re: The Whale, stage vs screen
Posted by: rfk_nytx 06:51 pm EST 01/26/23
In reply to: The Whale, stage vs screen - wizrdofoz27 01:09 pm EST 01/26/23

In 2012, I had one of my most rewarding and emotional theater experiences at Playwrights Horizons watching an exemplary cast (led by Shuler Hensley in the lead role of Charlie) perform Samuel D. Hunter's excellent play "The Whale." I was so moved by the ending that I recall having to sit down in my seat for several minutes after the curtain call to reorient myself before rejoining the world outside the theater on 42nd Street. Aided by Hunter's fine writing, Hensley's fine acting and Davis McCallum's precise direction, I formed deep wells of empathy for each of the play's characters, but especially for the lead character Charlie. The ending gutted me.

Needless to say, I was somewhat skeptical when I heard that "The Whale" was being adapted into a film, even though Hunter was signed on as the screenwriter. Hunter's theatrical works share much more than a geographical locus (in or near Idaho); they also typically mine deep wells of empathy for their finely wrought characters. That is easier to do in the confines of live theater, and much more difficult to pull off in the much cooler medium of film. But I was hopeful that the film could at least come close to approximating my 2012 experience in the theater.

Unfortunately, the film adaptation of "The Whale" not only failed to engage my empathy, but I found it a downright distasteful experience that I endured for its entire 117 minute running time only because I kept hoping it would improve. It never improved.

So how does such a fine play become such a terrible film? It is not the writing. After watching the film I went back and read the play script, and while there were changes in the writing, the bulk of the play's dialogue is up on the screen. I did note that in the play Charlie is constantly apologizing with repeated instances of "I'm sorry" that I do not recall in the film. I surmise that someone thought the often repeated self-deprecating "sorrys" of Charlie in the play script that were intended to (and did) evoke empathy, might be annoying on film. But that is the only aspect of the writing changes that I thought could account for my very different reactions to the on stage Charlie as compared with his screen counterpart.

I was not impressed with Brendan Fraser's performance as Charlie, but I will cut him some slack because any actor would be challenged to realistically emote under all the latex and makeup in which his body and face are covered. I think the fault in failing to successfully adapt the play lies primarily with Director Darren Aronofsky. Aronofsky does everything he can, from making Charlie an unhuman appearing puppet, to grotesquely focusing on Charlie's gluttonous eating binges, to distance the film viewer from feeling for Charlie. Indeed, it is very difficult to feel empathy for the on screen Charlie when Aronfsky's directorial choices seem aimed at making Charlie an inhuman freak. Aronofsky's goal seems to be to evoke revulsion rather than empathy, and as such are in direct conflict with the essence of Hunter's words.

Would the film have worked in the hands of a director more attuned with Hunter's writing? We will never know, but what I do know is that I cannot recommend seeing the film "The Whale" unless you want to explicate how a great play can be made in to a bad film.

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Next: re: The Whale, stage vs screen - schauspieler 03:00 pm EST 01/26/23

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