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From page to stage

Last November, I covered a few events for the South Asian Literature Festival in London. Some of these were published on the SALF website. This is one of the unpublished pieces of the talk 'From Page to Stage' on 3 November 2012.


Does adapting a novel for the theatre take away the characters from the author? What is gained from such an adaptation? Why do playwrights choose to adapt existing works of literature rather than writing new plays? 

It was a quiet Saturday morning at the Bush Theatre when, with panellists and participants seated in an intimate circle, began a talk about words and characters coming to life. Artiste Sarah Williams interviewed Tamasha co-director Sudha Buchar and theatre critic and playwright Lloyd Evans about the intricacies of adapting novels and short stories for the stage.

In a day and age where nearly every popular work of literature tends to be shortened into a script for the screen or stage, Lloyd proposed the paradoxical idea that even a bad adaptation is good publicity – for the book. Despite this, authors often shy away from selling rights for such an endeavour: J.D. Salinger famously refused to let The Catcher in the Rye be adapted for fear of compromising the authority and effectiveness of the narratorial voice. However, theatre is, as a member of the audience pointed out, becoming bolder with productions like the recent Gatz, a matinee of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby narrated word for word while actors dramatized the scenes shifting between a 1980s office and the jazz age.

Scriptwriters that fancy an existing piece of literature not only have to straddle the expectations of the author, but also of the audience, who command a certain ownership over their favourite works of fiction. It is with immense trepidation and cynicism that a fan will risk their imagined vision of grand Hogwarts, or Romeo and Juliet set to music in 1950s New York, or Aishwarya Rai as a Punjabi Elizabeth Bennet. However, adaptations are, as Lloyd stressed, the writer’s perspective of a story, and not an attempt to present the work verbatim like an audio book would do.

Sudha agreed, saying that “as an artist/producer, you don’t think of the audience first, but whether you can visualise the story as a play”. Accordingly, the story may be reworked to suit the stage, like abandoning stream of consciousness in favour of a linear narrative, or changing the location to make it more relatable. Lloyd claimed that a lot may be lost on the screen or stage, and many aspects, like depicting animal characters, can be extremely tricky and require immense creativity. Sudha’s example of the use of puppets to convincingly play the dog and monkey in A Fine Balance, based on Rohinton Mistry’s novel of the same name, proved to be an excellent way to circumvent the limitations of the theatre which, “if done beautifully”, can allow sufficient suspension of disbelief.

Often, in the face of having several wonderful adaptations of a play, a playwright may choose to change the location of the story to set a production apart from the others. Lloyd said that he was “wary of taking a play out of its time and place because it’s like telling the audience that they are incapable of appreciating or understanding a historical period or a place and culture different from their own”. However, Sudha, who teleported Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba from Andalusia to Pakistan as The House of Bilquis Bibi, said that when reading the play, for her it was simply “a new play about Pakistan; the resonance of situations is an interesting way to make a familiar play new”. It was a mark of the richness of this discussion that we saw several nuances of these issues and questions that perhaps have no correct answer.

Could adaptations ever become a substitute for the reading of a tedious novel, robbing the audience of an imagination as they see a story come to life? Only time will tell; but hopefully the theatre and films will never replace books, merely enhance them. I, for one, would relish an opportunity to see Manto’s Toba Tek Singh or a more faithful-to-Fitzgerald Benjamin Button when the curtain rises.