01/18/2012 03:33 pm ET Updated Mar 19, 2012

Doing Carnage to Carnage

Some, but not all live theatrical productions transfer well into movies. The movie Carnage is one of those most unfortunate cases. When I saw the award winning play, written by Yasmina Reza on Broadway, I found myself howling with uncontrollable laughter. The movie was somewhat somber and alarmingly unfunny.

Briefly, the plot goes something like this. Two eleven year old boys get into a fight resulting in one of them being injured. The parents of the injured boy invite the parents of the alleged perpetrator to their apartment to discuss how best to reconcile the boys.

The boys are mostly offstage, after a long shot bit of miming their battle at the film's beginning, but the parents interact in ways that start out reasonably, by what appears to be well-meaning adults determined to do the right thing as parents of warring children. As they converse and get deeper into the reconciliation process they begin to unravel emotionally and reveal all the fault lines in both marriage relationships which are considerable.

Although the movie stars four experienced actors, Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz and John C. Riley and was directed by Roman Polanski, the characterizations are cramped by the film process and what is lost is the concept of interaction and timing that made the play so funny and memorable.

Perhaps it is this live interaction that makes the transfer of stage to screen so tricky. Another handicap for the process is how to come up with a scenario that can magnify a play with few characters, meaning "opening it up" by widening the focus with action and inventing additional scenes.

There was a casting flaw in Carnage as well concerning Christopher Waltz who played the male of the visiting couple. He is a fine actor and was brilliant as the Nazi in Inglourious Basterds, but trying to disguise his Austrian accent seemed to interfere with the character's authenticity.

In the case of Carnage, it was as if the characters were doing set pieces, isolated from the others. If I sound dismissive, I fear that most audiences will feel the same way. Laughs were few and far between in the performance I attended.

There have been many movies made that originated on stage and did not lose their power in film. In the straight play category what comes to mind is Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire and Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, plays so powerful with characters so well conceived and adapted by superb actors that most of the impact of the stage performances have been replicated on the screen.

Others will have different favorites and opinions and disagree with my assertion that, in general, a movie rarely fully captures the emotional impact of a live performance.

Of course there are exceptions, perhaps many, to such a sweeping pronouncement. One notable personal exception is the black and white movie Brief Encounter written by Noel Coward, a "small" play in terms of cast adapted from an even smaller short play by Coward, but, in my opinion, one of the great transfers from stage to screen. This story of a traditional suburban housewife and a doctor, married to others, suddenly confronted with an unplanned attraction with characters played by Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson is extraordinary in its adaptation.

Indeed, some of our most renowned playwrights have had their work "transferred" to film with very uneven results, Eugene O'Neil, for example. I exempt Shakespeare from all criticism. His magnificent prose covers all faults even in the worst adaptations of his work to the screen, of which there have been many.

In the musical category, transfers from stage to screen have had somewhat more success than the straight play. The music, I suppose, has a lot to do with it although there seems to be a decline in the number of musical stage transfers than there were in decades past. Perhaps the decline is more a symptom of the fact that the era of the great stage musicals were created by a certain burst of incandescent talent that is no longer available, or as yet undiscovered, or waiting in the wings until that are called upon by public demand.

In another case of personal privilege, I thought the movie version of My Fair Lady equaled if not exceeded the power of the stage play, which was pretty marvelous in itself. I'm sure there have been many others, but this musical version of Shaw's Pygmalion is my all time favorite with brilliant lyrics by Allen Jay Lerner that I have found unequaled in most musicals.

But aside from morphing into a reflection on the ability of film to adapt the full power of a live stage presentation, the bottom line impression of Carnage is that its movie version does disservice to the original.

Warren Adler is the author of 32 novels and short story collections published in numerous languages. Films adapted from his books include 'The War of the Roses,'Random Hearts' and the PBS trilogy 'The Sunset Gang'. He is a pioneer in digital publishing. For more information visit Warren's website at