alice The Shiralee and They’re a Weird Mob next. God help us. We are hooked on classics.

‘WRITE your own plays and stop effing around with everybody else’s. It’s lazy. It’s easy. It’s conservative. And it ignores the vibrancy of the contemporary voices that surround you.’  — Playwright and screenwriter Andrew Bovell, The Australian, May 25, 2013.

Bovell had been referring directly to a playwright/director who had adapted a classic play, (by Anton Chekov no less), not a book.  To be fair, the bigger issue at the time, and one that got many good theatre folk harrumph-ing over their foyer chardonnay was that the adaptor was taking credit for the work as if it were his own play. Astonishing stuff. Chekov would’ve probably wanted to slap on a ‘cease and desist’ order if he’d been around.   Still, Bovell’s is a particularly vehement position to take if you are the same Andrew Bovell who that same year adapted Australian best-selling novel by Kate Grenville,  The Secret River, into a stage script, and who later collected a Helpman Award for it as Best Play, and blow me down, Best New Work as well.  Since then there seems to have been an explosion of book-to-stage caper.

All of this begs the question: what is going on here?  Why this mad rush to get our best-loved books onto a stage?  We want to canonise the already canonised.  Celebrate the celebrated.

Some are taking the philosophical stance that we are wanting to consolidate our cultural bits and pieces, celebrate Australia’s coming of age, spread the joy of excellent Australian stories into a high impact visual experience.  Stirring words!

Also not especially true words.  Making a play using a household name title makes the production easier to sell.  It’s that straightforward.  Your audience is familiar with the name and happy to buy a (hellish expensive) ticket to a show they already understand to be a bit of a hit.  Bovell is right; it is about being conservative.  It is risk-adverse behaviour, at least more risk-adverse than producing a completely new work with an unfamiliar title especially from an unfamiliar playwright.

Call me a cynic and paint me Dorothy Parker, but I declare the adaptation movement is bourne not of national pride or literary respect, but simple bums-on-seats endeavour.

I bring this up because I am toying with the idea of doing an adaptation myself.  The book in question is hardly an Australian classic, but it should be.  I have never considered adaptation in my life, but there is something essentially wonderful and theatrical about this particular book.  I do know the author. I’ve even mentioned it in passing that I think his book would work as a play. He was non-committal on the matter by way of reply, but he did not say no either. He smiled and nodded, which could mean absolutely anything. It could mean he is secretly flattered but too shy to say. It could mean he was momentarily distracted by the thought of that night’s dinner menu.

So, book ot stage adaption. Where does one even begin with such a task?

I read recently that you should just go ahead and write the play— then show it to the author of the book.  Ipso facto, ask him/her for permission to pursue it further. Which seems vaguely inappropriate to me, a sort of ‘easier to say sorry than to ask permission” situation, but what do I know? What is the etiquette here?

An even more pressing question for me is, what new thing does the adaptation of a book to a play bring to an audience?  I would like to say it adds a great deal, but I suspect in many cases it doesn’t add a thing creatively or artistically.  Actually, adaption has the enormous capacity to wreck things, but let us assume for the moment it doesn’t.   What an adaptation should do is add a dimensionality (both literally and figuratively) to the work that enhances an audience’s enjoyment of the story.  This not a sin, far from it.  Audiences get to enjoy the same story in a different medium and in different circumstances.

Reading a book is mostly a solitary activity. When a well-loved book is made into a play (or a film, which they so alarmingly often are) it creates a community activity in which others experience the story collectively. This, incidentally, is the whole meaning of story—community connectivity.

If I was going to be generous, I would concede this is a great reason to adapt books to stage. Look no further. Jobs a good’un.

I cannot complain that these adaptations are “taking the jobs” off playwrights who are developing new works because that simply is not the case. Are we being hoodwinked into buying old stories in a new dustcover at the expense of new stories being told? Statistics tell us no. There are just as many new stories as always on our stages.  And truly, I would rather see an Australian adaption of an Australian classic or contemporary novel than money being spent pointlessly on extant Amercian or UK work.

Yet I cannot shake the instinctive feeling that adaptions of books to stage plays is a cultural stifling of sorts, a backwards-gazing exercise, especially those works that are not contemporary. Setting things in amber.



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