Veronica's #WritersDiary: Book to Stage Productions, What Can Get Lost in Translation?
“Try fighting with your head for a change...
it's a good one, even if it does resist learning.”
― Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
I've been blessed to see a few book-to-stage productions in past years I thought were stellar translations. Both were Dame Agatha Christie mystery tales I enjoy very much: Witness for the Prosecution and Murder on the Orient Express. In Witness, the play was actually held in a courtroom in the London County Hall--giving you a bird's eye view as a trial spectator I thought was thrilling and true-to-life.
For the Orient Express production in southern California, I did not see how they were going to do a moving train set on stage. To my surprise and delight, they had two mockup coaches on stage, and switched out the 'sets' in each coach to match the scene with sound effects to mimic the train's movements. It was like looking into a life-size diorama and so cleverly done, giving you a unique view into the happenings of each scene.
I was glued to the stage as the acts unfolded, totally impressed with the acting, dialogue, and sets of these productions. They stayed true to the book storylines, and made for an entertaining, enjoyable, theater experience. These productions were spot on in how to successfully achieve a book-to-stage translation IMHO.
Growing up in the south, one of my first 'coming-of-age' reads was Harper Lee's classic, 1960, Pulitzer Prize winning book, To Kill a Mockingbird. Set in the 1930s, it's one of the most powerful books of our time, IMHO to break down and address the topic of hideous, racial prejudices, and the ramifications of horrendous crimes via masterful, poignant storytelling. The plot and dialog were raw and brutal at times, told through a young daughter's (Jean Louise aka Scout) perspective.
On January 5th of this new year, the OH and I were thrilled to go see the book to stage adaptation of this classic tale at the stately Segerstrom Center in Costa Mesa.
It had been years since I've read the book, and who doesn't remember Gregory Peck's brilliant, Academy Award winning performance as Atticus Finch in the movie? Author Harper Lee worked with Horton Foote on the movie script and said it was '...one of the best translations of book to film ever made.' I agree.
The book to stage adaptation by Aaron Sorkin had tremendous accolades on the Segerstrom website:
All rise for Academy Award® winner Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning masterwork. The New York Times Critic’s Pick To Kill a Mockingbird is “the most successful American play in Broadway history. It has not played to a single empty seat” (60 Minutes). Rolling Stone gives it 5 stars, calling it “an emotionally shattering landmark production of an American classic,” and New York Magazine calls it “a real phenomenon. Majestic and incandescent, it’s filled with breath and nuance and soul.” With direction by Tony Award® winner Bartlett Sher, To Kill a Mockingbird — “the greatest novel of all time” (Chicago Tribune) — has quickly become “one of the greatest plays in history” (NPR). #WOW
With the endorsements above, I couldn't wait to see the almost 3-hour production. The storyline flipped back and forth between scenes of the trial of Tom Robinson, and the back-story home scenes that exposed the raw and heartfelt emotions and dramas of the characters...and the side-story of the haunted 'Boo' Radley.
The stage sets switched back-and-forth from the front porch of the Finch house to the courtroom. Plot-gap-fills were narrated by the 3 youngsters in the tale--Scout, her brother, Jem, and friend, Dill. In this production, actor Richard Thomas (aka 'John Boy' from the Waltons TV show) played Atticus Finch---not quite Gregory Peck, but a great alternative.
So, what was 'lost in translation' in this book to stage adaptation for me? I had my trepidations of things to come--there's a lot of folks out there who want to re-write history and introduce today's values into past works. If you revise books and tales written long ago to make them politically correct with the 'standards' and opinions of the current day, where's the lesson to be learned? A big point to ponder, I think. Here's my top book-to-stage losses for this production:
1. I found the three 'children' jumping in for the plot gap fills a bit annoying after a while. They'd interrupt a major scene and insert a roll-your-eye, 'dig' or a droll anecdote to get a response from the audience. After about the 10th time, it was getting old and too disruptive--the messages/lessons from the scenes portrayed were getting lost.
BTW, in the book, character Scout is starting elementary school, giving readers a poignant perspective as she viewed the horrific happenings with an innocent, child's eye. The actress in the play was a teenager with a tad of attitude (as were the characters of Jem and Dill). I felt the narration innocence was lost.
2. Insertion of elements to solicit a righteous outcry from the audience--that were not in the book. Snide 'remarks' exchanged between Calpurnia and Atticus--a definite segue from the book and a strange take on the characters' relationship as originally developed. Why do it? The inserted comments altered the relationship between the two characters from the book and would not have been something Atticus (nor Calpurnia) would say during this period of time (1930s), IMO, a loss.
