There was a time, not too long ago, when a LOT of the blockbuster movies that came out were actually adaptations of plays. I think that this was extremely beneficial for theatre (and theatregoers!) because it made the line between “high art” and “popular art” a lot more blurry. If you saw the movie version of a Tennessee Williams play and liked it, you might have been a lot less hesitant to try seeing another of his plays on stage.
Well, never fear, because I’m going to make that line blurry again for you! Even some really great recent films are actually adaptations of wonderful, hugely celebrated plays, and you might not even know it. Plus, there are a bazillion classic films that were also originally written for the stage. Ready to discover (or reignite) your love of the theatre? Why not start with one of these exceptional films based on plays!
Ten Great Film Adaptations of Famous Plays
1. A Streetcar Named Desire (play by Tennessee Williams)
The absolute classic movie based on a play, Streetcar is full of drama, drama, drama! I mean, who doesn’t love a guy in a white tank screaming their name in the street? STELLA! Young (super hot) Marlon Brando and the incomparable Vivien Leigh – classic!
2. Doubt (play by John Patrick Shanley)
This play was HUGE – it won the Tony award for Best Play AND a Pulitzer! You might know the film version already, starring Meryl Streep as an endlessly suspicious nun and Philip Seymour Hoffman as a scandalous priest who is probably a terrible person. Oh – it’s good, you guys. Quintessential Streep.
3. Amadeus (play by Peter Shaffer)
I hope you’ve already seen this, because if you haven’t, you’re missing out. It’s the amped-up version of the story of Mozart’s life, complete with a bitter rival, wild parties, and a lot of really wacky wigs. And so much of Mozart’s wonderful music! It’s a pretty random cast but they’re all So. Good.
4. The Odd Couple (play by Neil Simon)
This play was such a hit that it became not only a beloved movie, but also a TV show (and spin-offs!). You might recognize the plot, as it’s been repurposed into a gazillion sitcoms: an uptight, neat freak guy gets thrown out by his wife, so he moves in with his friend, who is a lazy slob. Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau star (oh my heart!)
5. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (play by Edward Albee)
Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton at their finest. This movie was so good (and such a sensation) that it was nominated in every Oscar category. EVERY ONE. If you like super uncomfortable conversations and dark comedy/dramedy (like Six Feet Under or Shameless), you’ll love it.
6. Fences (play by August Wilson)
Another Tony- and Pulitzer-winning smash, Fences is the story of a former Negro League baseball star who never made it into the majors because of the colour barrier and now works as a garbage man, trying to break the colour barrier to become a driver instead of the guy lifting the bins. It’s Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, so like, of course it’s good.
7. August: Osage County (play by Tracy Letts)
Another wonderful dramedy, and another Pulitzer Prize winner. If you love a messed up family movie, well welcome to August: Osage County. The alcoholic patriarch of a big Oklahoma family is missing, and his pill-popping, cancer-ridden wife and children dealing with the fallout. The cast is bananas: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Eqan McGregor, Benefict Cumberbatch. OMG.
8. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (play by Tennessee Williams)
I couldn’t resist one more by Tennessee Williams – the king of plays-turned-movies because of his collaborations with director Elia Kazan. Elizabeth Taylor again! And Paul Newman! It’s basically one evening of tense family drama, centering around the spitfire daughter-in-law (Taylor) whose nickname is Maggie the Cat.
9. Dangerous Liaisons (play by Christopher Hampton)
This. One. Is. SPICY. Sure it’s set in the 1780s, but literally the entire play is about sex. And not in a nice romantic way… more like, an esteemed noble man and woman totally fuck with everyone by using sex against them in cruel and horrible ways. Glenn Close. John Malkovish. Uma Thurman. Keanu Reeves. Michelle Pfieffer. GET AFTER IT.
10. Glengarry Glen Ross (play by David Mamet)
I love, LOVE this movie (especially since I used to work in law and finance… it just makes it even better). The play won the Pulitzer in the mid-1980s for good reason: it’s the story of super sleazy, unethical, high-stakes real estate agents, and it is SOOO GOOD. You’ve got Al Pacino. You’ve got Alec Baldwin. You’ve got Alan Arkin. Yes yes a million times yes.