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From Stage to Screen: Fences

By Caroline Cao · January 7, 2017

Stage to Screen: Decisions, Decisions when Adapting 

Stage and screen are both visual medium with different setups and dimensions. 

Theater is audience participatory, involving the audience’s imagination to vivify scenes and fill-in the blanks of the unseen, as real-life people embodies characters.

Movies involve its own substance of imagination. When it adapts pages of a book, it imagines for you: the three-headed Fluffy in Harry Potter or the face of Dr. Seuss’s unseen Once-ler character.

The late acclaimed playwright August Wilson penned a screenplay for his masterpiece play Fences, which stars Denzel Washington as both the leading actor (reprising his role from the 2010 Broadway revival) and the director. There are several things to be conscious about when adapting a play-script to screenplay. 

Off-stage Characters 

In plays, there are mentioned characters held to great significance but never enter the stage in full view and never have actors. This is a pragmatic theater staple in terms of keeping focus on the lead characters and not cluttering the stage. An infamous example is Rosaline of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, but film adaptations have experimented with showing Rosaline on screen even if she’s an unspoken role. After all, for the visual hungry movie audience, why get invested in Romeo’s old wishes if you can’t see the girl?

The film of Fences chooses to keep certain characters off-screen. Bonnie is mentioned, Alberta is mentioned, but never show up. There are pros and cons to this. The mentions of these characters could provide a sense of life outside the house. On the other hand, constant mentions could clutter up the imagination of the audience as they are following the dialogue. 

Tell, don’t Show? Tell OR Show?

My film teacher urged, “show, don’t tell,” as a mantra.  

This is where it gets thorny. Fences the movie is dense with talk, talk, talk, talky, talk like the play it’s based on, virtually 95-100% of the dialogue transferred to screen. Theatre is dialogue-driven and some of the most powerful scenes are never shown but understood through the prowess of delivery. So it’s a risk for the film screen. In plays, off-stage incidents, sometimes deaths or affairs, get mentioned.  

Come the most chilling backstory where Troy tells a story of when his father discovers him with a girl and beats him. At first, Troy tells, he thought his father was beating him for forgoing his chores, but then he realized his father wanted the girl to himself. That day, he, in his own words, “became a man” and retaliated against his father.

There are choices to make here.

1)    You can choose to line-edit or convert said words into a visual scene, namely a flashback. Have Washington sit down and preclude the story, then cut to a flashback of this memory. A glitzier director or writer might attempt to insert a flashback over the monologue.

2)    Or in Washington’s directorial choice, keep it in the long drawn-out spoken words.

Talk, talk, talk is not bad thing. Sometimes in this case, tell IS showing. When the right actor can deliver the lines, the film audience just needs the imagination and the intensity of the words to go off. Sometimes flashbacks could clutter a film.  After all, back in 1977, did we need flashbacks when Obi-Wan talked of the Jedi?

It’s nitpicky, but the most jarring short scene is of Troy sitting in the Commerce office before the scene cuts to his home (which is where 90% of the film takes place). I found the Commerce scene omittable and thought the character could’ve easily said at home, “I came back from the Commerce office” in Troy’s house. That few seconds outside Troy’s home didn’t add much. 

Work with the momentum with a camera  

After the signature “How come you don’t like me, Papa?” sequence, Cory storms into his house and then stops and looks up. The audience understands he is seeing something of significance.  A swift pan from Cory to Rose in a cross-armed posture reveals she has been standing in the kitchen and tuned in on the entire father-son spat. As Cory storms pass her, it’s her entrance cue to walk toward the door and confront her husband over his shabby treatment of his son. It’s a dramatic surprise.

This swiftness of the reveal is as dramatically striking as it is in the original play’s script. When Troy is delivering his “why I don’t like you” speech to his son, the script does not mention anything about Rose’s presence and thus fools us into believing she’s absent. But when Cory and Troy’s argument concludes the script reveals: 

(ROSE has been standing behind the screen door for much of the scene. She enters as CORY exits.)

When I read the playscript, her presence is a surprise. But when a stage director interprets the direction, he might understands that Rose is visible before the audience from the start of Troy and Cory’s spat and the audience would have the suspense of wondering when Rose bursts out for the confrontation.

Also, write with cuts in mind: A close-up and gradual zoom-in of Troy monologuing about the turning point in his childhood, a long or medium-shot that shows Rose crumbling, and, quite symbolic, a close-up of a rose slowly dripping out of Rose’s fingers to the earth.

Plays are like one entire long-shot you’re watching, depending on the seating arrangement you could afford. 

Wariness of Time Transition

On a stage production, you have a playbill that can inform the audience the exact passage of time between scenes and acts and the transitional techniques of lighting and music can denote a transition of time.

On the film, a time lapse of the skies and a montage signify the passage of time. 

Varying the Sets

Theater has a predominantly stagnant scenery or sometimes scenery is told through pantomime or sound effects. In the stage version, you stare at a stagnant set of the yard and porch. Whereas in the movie, the camera can maneuver into one location or the editing can cut to a different scene or time. 

Just about 100% of the play is set in the yard and on the porch.

The film opens on a truck moving and Troy and his friend exchanging a dialogue, whereas in the play, they are on the porch. Conversations are made on the porch, in the kitchen, in the bedroom, a bar, in locations otherwise outside of the original play’s limitations. In theater, your audience can expect it because real-life actors already command their audience more so than the sets. But film has a momentum, so bring variety of imagery. 

When converting stage to screen, be mindful of the distinction of mediums, embrace the merits of each, and pick-and-choose what to omit and retain. The decisions are at your whim. It’s all about weighing out what serves the picture best.  

Caroline Cao is a Houstonian Earthling surviving under the fickle weather of Texas. When she’s not angsting over her first poetry manuscript or a pilot screenplay about space samurais, she’s doing cheesy improv performances for BETA Theater, experimenting with ramen noodles, or hollering vocal flash fics on Instagram. Her columns and poems have popped up on The Cougar, Mosaics: The Independent Women Anthology, Glass Mountain, OutLoud Culture, and Aletheia. Her flash fiction recently earned an Honorable Mention title in Sweater Weather magazine. She has her own Weebly portfolio and lends her voice to Birth.Movies.Death