Opening Argument: The ‘Hamilton’ Conversation And How A Thing Can Be Two Things
I’ve already written about how great I think the Hamilton film is, and certainly about how great I think the show is, so let’s put that aside. Part of what’s fascinated me in the run-up to the film (or filmed?) version of the musical is the preoccupation with whether the film is the same as the show, or the same as the album, or whether the album was the same as the show already. There’s something available there as far as the application of the transitive property where if a=b and b=c then a=c, but let’s not get carried away.
You can refer to my review for more about the specifics of the translation of this piece from a live theater experience to a film you can watch on Disney+. But it’s not the only time it’s come up; in fact, it’s not the only time it’s come up this week in my very own eyeline. I noticed the 1982 film adaptation of Annie going by on TCM last night (that a 1982 film is now a “classic movie” is its own jolt to the system, but let’s keep going). I remember very clearly that I was so hooked on the original cast album that when my grandparents took me to see the movie when I was visiting them that summer, I really didn’t like it. It was different, it was missing parts, it didn’t have the same singers (obviously) … I thought of it as a bad movie. And it wasn’t until many years later that I learned how many people treasured it and loved it, because that was their experience of Annie. For them, Carol Burnett and Tim Curry and all the other elements of it are key to what they love, and a stage musical without those people would be hopelessly flawed.
Netflix is also releasing its series based on the Baby-Sitters Club books. I was not a devotee of those books, but I know lots and lots of people who were, and while the early reviews of the show are good, I can’t imagine how daunting it must have seemed to take something about which people have such firmly established memories and expectations and put all kinds of expression to it — actors, intonation, settings — that people had previously had to envision.
I’ve thought about this a lot since I published a novel myself. I used to be more aligned with the side that wanted films to translate books (at least books I liked) as literally as possible, to hew as closely to the original writing as the format would allow. Every deviation was, to me, a compromise. But I could see clearly, the first time I read back my own book with the specific thought of whether it would make a good movie, that if I were adapting it, I’d change all kinds of things. Maybe where it started, maybe where certain conversations took place, maybe how long certain segments were in relation to others. There were things I think absolutely belong in the book that wouldn’t work at all in an adaptation. In fact, I started to realize that certain changes to the book would bother me much, much less than people might assume they would. (Not all changes, obviously. Some would bother me enormously.) I realized that I, as an audience member and even as a critic, have probably overestimated the affront that authors might feel at changes to their work as it’s adapted between formats.
There are things that are different about watching a piece of live theater from inside the room versus watching a filmed record of that performance. Some of those things weigh in favor of the theater experience; some weigh in favor of the film. It’s the same with any adaptation of any book: It might be good and it might be bad, but it’s never going to be the same, and trying to measure its goodness by how close it is to being the same is missing the point of all of the disciplines involved.
In the case of Hamilton, the live show is a thing, the cast album is a thing, and the film is a thing. And they’re all different. (Not to mention the fact that every different theatrical production is a thing, as is every individual performance within that production.) I happen to like them all. Perhaps you will, too.
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NPR’s own Eric Deggans did some very good reporting this week on the ongoing discussion about race and Survivor. Whether you like reality television or not, it makes a lot of money for people, and it affects the trajectories of their lives.
The documentary The Best Worst Thing That Ever Could’ve Happened, about the production of the unconventional and commercially unsuccessful Stephen Sondheim Broadway musical Merrily We Roll Along, is on Netflix. It’s utterly charming.
I wrote about the Hamilton film, how it translates to your living room from the stage, and how much I am now addicted to watching “Guns and Ships.”
The film was also the subject of our Friday show, where we were joined by the delightful Soraya Nadia McDonald.
On our Wednesday show, the also delightful Monica Castillo joined us to talk about Michaela Coel’s devastating, brilliant I May Destroy You. If you’ve been leaving this show alone on HBO, maybe give it a watch?
What’s Making Us Happy:
Every week on the show, we talk about some other things out in the world that have been giving us joy lately. Here they are: