10 Great Films Based on Plays

Did you know that classic film Casablanca [1942] was based on an unproduced play titled Everybody Comes to Rick’s? by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison?; or that film Moonlight [2016] was based on another unproduced play titled Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney? Many a great film first originated in a play, and because of this origin, these films often rely much on performances and have certain “intimacy” to them not found in other films. I previously reviewed such plays-turned-films as Prelude to a Kiss [1992], Carnage [2011], It’s Only The End of the World [2016], Marjorie Prime [2017] and Una [2017], and other notable films in this category include Seventh Heaven [1937], Brief Encounter [1945], Steel Magnolias [1989], Glengarry Glen Ross [1992], Meet Joe Black [1998], Closer [2004], Doubt [2008] and August: Osage County [2013]. Below are ten great films that first originated in plays (excluding Shakespearean adaptations).

I. The Seventh Seal [1957]

Play: Trämålning (Wood Painting) [1954] by Ingmar Bergman

This well-known masterpiece of a film by Ingmar Bergman stems from a one-act play by Bergman himself. He wrote a play titled Trämålning (Wood Painting) and it was initially supposed to be a play to be performed by students. In the story, the country is suffering because of the Black Death pandemic and a young Knight with his Squire have just returned from the Crusades. The land is in panic, and, unwittingly, the Knight joins a wagon of travelling performers. Death is also their follower, challenging the Knight to a play of chess. What will be the outcome? Philosophical, visually-striking and full of symbolism, The Seventh Seal is an uncanny portrayal of the Middle Ages and an iconic film in the history of cinema.

II. A Street Car Named Desire [1951]

Play: A Streetcar Named Desire [1947] by Tennessee Williams

Marlon Brando and Kim Hunter reprised their theatrical roles for this film based on a play-masterpiece by Tennessee Williams. Vivien Leigh is a deserved winner of an Academy Award for her powerful portrayal of Blanche DuBois, a former southern belle and torn-by-life woman whose last chance at finding happiness is shuttered by her sister’s brutal husband and his life’s “realities”. Tennessee Williams is also a playwright behind both Suddenly, Last Summer, which was made into a 1959 film, starring Katharine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift, and The Glass Menagerie, which made into a 1987 film by Paul Newman, starring Joanne Woodward and John Malkovich.

III. Rope [1948]

Play: Rope’s End [1929] by Patrick Hamilton

You can only get the suspense element going by giving the audience information [beforehand]“, used to say Alfred Hitchcock (The Birds [1963], Psycho [1960]). A “deliciously” thrilling, “murdering” premise is at the core of Rope – two friends, who consider themselves above the morality of other men, kill another young men, their acquittance and an “inferior”. One invitee to their aftermath-feast is their former Professor (Stewart) who starts to suspect the duo’s horrifying deed. This underrated film is claustrophobic, suspenseful, thrilling and through-provoking. Hitchcock also successfully converted into a film a play by Frederick Knott titled Dial M for Murder.

IV. Pygmalion [1938]

Play: Pygmalion [1913] by George Bernard Shaw

It is very hard for me to choose between Pygmalion [1938] and My Fair Lady [1964]. Undoubtedly, the latter made a very lovely musical out of the famous play. There is an iconic actress at its centre – Audrey Hepburn (Roman Holiday [1953]), brining her charm, and there are great songs. On the other hand, Pygmalion [1938] is a considerate, nuanced and fun film adaptation with great Leslie Howard (Gone with the Wind [1939]) who is just perfect in the role of strict and insensitive Professor Higgins who would like to pass one flower girl as a “grande dame” (and, unlike My Fair Lady, the difference in age between the two central characters in Pygmalion is not striking).

V. The Philadelphia Story [1940]

Play: The Philadelphia Story [1939] by Philip Barry

As Pygmalion above, The Philadelphia Story also saw two prominent film adaptations – one with Katharine Hepburn (1940) and another with Grace Kelly (1956) (filmed as High Society). It is also hard for me to choose between the two because I adore Grace Kelly, but, again, The Philadelphia Story retained certain nuances from the play which High Society ignored. Katharine Hepburn is pure perfection as a high-spirited and undecided Philadelphia socialite who finds herself surrounded by her male entourage (played by Cary Grant, John Howard and James Stewart) and cannot choose between them.

VI. Fences [2016]

Play: Fences [1985] by August Wilson

This film, directed by Denzel Washington (Flight [2012]), is about the life of Troy, a disillusioned husband to Rose (Viola Davis (The Help [2011]) and a father to two sons living in the suburbs of Pittsburgh in the 1950s. He works as a city sanitation worker and is a man of principles, instilling fear into the one son that still remains at home. Some say Washington never liberated his film from the “confines” of a play, but Fences can still be said to be one of the best play-to-film adaptations. It did not lose its power or resonance, and its lead performances by Denzel Washington and Viola Davies are simply “must-watch”.

