Watchlist: Stage to film adaptations

Award-winning actress and playwright Yolanda Mercy recommends the films that inspire her

6 May 2020

When I was asked to recommend my favourite film productions that began life on the stage, I thought, ‘Yep, I can do this,’ followed by about four days of self-doubt. How many great screen adaptations do I really love? Luckily, after consulting with copious friends and family I was reminded that the answer is: a lot.

So here are some of my suggestions, in no particular order of preference. Hopefully you loved or, at least, enjoyed them as much as me.

Random (2011)
Director: Debbie Tucker Green

I first saw this stage production at a pop-up space when the Royal Court hosted a takeover in Elephant and Castle. The script is a storytelling masterpiece. This is an exciting production to pay close attention to, especially as a playwright myself who is looking find a way to present my text on the screen while keeping true to the original stage production.

Rent (2005)
Director: Chris Columbus

This is one musical that I’ve watched so many times – and that I’m moved by every single time. As a filmmaker, this film is one to study as it shows how a well-loved stage production can be brought to the screen and still keep that same energy that a live audience would experience.

Romeo and Juliet (1996)
Director: Baz Luhrmann

The Baz Luhrmann film that we had to study in English was by far the most accessible, plus it gave us that fish tank scene (cue I’m kissing you by Des’ree). I think that Romeo and Juliet is a good example of how to take a classic text and make it something that everyone can enjoy, regardless of whether they initially found the source material challenging to understand.

NB: I know there are a lot of productions beginning with “R”… I promise I will provide other movie options that start with other letters from the alphabet.

Moonlight (2016)
Director: Barry Jenkins

This film is a modern classic, from the script, to the cast, to Barry Jenkins’ masterful direction. As a playwright, it's a masterclass for those learning how to adapt a stage play into a film that spans space and time in such epic stretches.

Grease (1978)
Director: Randal Kleiser

Grease shows how you can create a world that all generations feel attached to. It’s a film that hooks you in from the opening credits and will have you studying the flying-car closing. It's a production with heart and characters that you fall in love with, and as a writer it’s a fantastic place to study how you can translate that onto the screen.

Fences (2016)
Director: Denzel Washington

Another classic to me. August Wilson provides us with a text that is timeless. This is one journey from stage to screen that’s really worth studying because Denzel Washington, as the film’s director, found a way to draw the intensity of the play onto the screen with such delicate and warm scenes that you can’t stop watching it.

Rope (1948)
Alfred Hitchcock

OK so confession time; this was the first play that I ever saw at the theatre (that I can remember), and it still hits me because it was the first time that I’d seen such a captivating thriller on stage. In Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation, study how the text, music and shots all work in synergy to tell this intense story.

Chicago (2002)
Director: Rob Marshall

The production that had me trying to learn the choreography to the Cell Block Tango. The stage production differs slightly from the upscaled film and illustrates how Rob Marshall can play with an existing world and draw visually mesmerising scenes out of it.

And a few upcoming productions to keep an eye out for:

Everybody’s Talking about Jamie
Director: Jonathan Butterell

The prize-winning play about an aspiring teenage drag queen is being adapted for the screen by Jonathan Butterell, who also directed the play.

In the Heights
Director: Jon M.Chu

Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote the lyrics for the stage version of this New York-set musical and now stars in the film (directed by Crazy Rich Asians’ Jon M.Chu) with Hamilton co-star Anthony Ramos.