Sunday, April 2, 2023

Adjusting From The Stage To The Screen – What Went Wrong With “The Whale” & “The Son?”

With the Academy Award nominations now out there for the world to see, it’s interesting to look back on two once major contenders for Best Adapted Screenplay and look at how they both managed to not get Oscar-nominated in this category. It is common today to see stories designed for the stage make their way to the screen. However, roadblocks always lead the adaptation to fall short of the intended goal in the transition to the screen. This is especially the case with Darren Aronofsky’s “The Whale” and Florian Zeller’s “The Son.” At the beginning of the year, both films were welcomed with excitement. Zeller’s “The Son” was greeted with enthusiasm as people were eager to see his sophomore film after his incredible film debut with his Academy Award-winning film “The Father.” Likewise, many were excited for Aronofsky’s “The Whale” as it marked the return of Brendan Fraser to a significant leading role. In the beginning half of the year, many pundits were making early calls that both these films would show up in the Best Picture lineup at the 95th Academy Awards. Pundits even had the Best Actor race set as a battle between Brendan Fraser vs. Hugh Jackman. However, as these films debuted at Venice and began to screen more, the perception of these films dwindled to the point where they no longer appeared on the radar of many. This is not uncommon to see with plays, as this was the case for “August: Osage County” and “Rabbit Hole,” though they managed to score some Oscar nominations just as “The Whale” did while “The Son” received zero. Because of this, I had always been curious about the causes of these two plays having the reception they did when they seemed to work so well on paper.

First up is “The Whale.” This play was written by Samuel D. Hunter and centers around a 600 lbs. man who attempts to amend his relationships before he finally accepts his fate. When adapting a play into a film, its success can be hypothesized based on its performance in the theatrical realm. Hunter’s play only ran Off-Broadway and never had a transition to Broadway. When the Obie awards came out (the highest honor for Off-Broadway productions), it was only nominated for one Obie award, which was the best performance for Shuler Hensley, who played Charlie (who is played by Brendan Fraser in the film version). The perception of the play itself, makes the lack of nominations interesting as the reviews of the play were extremely positive. However, the reception of this play happened a decade ago, in 2012. By waiting so long to create the film, “The Whale” had to surrender itself to a new worldview and as a result, the biggest thing that hurts the film is the screenplay. Having the original author serve as the screenwriter can be a great benefit to allowing the original intent of the work to be preserved through the process. But writing a play is incredibly different from writing a feature film screenplay. With a play set for the stage, everything is allowed to be dialed up to a ten. The dramatic language can ring out, and these big moments can stick out so that when someone such as Liz (the character) begins to yell, it’ll ring through the theatre. On film, it’s different. Everything is allowed to be more “natural” and practical on film. Big moments do not have to be played up. Likewise, this is a similar case to Florian Zeller’s “The Son.”

Zeller’s “The Son” is the final play within his trilogy, which will undoubtedly see a feature film adaptation of his stage play “The Mother” sooner rather than later. Zeller originally debuted “The Son” in Paris, where it was widely praised. The play then transferred to the West End, where it was also praised with positive reviews. When the Olivier Awards (the UK’s version of the Tony Awards) came around, “The Son” received zero nominations, and as a result, this play was unsuccessful in securing a transfer to Broadway. This would not have hurt Zeller as he built enough capital in the industry with his critical and Academy Award-winning hit indie film, “The Father.” People were excited to see his next feature length film, yet when it debuted at Venice, it was met with mixed reviews and a giant question mark of what happened? How could this go so seriously wrong?

The biggest issue for these films is that they lean more into the play aspects of their stories rather than adjusting them for the screen. Often, the notion is not to change the words of the script and just put the play in a movie format, but that will only sometimes be enough for a movie to be received well. If it has been more than a decade, the dialogue should be revisited when adapting it for a feature length film. Language in a movie does not have to be played up; it can remain more natural. Reading the play version of “The Whale” and hearing the screenplay in Aronofsky’s film, it seemed as though hardly anything was changed in the adaptation process. An adaptation is not meant to be a copy and paste of its original material, although there are some rare exceptions where this can work such as Shakespeare’s plays or with Denzel Washington’s “Fences” which used August Wilson’s original text word for word. The team adapting the material should explore their interpretations of the original source and find ways to incorporate that into the final product.

Likewise, both films touch on topics that are relevant today. “The Son” deals with mental health and the generational split on how to process and work through adversity. Whereas “The Whale” analyzes how people deal with grief and how an individual must navigate through it. With such hot topic subject material, it must be approached with a caring spirit that considers multiple perspectives. These two films have created a slight generational divide, and they both appear to be products of the generation of the director who helmed them. Because it is made from the view of someone who is older and grew up in a different time from Millennials or Gen-Z, there is this feeling just addressing these issues isn’t enough. In some cases, the film can be seen as insensitive, especially with “The Son’s” portrayal of Nicolas’ (played by Zen McGrath) battle with depression and Charlie’s eating disorders in “The Whale.” Both movies address the issues but they do it in a way that sometimes feels like victim-blaming. When dealing with taboo subjects such as these, there must be an approach that allows the audience not just to feel sorry for the characters but want to empathize with them as well.

Ways to help with this level of empathy can be achieved through the direction and, of course, the screenplay. In both films, the actors are doing their best with the provided material, but they can only do so much. Brendan Fraser and Hong Chau managed to receive Oscar nominations for their work while we’ll never know how close Golden Globe-nominee Hugh Jackman came for Zeller’s misfire. However, neither film had their screenplays nominated. While the prospects for “The Son” dwindled by the time nomination morning arrived, “The Whale” was doing well-enough in the precursors that its miss was considered shocking when it didn’t get the nomination.

The script is one of the most important aspects of a film, if not the most important considering it’s the foundation everything else is built upon. With an adapted one, it’s important to honor the original material while also being able to adjust to what may be needed for the film specifically, especially if that adaptation is taking place years after the original story was conceived. Unfortunately, these two films could not maintain their Oscar buzz from the beginning. Maybe as time goes on, they will be re-evaluated. Maybe “The Whale” will win one of its Oscar nominations. But the fact of the matter is, all other playwrights and writers out there should take note of what happened this year with these two films and consider their failings when making their own adaptations from the stage to the screen.

Have you seen either “The Whale” or “The Son” yet? If so, what did you think of them? What do you make of their awards season runs? Do you think Brendan Fraser will go on to win the Oscar for Best Actor? Please check out the Next Best Picture team’s Oscar predictions here and let us know your thoughts either in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.

You can follow Jordan and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @atakeonfilms

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