Adapting Oliver Twist and The Joy Luck Club for the Stage
“It wasn’t as good as the book” is a standard, snarky response to film and stage adaptations of stories or novels, which are rife with characters’ internal thoughts, so carefully laid out on the page. In adaptations for actors, however, such literary ruminations get driven into the subtext of actors’ facial expressions; authors’ descriptions of place and time usually re-emerge without words at all, in vivid visual panoramas, accompanied by atmospheric soundtracks.
But is this necessarily a diminishment of the original, or is the complaint by some book-club partisan merely crankiness that something has changed from page to screen or stage? Audiences who haven’t read the source material approach such adaptations without prejudice, judging them as new works. And why not? What movie or play isn’t borrowed from some literary antecedent? Name a Shakespeare play that wasn’t filched from some Roman or Italian literary source, which wasn’t a play to begin with.
Yet the words “adapted from the novel by . . . ” are an invitation to compare and sneer at the new work, as though it were one of Charles Dickens’ orphans asking for a second helping of gruel.
Two stage adaptations of novels performing locally each have a kind of duel with their literary sources. That orphan asking for a second helping of gruel, Oliver Twist, actually shows up on the stage of Glendale’s A Noise Within, in Neil Bartlett’s 2004 adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist; meanwhile at East West Players in Little Tokyo, Susan Kim’s 1999 adaptation of Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club brings a quartet of mother-daughter pairings to theater audiences.
Adapting a novel to the stage is something like towing a house from the Midwest prairie, and resettling it, across state lines in a suburb. The essence of the structure may not be so different, but the change of atmosphere sure makes it feel that way. The relationship of a book to a reader is an intimate transference of images, prompted by the author’s words and conjured by the reader in his own terms. The reader determines the propulsion of scenes in a book by the pace at which he turns the pages. Dickens wrote Oliver Twist as a magazine serial. Its form is strategically digressive, with new chapters designed to be read a week or so after the prior one. For this reason, Dickens’ chapter headings are teasing minisynopses of what to expect, a bridge between the lingering memory of a chapter read last week and a new adventure: “Chapter XII: In which Oliver is taken better care of than he ever was before. And in which the narrative reverts to the merry old gentleman and his youthful friends.”
Unlike a book reader, the theater audience is more or less tethered to the scenery onstage, convicted to receive the story in a two- to three-hour span — and that conviction has a huge influence on the distinction between a play and a book. One notable exception was the Royal Shakespeare Company’s nine-hour juggernaut staging of Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby,which left no cobblestone unturned, while the ticket price included dinner during one of the intervals. Seattle’s excellent Book It Repertory theater has created a cottage industry by adapting literature to its stage, partly by leaving in all the narration and making it part of the action. It’s an experiment that actually approaches preserving the source material’s literary essences.
Dickens’ novel, something between a social commentary and a social satire, is structured as the life odyssey of a 10-year-old orphan, Oliver, from the kind of workhouse where all orphans were relegated in Victorian England, to his subsequent employment with a coffin-maker and his wife, to a den of thieves, to his short-lived redemption by an elderly gent whom Oliver tried to rob, and so on. Three film adaptations demonstrate the cinematic appeal of Oliver’s eventually interlinking adventures: David Lean’s dour yet animated 1948 version; Carol Reed’s adaptation of Lionel Bart’s 1960 musical, Oliver!; and Roman Polanski’s atmospherically lush 2005 movie.
At A Noise Within, Bartlett’s first gambit in his adaptation is to establish a Victorian theater setting (the same idea used in the RSC’s Nicholas Nickleby),in order to seize theatrical ownership of the story about to unfold. Young adults Brian Dare and Shaun Anthony play pre-adolescent Oliver and the Dodger, but their ages don’t impede in a staging so obviously about theatrical license. Director Julia Rodriguez-Elliott goes to considerable lengths to provide stylistic direction. Her ensemble opens and closes the production with chorales, sung beautifully a cappella; and while David O’s original music, sneaking in and around some of the more sentimentally animated scenes in the first half, has a contrapuntally lugubrious tone, the action of a murder and a death near play’s end eventually catches up to it —or down to it. Meanwhile, Rodriguez-Elliott underscores dramatic tension by having her ensemble beat sticks in unison, adding yet another layer of musicality, and unity.
A looming ladder forms the centerpiece of Kurt Boetcher’s set, creating both visual and allegorical focus on the social tiers that comprise so much of Dickens’ indignation. Bartlett’s adaptation rolls through the novel by capturing the chapter’s essences in dialogues and scenes; though as taut as can be imagined, structurally, it follows a log cascade down a river, bumping into rocks and boulders along its path. This play is more about those collisions than the novel’s epic sweep, probably because narrative theater is strongest when characters are clashing. The lingering force of Dickens’ novel, however — as in Tan’s The Joy Luck Club — lies in the way the scenes slide up against each other, the way they accumulate. Through those juxtapositions, a view of society emerges. This view is in the plays, but, this being theater with living actors rather than words on a page, the characters dominate the broader vision even when they’re cartoons, such as Fagin (the excellent Tom Fitzpatrick) or Mrs. Sowerberry (Geoff Elliott). This elegantly wrought production is about moments, and Dickens’ novel is larger than that.
Tan’s novel, set in 1980s San Francisco, is a tapestry of four matriarchs from feudal China, and their American daughters. The study of each parent sends the action rolling back in time via flashbacks. Multiply that by four, and you’ve got a structure completely at odds with the theater’s dramatic essences.
John H. Binkley’s set features what looks like a parchment scroll suspended on one side, with the parchment rolling down to the stage floor and back up on the other side. So the actors play out their various crises on the stuff of literature beneath their feet, which is a lovely idea in Jon Lawrence Rivera’s production. He too employs music, with actors playing recorder and percussion behind entire scenes. It provides atmosphere that mostly enhances the action and occasionally suffocates it.
The dynamics between the mothers and daughters are tenderly rendered with a penetrating authenticity, and Rivera uses every fiber of his intellect to keep the story threads from fraying. He even projects the names of characters and chapter titles onto the set — providing theater’s equivalent of road signs. But the characters, made large by the actors’ talents and sensitivities, overwhelm the cultural and generational divides they represent. Trying to contain Tan’s epic sweep in the theater is like trying to catch the wind with a sieve.
CHARLES DICKENS’ OLIVER TWIST | Adapted by NEIL BARTLETT from the novel by CHARLES DICKENS | A NOISE WITHIN, 234 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale | In rep, through Dec. 14. | (818) 240-0910, ext. 1, or www.anoisewithin.org
THE JOY LUCK CLUB | Adapted by SUSAN KIM from the novel by AMY TAN | Presented by EAST WEST PLAYERS at the DAVID HENRY HWANG THEATER, 120 Judge John Aiso St., Little Tokyo | Through Dec. 21 | (213) 625-7000 or www.eastwestplayers.org