May 24, 2013
Written by Mark Schumann, Father of Three
Thursday, 18 December 2008 14:42
As the year end approaches, film theaters begin to show offerings that may contend of end-of-year honors. This week, The Reel Dad visits the new film, Doubt.
Since the movies began to talk, there has been a love-hate relationship between Broadway and Hollywood. Many a playwright loves the rewards of selling the film rights to a play while fearing what may be changed for the movies. The transition from stage to screen is not as simple as turning on a camera to record a play’s performance. Creating a movie version requires rethinking the impact of one medium for the potential of another.
On stage, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Doubt provided lasting power. Its emotional story — of the suspicions a nun has of the intentions of the priest at a parish school — is intensified by the decision by playwright John Patrick Shanley to limit its focus to the hearsay shared by the four primary characters. By never showing what incidents may or may not have actually occurred, Shanley brilliantly underscores the play’s moral about the conclusions people reach when what they hear supports what they want to believe. In a tight 90 minutes, he creates a vivid world by simply revealing what people say about others. The audience never has to see anything.
Unfortunately, the film version of Doubt — adapted and directed by Shanley — gives the audience too much to see. This case of misplaced Hollywood excess insists that we study the school, the church, where the nuns and priests reside, and the garden where every important conversation seems to occur.
Everything suggested on stage is magnified on screen, leaving little to our imaginations. Rather than focus on the four central characters, Shanley falls victim to the Hollywood tradition of introducing a range of irrelevant supporting players to “open up” a play. Instead of trusting us to get to know the characters through their suspicions, Shanley insists upon starting the film with unnecessary (and endless) backstory. The writer/director falls victim to the Hollywood curse of the adapter who refuses to trust the power of the material. Curiously, the work he dilutes is his own.
Regardless of the weaknesses of the film, Doubt offers the amazing Meryl Streep the chance to deliver what should become another Oscar-nominated achievement in her gallery. Streep is, in fact, so much better than the film that, halfway through, you begin to wish the others would go away and leave the screen to the master. Only Streep seems to embrace the potential power of the work, as she creates a carefully revealed performance of a woman so controlled by her perceptions and fears that she has little time to consider facts. Streep takes the character, and the audience, on an amazing journey of self-awareness and admission.
The others in the cast get lost in Shanley’s confusion. Philip Seymour Hoffman gives the priest appealing warmth in the early scenes but fails to register the evolving anguish of the situation. Amy Adams, in a role enhanced for the film, can’t reach beyond the surface in her portrayal of a young nun who first expresses concerns about the priest. And while the lovely Viola Davis is moving as the mother of a young boy at the school, the power of this climactic sequence is undermined by Shanley’s decision to film it in yet another annoying walk through the garden. If only the director had trusted the power of the playwright’s original work.
* Content: High. The substance of the source material nearly overcomes the tedium of the adaptation.
* Entertainment: Medium. Any moment that Meryl fills the screen is highly entertaining; when she is off screen the film suffers.
* Message: Medium. The creative decisions of the adapter undermine the moral of the stage version.
* Relevance: High. On screen, despite the film’s weaknesses, the basic story remains fascinating to anyone curious about relationships and the church.
* Opportunity for Dialogue: High. The issues revealed in the film, and the impact of accusation and gossip, can open meaningful conversations with your older children.
* Reel Dad Rating: 3 1/2 Popcorn Buckets
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