Monday, December 22, 2008


It's a tough thing to film a play.

I had a professor in college -- the late screenwriter, Maury Rapf -- who used to tell me that plays were a terrible vehicle for adaptation to film. Plays were too confined. They relied way too much on dialogue. Whereas movies were much more about action. Better to pick a novel, he told me, if I ever wanted to adapt something. (I used to sit in Maury's office after hours and also listen to him tell me stories about Scott Fitzgerald and Budd Schulberg, too.)

But I think that Maury had it only partly right. The efforts of, say, Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn (My Dinner With Andre; Vanya on 42nd Street) are much more rooted in the theater than they are in cinema. And they succeed, wildly. Those might not be strict adaptations, but there have been plenty of other success stories. (Wait Until Dark, for instance.)

It really all depends on how it's pulled off. And on the level of actors involved.

John Patrick Shanley's Doubt, I think, is a case in point for how well it can work, when all cogs are running smoothly.

I don't think I ever quite lost sight of the fact that I was watching something that had first been a play. And Shanley (who is also the genius behind one of the great comedies of the 1980s, Moonstruck) doesn't wow anybody with fancy camera work or editing. But after a while, it occurred to me that he didn't need to. He knows that his story is essentially rooted in a single place -- a Catholic church and school. (The movie felt a little like watching John Huston's final effort, his adaptation of James Joyce's The Dead.)

But he kept the focus on character, ideas and plot.

So, why can't this be as important for a movie?

The film is about a priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman -- who I'm beginning to think might be the best actor currently on the planet) who is accused by a surly school principal (Merryl Streep) of molesting one of the altar boys.

I'll try not to give anything else away about the plot or its resolution (or lack thereof), but the dialogue is mostly superb -- and Hoffman, Streep and Amy Adams (who plays a history teacher) all plunge into their roles with a kind of faithfulness that is thrilling to watch.

But more than that, the great reason (I think) to watch Doubt is for an examination of ideas. And the idea is that of the importance of doubt and self-examination in one's thinking -- something that seems lost in George Bush's America.

In this sense, it is an attack on the religious right. It is an attack of the falseness of piety. Meryl Streep is perfectly pious and perfectly certain that Hoffman is a creep. And she may be right.

When Amy Adams says that she believes Hoffman, Streep responds, "But isn't that easier?"

As if the fact that a solution is simple precludes it from possibly also being the truth.

In that one sentence, she gets to the heart of the false sense of sacrifice that most pious people exude. Streep wants to take the hard way. And, in a sense, there's something noble in that; in refusing to let sleeping dogs lie; in insisting on stirring the pot and finding unpleasant truths.

There's plenty more. Go see it. In this schlub's opinion, Doubt was one of the two or three best movies of 2008.