VII. The Shop Around the Corner [1940]

Play: Parfumerie [1937] by Miklós László

Few people are aware of this fact, but both The Shop Around the Corner and You’ve Got Mail [1998] have their origin in a Hungarian play. Miklós László wrote Parfumerie and the rights were immediately sold to Ernst Lubitsch (director of The Shop Around the Corner). The film tells of employees at one shop in Budapest, Hungary. The head clerk of the shop, Alfred Kralik (Stewart), begins a battle of wits with a newcomer to the shop, Klara Novak (Sullavan). The duo do not realise that, in fact, they are becoming “anonymous sweethearts” to each other and their attachment for each other grows daily through the clandestine correspondence. 

VIII. Gaslight [1944]

Play: Gas Light [1938] by Patrick Hamilton

Ingrid Bergman (Spellbound [1945]) won an Academy Award for her role in this film. In this sinister-premised film directed by George Cukor, she plays a young wife, Paula, to a foreigner, Gregory Anton, who settles with in her in her late aunt’s mansion in central London. The façade of one happy couple is misleading, though, because Paula soon starts to question her sanity as their lifestyle becomes more and more reclusive. What can be happening to her? Are all the strange happenings around her home merely figments of her imagination or her husband has some ulterior motives? The film may be too long and the final act may resemble some silly catch-the-murderer-quick game, but great performances, the atmosphere and a thrilling psychological situation more than elevate this very good film.

IX. A Few Good Men [1992]

Play: A Few Good Men [1989] by Aaron Sorkin

“You Can’t Handle the Truth!” Who doesn’t know this infamous line from the film? Tom Cruise, Demi Moore and Kevin Bacon are all good, and Jack Nicholson is absolutely great!, in this courtroom drama about two U.S. Marines who got charged with the murder of a fellow Marine. However, it all started with a play by Aaron Sorkin of the same name. In turn, Sorkin got an idea for his play after talking to his sister. She was involved in defending a group of Marines at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base who got in trouble after almost killing another Marine in a hazing act, following the orders of their superior.

X. Driving Miss Daisy [1989]

Play: Driving Miss Daisy [1987] by Alfred Uhry

This film is now seen as a “mirror-counterpart” to the Oscar-winning film Green Book [2018], and although some ideas here may now be dated, including the film’s reliance on stereotypes, it can still be considered a very lovely adaptation overall. Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman give stellar performances as an elderly Jewish woman (Miss Daisy) and her chauffeur Hoke Colburn respectively, who take to the road and, in time, find mutual admiration for each other.

What do you think of this list? Do you have a favourite film based on a play?

20 thoughts on “10 Great Films Based on Plays

  1. I knew A Streetcar Named Desire came from a play because I read the script for part of an assignment for a college class! I wasn’t aware of the other examples coming from plays. That certainly could be an easy transition from the state to the silver screen.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I guess the transition has its own difficulties, such as how to make it so that the resulted film does not appear “too stagey” and performances – over-rehearsed (rather than natural), because without grand special effects or distant locations, it is often performances (relationships between characters) and the psychological situation at the centre that become the driving forces of a film.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post! Excellent selections. Of late I have found the film versions of Tracy Letts work such as Killer Joe and Bug to be excellent adaptations of stageplays. I also recently watched Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – another August Wilson adaptation. Historically, the Shakespeare plays have proved a rich market for many films too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, and for the great recommendations! I watched August: Osage County, but have not seen either Killer Joe or Bug – I will certainly try to seek them out now and watch! The same is with Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – sounds great! And, yes, I guess the Shakespearean plays adaptations deserve their own list!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Wonderful topic! Two films come to mind, not sure if you’d consider them ‘great’, but they are compelling, each in its own way, as they both deal with a physical impairment of the leading lady, blindness and deaf. Both adapted from a stage play: Wait Until Dark (1967) and Children of a Lesser God (1986). I’d say the latter is monumental as Marlee Matlin won Best Actress Oscar for her role.

    A suggestion for a post up coming, if you’re interested, as I’m thinking about it, so it might be interesting to ‘compare notes’, our favourite romantic films, could be rom com, or, rom serious. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sorry for the late reply and thanks very much for these suggestions! I haven’t seen either Wait Until Dark or Children of a Lesser God. Wait Until Dark sounds terrifying and it’s amazing that Audrey Hepburn was in it. I will definitely seek it out and watch. Coupling disability with home invasion or stalking must provide for some truly terrifying scenarios. The Spiral Staircase (1946) is another example, but that one was based on a book and it had a mute woman in the story.

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