20 Great Stage-to-Screen Adaptations


August: Osage County, despite two Oscar nominations for its most famous actors, was kind of dead on arrival. It may offer some stellar performances, but the film as a whole is quite forgettable — which is often, sadly, the case when movies are based on heavy-hitting stage plays. Theater and film are two media that have as many differences as they do similarities; many theatrical moments do not translate well to the screen, simply because the ephemeral experiences of sitting in a theater to watch actors perform in real life cannot be replicated on film. Yet there have still been a lot of very good movies based on plays; here’s a roundup of some of the best.

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Miloš Forman’s film, based on Peter Shaffer’s play (and adapted for the screen by the playwright), is an epic, lavish narrative of the creative feud between composers Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri. It garnered a ton of critical praise and received eight Oscars, including Best Picture.

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Angels in America

Mike Nichols’ HBO adaptation of Tony Kushner’s two-part, six-hour epic play features an all-star cast, including Meryl Streep, Mary Louise Parker, Al Pacino, Emma Thompson, and Jeffrey Wright (who previously won a Tony for playing the same role on Broadway). It perfectly translates Kushner’s masterwork to film while retaining certain touches of the play’s theatricality.

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Leslye Headland adapted her own play for the screen, bringing the action that was originally written to take place entirely within a luxe hotel suite to the streets of New York City. The result is an acidic, biting romp that not only doesn’t feel like it was based on a play — it also brings more characterization and action to the story.

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The Boys in the Band

Mort Crawley’s landmark off-Broadway comedy-drama got a pretty straightforward cinematic adaptation from director William Friedkin, whose movie remains one of the best and most realistic depiction of the gay experience on film.

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William Friedkin tackled Tracy Letts’ small-scale psychological thriller (and would go on to direct a film version of Letts’ dark comedy, Killer Joe). Featuring stellar performances from Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon (who reprises his stage role), Bug is an incredibly creepy and unsettling film.

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The Children’s Hour

Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine star in Lillian Hellman’s classic play about how a child’s accusation destroys the professional and personal lives of two schoolteachers.

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Dangerous Liaisons

Glenn Close, John Malkovich, and Michelle Pfeiffer star in a gorgeous, seductive treatment of Christopher Hampton’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses (which was based on the classic novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos). Stephen Frears directs this decadent and devious film of sexual treachery and scandal.

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Glengarry Glen Ross

While Alec Baldwin’s “always be closing” speech is an incredibly memorable cinematic moment, it was not included in the stage version of David Mamet’s play. In fact, Baldwin’s character does not appear in the play at all.

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Inherit the Wind

Spencer Tracy and Frederic March co-star in this electrifying courtroom drama based on the play co-written by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee (not that Robert E. Lee), which is a fictionalized telling of the “Scopes Monkey Trial.” Like another pretty famous play from the ’60s (a play later turned into a fairly mediocre movie), Inherit the Wind was a response to the growing concern over McCarthyism.

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Peter Brook’s smash hit production of Peter Weiss’ experimental play (written in verse!) made it across the pond from the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford to Broadway — but more surprising is that it reached the big screen with its original cast (including an incredible Glenda Jackson, who would go later in her career win two Oscars). The film is an astounding mind-fuck that is remarkably acted, shot, and designed.

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The Miracle Worker

Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke star in this emotional biopic about the relationship between Anne Sullivan and Helen Keller, and both won Oscars for reprising the roles they originated on Broadway.

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Noises Off

Peter Bogdanovich directed this little-seen and extremely under-appreciated early-’90s adaptation of Michael Frayn’s postmodern farce, and the film boasts a cast featuring Carol Burnett, Michael Caine, John Ritter, and Christopher Reeve.

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The Odd Couple

Neil Simon’s comedy inspired this big-screen adaptation starring Walter Matthau (reprising his Tony-winning role) and Jack Lemmon (before inspiring the immensely popular television series); the two actors went on to work together often in Odd Couple-esque films like Grumpy Old Men.

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On Golden Pond

Real-life father and daughter Henry and Jane Fonda star (alongside Katharine Hepburn) in this adaptation of Ernest Thompson’s 1979 play. Henry Fonda received a posthumous Oscar for his portrayal of the curmudgeon Norman; Hepburn received her fourth Oscar. The film also has the distinction of being the second-highest-grossing film of the year, just after Raiders of the Lost Ark.

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Rabbit Hole

Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart star as grieving parents dealing with the loss of their child in John Cameron Mitchell’s touching and underrated film version of David Lindsay-Abaire’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, featuring stellar supporting performances from Dianne Wiest, Sandra Oh, and Tammy Blanchard.

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Six Degrees of Separation

It’s a bit odd to watch a young Will Smith acting opposite anything other than a CGI alien creature, but he’s absolutely stunning alongside Donald Sutherland and Stockard Channing in this big-screen adaptation of John Guare’s Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy about a young con man who swindles a pair of Upper East Siders.

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Steel Magnolias

Herbert Ross’ adaptation moves some of the action from Robert Harling’s play of the same name out of Truvy’s beauty parlor, also adding male characters to the roster of what was originally an entirely female cast.

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A Streetcar Named Desire

Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter, and Karl Malden all revisited the roles they originated in the original Broadway production of Tennessee Williams’ Pulitzer-winning drama (with the play’s original director Elia Kazan at the helm of the celebrated film). Vivian Leigh earned an Oscar for her portrayal of the tormented Blanche DuBois, one of her two very memorable screen roles.

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Wait Until Dark

Frederick Knott’s thriller was a hit on Broadway when it premiered in 1966, and its big-screen adaptation, released a year later, was also successful. Part of its theatrical release involved theaters dimming all of the lights during the film’s climactic scene.

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Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Mike Nichols’ adaptation of Edward Albee’s monumental play tightens the action to fit the claustrophobic confines of his close-ups, featuring the ferocious Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor going for each other’s throats — at times, quite literally.