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The choices artists make sometimes are as interesting as the work itself.
It follows a ruthless nun accusing a priest of an inappropriate relationship with an altar boy. It won a Pulitzer as a play before becoming a film. The movie stars Meryl Streep as the icy Sister Aloysius and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Father Flynn.
Plays are turned into movies all the time.
But what makes this transformation unique is that the playwright, John Patrick Shanley, also directed the film.
The story remains the same. But the ways that the story is presented lead to very different experiences.
The film has received mostly positive reviews, but it has its detractors.
One of them is Terry Martin, the man who staged it at WaterTower this fall. For every minute I’ve thought about Doubt, Martin’s thought about it for an hour. That’s important, as Doubt is all about the details.
MARTIN: “I have to be honest in saying I would be really interested to know what my experience of the film would have been had I not been so familiar with the play. I was dissatisfied I guess was my ultimate feeling about it. I wanted more.”
In WaterTower’s show, only four characters ever see the stage. The possible victim is noticeably missing.
Without him, the audience can’t gain any insight by looking into his eyes. The effect is that the playing field remains even between the priest and his accuser.
But the film version of Doubt had different challenges. Even Martin admits that it would have been difficult to fill out a film with only four characters.
But it’s in the casting that the play and the film start to head in different directions. For the film, Shanley added the boy. I feared that this was an unwise choice. But the reality is that this tactic also worked for me. The young actor projects happiness, hopefulness, despair and sadness. And the audience is no wiser for the extra information.
In this case, Martin says he prefers Shanley the playwright over Shanley the director.
MARTIN: “That really bugged me in so much as it took my participation out of it. I think that’s one of the things that is so interesting about theater to me is that it requires participation from an audience for the experience to be complete, and this is what’s so wonderful about the play Doubt to me is that because we don’t see the children and most of the time we don’t see any of the actions that are talked about, we have the ability to participate by creating them in our imagination.”
MARTIN: “I’ll be honest with you – after I got over my initial disappointment, what happened to me was I began to question my interpretation of the story – thinking, ‘Oh my god, have I completely missed what this playwright’s point was?’”
It seems that Doubt begets more doubt. And that’s OK. The choices are not really a case of right or wrong. Instead, they are just different artistic visions.
After watching the play and the film, there’s a lesson to be learned: Sometimes the building blocks are as interesting as the house.
Doubt film image courtesy of Miramax; Doubt play image courtesy of WaterTower Theatre.