Let's put KKK white hoods on characters in a major scene (Atticus at the jailhouse, reading by the light of his floor lamp when a crowd of men drive up (sans hoods)--wasn't in the book nor movie.)... The audience gasped, but was it purely from the sight of the hoods, or from the huge impact/message of this scene where a young girl's chatter about entailments with one of the men derails the attack? I have my guess, a big loss.
3. "It's a sin to kill a mockingbird..." Atticus's poignant statement to Jem, expelling the harm of snuffing out a creature who just wants to sing to the world. There were major warnings in the playbill and announcements to the audience of the language and violent scenes to be depicted. Their use was graphic, and made you wince, as it should per the storyline.
However, in the play, the actors many times made facial expressions or took dramatic pauses which made the audience start to giggle watching them, in a bid to somehow lighten the moment when explicit language was used, or horrific acts described. In my view, these thespian acts of expression watered down the impact of the scene. #TimeAndPlace Sometimes people need to squirm in order to learn, another big loss.
4. Finally, I'll end with my own, personal statement--it's a sin to slaughter a southern drawl. The faux accents were really, really bad. It would have been so much better to just play it straight...Unless, of course, your intent was to woke-poke fun of those who reside in southern states. #SouthernShade I'll leave this thought, which did cross my mind more than once during the play, right here...a smug loss.
Moral to the story, a few bad script twists can spoil the barrel.
As a writer, I appreciate the fact that a storyline may change as it's adapted to another media platform. What author wouldn't be stoked to have his or her work selected for an adaptation? Some scenes and characters may be omitted or combined to fit the timeframe of a film or stage setting--I get it. Most times, I enjoy keeping track of what changed or was deleted from the book. Sadly, I wondered how many in this audience had actually read the book and appreciated what was lost here--a true tragedy.
The lessons within the pages of Harper Lee's book dealt with the raw truths and heart wrenching emotions as the characters' witnessed horrific events, which, in turn, made the reader reflect and learn.
With the reflection and learning comes change. The impactful, life-learning, lasting kind of change, not the fleeting, one-woke-pony outrage that dissipates as soon as you walk out the stage door. To me, sadly, this production with its modern-day, PC nuances was lost in translation.
It's Wednesday, time for #DearDiary:
The final edits are coming in for Murder on the Runway!
I am tinkled pink this week with the editing of this latest tale. It's been so fun working with Theresa Snyder again--her insights and finds are just what the runway ordered!
Assuming things stay on track--we're aiming for a Galentine's/Valentine's Day release for this latest tale! 💖👑👠
A quest to catch a killer this week from the writers of Twitter...
Author Richard Osman, The Bullet That Missed, 5 ⭐
The Thursday Murder Club is off to solve the cold case of a local newscaster. As Elizabeth, Joyce, Ibrahim, and Ron investigate the clues, new and old foes emerge. As the body count starts to rise, will their sleuthing be the end of the club for some?
Author Osman weaves another clever whodunnit sure to delight cozy mystery fans. Threats from the past and new discoveries will keep you guessing to the end. I've very much enjoyed reading this series!
Foiled by the Atmospheric River!
On the 8th of this month, the OH and I bravely started our journey to the snowy mountains of Mammoth and Tahoe for our first road trip of 2023. Alas, it was also the weekend California met the #AtmosphericRiver event, a weather phenomenon that dumped copious amounts of snow, high winds, and rain in our state.
We made it up to Mammoth and spent the night. The next morning, we got around twenty miles north on our way to Tahoe when the white-out blizzard hit, closing the road--you could not see anything. Luckily, we decided to slowly, suck it up (with lots of prayers) and drive all the way home (350+ miles). Good thing in retrospect, Mammoth received 5 FEET of snow that day...they're still digging out. We'll try again, when the #AtmosphericRiver dries up a bit, LOL.
Welcome to my world. Until next time, have a good one, friends!
Crowns and Kisses,
P.S. I'm a bit obsessed with all things runway these days---it's been such a fun place to be, plotting and planning out dastardly deeds. I wanted to give you a sneak peak of one of my fav props for my deadly, Fashion Week runway...Introducing the #Shoedelier!
Be still my heart (not too still), lo-and-behold I found a photo on Pinterest (thank you pinner) that lit my eyes and little gray cells up! I thought this would be a perfect way to light up the runway. What can possibly go wrong? #DunDunDun