If you don’t think you’re really a fan of plays, because you much prefer the movies, the following might make you think again: Some of Hollywood’s most revered movies had their roots on the stage somewhere in the world. In fact, plays as inspiration for Hollywood films predate the recent surge of new Broadway musicals being adapted from movies. Of course, when adapting a play for the big screen, some major changes are required to accommodate the wider audience, more varied scene and the bigger budget, so the film adaptation is very rarely faithful to more literary experience of the play as it is on stage.
Many of the more noteworthy film adaptations have A-list Hollywood actors starring in the much-coveted roles; actors eager to immortalize a playwright’s genius on the big screen to touch a bigger audience. Take the 1957 and 1996 film adaptations of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible”. The play, often read as an allegory for McCarthyism in the United States, was a major literary and on-stage hit. Just as favourite books are so commonly adapted, if a play has an important message then Hollywood is one of the premiere places to adapt that story for the masses.
Of course one of the most famous playwrights of all time, whose work has been brought to the screen hundreds of time in varyingly faithful renderings, is William Shakespeare. For the purposes of showcasing work that has been written in the 20th and 21st century, the Bard will be left out of our list – though we’ve made a list of the most popular Shakespearean film adaptations all it own.
The following are 10 huge Hollywood blockbusters that were conceived by the pen of a lone talented playwright.
10. Proof (2005) – $7,535,331
Written in 2000 by David Auburn, Proof had its premiere Off-Broadway in May of the same year, and was eventually moved to Broadway in October. The production ran for 917 performances and eventually closed in 2003. While the play was still on the stage, notable actresses such as Mary-Louise Parker, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Anne Heche played the lead role of Catherine. The play was adapted for the screen by Rebecca Miller but while the play only has four characters directly presented to audiences, the big production of the film with multiple locations has a wide, celebrity-studded cast including Gwyneth Paltrow and Jake Gyllenhaal.
9. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966) – $29 Million
Written in 1962 by acclaimed playwright Edward Albee, ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’ won the 1963 Tony Award for Best Play as well as the New York Drama Circle Award for Best Play. Albee was inspired by his friends, well-known New York socialites Willard Maas and Marie Menken, and he named his famous characters after America’s first couple, George and Martha Washington. Like the male character in the play, Willard Maas was a professor at Wagner College. The play has been produced worldwide and LP’s of the original cast performing their roles still exists. Ernest Lehman adapted Albee’s play for the screen.
8. Frost/Nixon (2008) – $18,622,031
Frost/Nixon is a British play written in 2006 by Peter Morgan, which opened at the Donmar Warehouse in the same year. The play was a hit on the British theatre scene, thus moving the production to the West End. Frost/Nixon would eventually head on over across the pond to open on Broadway in 2007 for a limited in engagement. The original play that opened in the United Kingdom starred Michael Sheen as David Frost and Frank Langella as Richard Nixon. Does that cast sound familiar? That’s because they reprised their roles in the film adaptation directed by Ron Howard.
7. Doubt (2008) – $33,446,470
The stage play, Doubt: A Parable, was written in 2004 by playwright John Patrick Shanley and opened Off-Broadway in the same year. It went on to hit Broadway in 2005. Doubt won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Play in the same year, making it a huge success in the theatre. Unlike the 2008 film – starring Amy Adams and Meryl Streep – the play only has four characters in total, and is a one-act play with duration of 90 minutes. Shanley suggested that the ‘second act’ of the play was contained in whatever the audience discussed after they left the theatre, as the play – and film – is left ominously open-ended.
6. Closer (2004) – $33,987,757
Before Closer was a film, it was the second play written by English playwright, Patrick Marber. Closer opened at the Royal National Theatre in 1997 and has been compared to proclaimed masterpieces such as Harold Pinter’s Betrayal and Noel Coward’s Private Lives. The play has had international productions, won the Laurence Olivier Award in 1998 for Best New Play and was also nominated for a Tony Award in 1999 for Best Play. Marber was also involved in the film adaptation as the main writer. The film adaptation starring Natalie Portman and Julia Roberts received critical acclaim and was a huge commercial success.
5. August: Osage County (2013) – $37,523,772
A dark comedy play written by Tracy Letts, August: Osage County took the theatre world by storm when it first premiered in Chicago at the Steppenwolf Theatre in 2007 and had a Broadway debut later in the same year. In 2008, the play won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The show closed in 2009 after 18 previews and 649 performances. The play had its international debut in 2008 in London and also went on tour in 2009. The recent film adaptation was highly anticipated, with play-to-film veteran stars such as Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts involved; the film led to Academy Award nominations for both female stars.
4. Amadeus (1984) – $51,973,029
Written by renowned playwright Peter Shaffer, Amadeus was first performed in 1979 in London and was inspired by a shorter play written in 1830 known as Mozart and Salieri. In 1981, Amadeus won the Tony Award for Best Play and was then adapted into a film in 1984, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture. After such a successful run in London, the play opened on Broadway in 1980 with Tim Curry as Mozart, Ian McKellen as Salieri, and Jane Seymour as Constanze.
3. Steel Magnolias (1989) – $83,759,091
One of the most famous “chick flicks” in Hollywood, Steel Magnolias was first a play written by Robert Harling. He wrote the play based on his experience from the death of his sister who, after giving birth to his nephew, died from complications of diabetes following a failed kidney transplant from a family member. Because he didn’t want his nephew to forget his sister, Steel Magnolias was originally a short story, but quickly became a play, which opened Off-Broadway in 1987. Unlike the successful movie adaptation, the play only has the lead female characters and is completely set in Truvy’s hair salon. The play has seen productions worldwide from Sweden to Japan.
2. Driving Miss Daisy (1989) – $106,593,296
Driving Miss Daisy is a play by Alfred Uhry that was written in 1987 and played Off-Broadway from 1987-1990. Uhry is commonly known for writing plays about Jewish residents in the South, and has created a series known as The Atlanta Trilogy, the first play of which is Driving Miss Daisy. The play has received worldwide acclaim with productions in the United Kingdom and Australia. Uhry adapted the play into a movie in 1989, for which he won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.
1. A Few Good Men (1992) – $141,340,178
The play A Few Good Men, was written by Aaron Sorkin and premiered on Broadway in 1989, running for 497 performances. Sorkin’s name should might be familiar as he has written for shows like “The West Wing” and movies such as “The Social Network”.
Sorkin earned his BFA in musical theatre and tried to make it big as an actor, but unfortunately, that plan wasn’t as successful as he hoped so he became a playwright. A Few Good Men was Sorkin’s second play; he was inspired when his sister Deborah told him she had to go to Guantanamo Bay to defend a group of Marines for a hazing case. Sorkin wrote the play on cocktail napkins while bartending at the Palace Theatre and then typed up the notes on an old Macintosh. After the opening on Broadway, Sorkin wrote the screenplay for what would be the final film version that most audiences know and love.