Adapting for the Stage


I watched Brian de Palma’s brilliant Scarface a couple of nights back and realised I’d seen it before.  The film, written by Oliver Stone, stars Al Pacino as a villainous footsoldier, who’ll do whatever it takes to rule Miami’s underworld.  Interestingly Scarface is an adaption of an earlier 1932 film in which a villainous gangster does whatever it takes to rule Chicago.  But that wasn’t what I’d recognised.  Rather Scarface is yet another retelling of Macbeth.  A story about a returning soldier who does whatever it takes to rule all of Scotland. 


Shakespeare made a career out of adapting.  Only two of his plays, Love’s Labours Lost and The Merry Wives of Windsor are not adaptations from another source.  Shakespeare’s own works have in turn inspired musicians, painters, poets and even architects. His plays have been successfully translated into almost every form of entertainment and even the man himself now pops up in our plays, films and songs. 


There is a great apocryphal story, too terrific to be possibly true, about the film director John Houston.  The tale goes that he came across a book one day, a thin detective thriller.  He asked his secretary to go through it, label each scene’s setting, summarise the action in CAPITALS  and type out the dialogue. word for word from the book – or in other words, turn it into a screenplay.  The studio execs loved it and Houston used it as the shooting script.  The name of the novel and film?  The Maltese Falcon.  As with most good stories this one’s probably not true – but hey if we’re still retelling Adam and Eve, veracity is hardly a prerequisite. 


The truth is that a genuine adaption is the result of meticulous detailed work.  Many many long nights spent interrogating the original and questioning every choice.  Every character, every scene, every word has to fight for its place.  As Stephen Cleary puts it,


“The process of writing an adaptation is a journey away from the original towards a unique reinterpretation of it.  The writer needs to make the story their own and that must and should involve movement away from many of the choices the original writer made.”


In other words, source material is the starting point.  But the very point of adaptation is to end up someplace new.  The job almost certainly involves more steps in the wrong direction than the right.  It’s far easier to make lead out of gold than gold out of lead.  In fact the adapting writer will find it hard enough to make gold out of gold.  A brilliant book doesn’t guarantee a brilliant movie.  I, Robot anyone?  And with a masterwork like Catch 22, where do you even begin?  Your job is to take something that already works, take it apart and make it something new.  This takes time.  There is no magic bullet.  You can’t take two wheels off a car and call it a bicycle.  Nor can you paint stripes on your cat and call it a zebra.   These are superficial changes, not an honest reckoning between writer and the source.  Innovation must be balanced with fidelity and above all respect. 


So the task of adaption is not straightforward but rather to break something and start anew.  You MUST have a vision of what this new creature might be.  How will it look and sound and smell and taste and feel different to its original?   This is a new beast.  Otherwise what’s the point?  Slavish devotion kills innovation.  And Art is all about making the familiar new, the known unknown, the world as fresh and new-minted as Adam and Eve first saw it, freshly booted from the Garden. 


Adapting a novel or an event from real-life usually involves condensing, compressing and amalgamating of events, characters and facts.  Think Argo or the movie, Hitchcock.  In contrast adapting from a novella or short story often involves expanding and developing a world from a sketch to a fully realised painting. 


I first encountered Craig Davidson’s break-through book, Rust and Bone,  back in 2007 and was stunned by its immediacy and raw physicality, the writing sometimes crude, at others exquisite: dark poetry finding unexpected beauty in the ugliest of settings.  Davidson’s vision is a dark, brooding and often violent exploration of men at their best and worst.  His characters survive in a world showing little tolerance for weakness and human frailty, yet each man yearns for some deeper human connection.  I was struck by the image of three wounded men limping onwards towards oblivion or maybe transcendence.  And despite all the horror a tenuous strand of hope runs through each story, uniting them.  


As soon as I read Rust and Bone I knew I wanted to adapt it.  The question was how and into what theatrical form? The task of adaption is not straightforward but rather to break something and start anew.   I am indebted to the author for trusting me.  I saw a way to bring these stories to the stage, an attempt to capture some of the book’s power and give it new form.  In adapting it I imagined a symphony: three voices, speaking at first in isolation, then alternately, then finally converging.


I have included two examples from my own process of adapting these stories from the book into the play, below.  Thanks to Craig Davidson for permission to republish sections of his work.  The first is an example of condensing to focus in on the action and momentum of the story.  This is a continual process of cutting away everything not essential.  See the source text and then what I’ve done with it below. 


Example 1:  Source Text

(written by Craig Davidson)


"Twenty-seven bones make up the human hand.  Lunate and capitate and navicular, scaphoid and triquetrum, tiny horn-shaped pisiforms of the outer wrist.  Though differing in shape and density each is smoothy alighned and flush-fitted, lashed by a meshwork of ligatures running under the sking.  All vertebrates share a similar set of bones, and all bones grow out of the same tissue: a bird's wing, a whale's dorsal fin, a gecko's pad, your own hand.  Some primates got more - gorilla's got thirty-two, five in each thumb.  Humans, twenty-seven.

Bust an arm or leg, and the knitting bone’s sealed in a wrap of calcium so it’s stronger than before.  Bust a bone in your hand and it never heals right.  Fracture a tarsus and the hairline’s there to stay – looks like a crack in granite under the x-ray.  Crush a metacarpal and that’s that: bone splinters not driven into soft tissue are eaten by enzymes; powder sifts to the bloodstream.  Look at a prizefighter’s hands: knucks busted flat against the heavy bag or some pug’s face and skin split on crossing diagonals, a ridge of scarred X’s.

You’ll see men cry breaking their hand in a fight, leather-assed Mexies and Steeltown bruisers slumped on a corner stool with tears squirting out their eyes.  It’s not the pain, though the anticipation is there.  It’s the frustration.  Fighting’s all about minimizing weakness.  Shoddy endurance?  Roadwork.  Sloppy footwork? Skip rope.  Weak gut?  A thousand stomach crunches daily.  But fighters with bad hands can't do a thing.  Same goes for fighters with sharp brows and weak skin who can’t help splitting wide at the slightest pawing. They’re crying because it’s a weakness there’s not a damn thing they can do for and it’ll commit them to the second tier, one step below the MGM Grand and Foxwoods, the showgirls and Bentleys."


Great stuff huh? Davidson writes visceral, gut-wrenching prose.   Tempting as it might be, you can't simply shoehorn the words into an actor's mouth.  Theatre is a different beast with different strengths and limitations.  Good Adaption requires an understanding of both mediums.  Okay now compare the prose above with this leaner script for the stageplay.  Unlike a book, which can be picked up and put down and in general read at leisure, a playwright is always fighting sore bums on seats.  Plays need to be dynamic and always moving forward.  Plus the Theatre is a simulation of real life and people in real life don’t talk the way they do in a lot of books.  What works above as the character’s internal thoughts, when given voice, need to be wrangled into passable conversation.


Example 1:  Play Text

(adapted by me)


[Eddie sits, wrapping his hand.  Or is he bandaging it?]

Twenty-seven bones make up the human hand - each of them flush-fitted, bound together underneath the skin.  Some animals got more – gorilla’s got thirty-two – but us?  We only get twenty-seven.  

Bust a bone in one of these and it never heals right.  You’ll see men cry breaking their hand in a fight - slumped on a stool, tears squirting out their eyes.  It ain’t the pain, they’re crying because it’s a weakness they can’t do nuthin about and it’ll lock ‘em on the second tier forever.  


This next example involves a re-think of the story to suit my setting here in Australia.  I also wanted to add a greater dramatic irony to this story's conclusion.


Example 2:  Source Text

(written by Craig Davidson)


I was born Eddie Brown, Jnr., on July 16, 1966, in San Bernadino, a hard-scrabble town ten miles north of the Tex-Mex border.  My father, a Border Patrol agent, worked the international fence-line, running from McAllen to Brownsville and up around the horn to the Padre Island chain off the coast.  On a celear July day you'd see illegals sunning their lean bodies on the headlands, soaking up heat like seals before embarking on a twilight crossing.  He met his wife-to-be on a cool September evening when her raft - uneven lengths of peachwood lashed together with twine, a plastic milk jug skirt - butted the prow of his patrolling johnboat."

“It was cold, wind blowing off the Gulf,” my mother once told me.  “Mio Dios.  The raft seem okay when I go but the twine is breaking and those jugs fill with water.  Those waters swimming with tiger sharks plump as hens.  I’m thinking why I leave Cuidad Miguel – was that so terrible?  But I wanted the land of opportunity.” An ironic gesture: shoulders shrugged, eyes rolled heavenwards.  “I almost made it, yeah?”

The details of that boat ride were never revealed, so I’ll never know whether love blossomed or a sober deal was struck.  I can picture my mother wrapped in an emergency blanket, sitting beside my father as he worked the hand-throttle on an old Evinrude, the glow of a harvest moon touching the soft curve of her cheek.  Maybe something stirred.  But I can also picture a hushed negotiation as the lay anchored at the Government dock, maiden’s hair slapping the pilings and jaundiced light spilling between the bars of the holding cell beyond.  She was a classic Latin beauty; raven hair and polished umber skin.  Many border guards took Mexican wives; the paperwork wasn’t difficult to push through.  My sister was born that year.  Three years later, me.


Now compare to this wholly new text below.  It killed me to lose some of Davidson’s beautiful descriptions but the writing must serve the story and the writing above didn’t serve the version of the story I wanted to tell.  The revised text grounds the play here in Australia and seeds Eddie’s total unfamiliarity with winter and ice, which will have tragic consequences later.


Example 2:  Play Text

(adapted by me)


"I grew up in Cloncurry - hottest place on Earth.  Town still holds the record for the highest temperature: 53 degrees.  Cloncurry's a mining town.  Blokes'd knock off work, head straight to the pub - nothing else to do - until Bell's came to town.

Every October the truck would rumble down Main Street and set up on the footy oval.  Roy Bell’s Boxing Tent.  For a few nights in Spring, a bloke had a chance to forget his own worries and step inside the ring with Lightning Jimmy Jones or Cowboy Taylor.  He might cop a shiner or a scuff on the cheek but so what?  He stood tall in front of his mates, his wife, the whole bloody town.

I saw Dad fight back in ’81.   I watched him go three rounds with the Cowboy.  He lost but that didn’t matter.  The crowd roared; Dad stood there grinning like a kid."


In adapting “Rust and Bone” I saw a way to bring three of Craig Davidson’s short stories to the stage, an attempt to capture some of their power and give it new form.  His writing blew me away and I thought long and hard on a way to adapt them.   The original stories and the play are similar but also vastly different.  Prose and play share DNA but exist as separate entities.  In fact a second adaptation of the same stories also exists.  Rust and Bone has also been adapted into a movie by the French film director, Jacques Audiard, starring Marion Cotillard.  To see an altogether different approach to the same source material, this time adapted for film, I advise you to check out the movie as well!