The Velvet Café

A room for thoughts about movies

Reader question: What is bad about “filmed theatre”?

with 21 comments

I got a letter from a long time reader Syrien, who raises some questions about the relationship between the movie medium and traditional theatre.

“Hi Jessica,

I have a movie-related question and I thought I’d try ask you, since I really enjoy reading your musings about movies (and I trust you feel free to answer as much or as little as you feel like).

The question is related to Carnage, which I saw at my local cinema tonight. I’d read a newspaper review or two and they were lukewarm, but decided I wanted to watch it regardless, partly because I have enjoyed both Foster and Winslet in previous movies they’ve been in. And I found it very funny and enjoyable. What was striking though, was how the reviews I had read said something fairly negative about this being “filmed theatre”. I don’t think it’s a wrong description, but I have trouble catching what is bad about it. And it made me wonder, would you say that a movie lover is as likely, more likely or less likely to like live theatre? Do you enjoy live theatre as well as movies, or is the magic more in the silver screen?

I remember when I was a teenager, that I had this understanding that movies were cool, while theater was.. uhm.. cultured? (I was not cool, and strange enough to want to go to the theater with a friend rather than grown-ups at 16. I enjoyed movies too though). But since then, so many of the nerdy things I liked, like comics and computer games, have become totally mainstream. Watching this movie and considering the reviews really got me wondering what was different crowds, what was just different art forms, and what was, I don’t know.. something far above my head 😀 I understand that a movie is not the same as theatre, of course. But at the same time, if you have a favourite actor, you’d probably not say no to seeing that actor in a live theatre (I keep wanting to call them RL theatres..), so there has to be some connection too, right? “

And here is my reply:

“Dear Syrien,

I’m afraid I haven’t spent enough time in the world of cinephiles to be able to make any judgement about the status of live theatre versus plays that have been adapted for the movies. For my own part I think that live performances – either it’s in the form of theatre or music or dancing – has a certain form of magic that movies never can reproduce – namely the feeling of that you’re experiences something that only will happen once. No performance is exactly the same as the other. There will always be differences from day to day in how an actor perform, how the audience response. And there’s this special tension in the air, that something could go wrong, which adds a nerve to it. On the other hand there is a magic in movies that can’t be reproduced in theatres. There’s a different freedom to it, the possibility to go to places that only exist in our imagination, to jump back and forward in time and space, to play with perspectives and moods and effects. If someone tried to make a staged play out of Inception I can’t imagine it would be anywhere near as good as the film.

For me it’s not one thing or another. They two different art forms and both are enjoyable and respectable for their own reasons. But films are way cheaper and more easily available, so for every time I go to see live theatre, I’ve probably watched a couple of hundred of movies.

I agree that there is something negative in the expression “filmed theatre”. And I think this is related to a wish and an expectation on movies to offer something different than a traditional theatre. Since we have all the magic, all the possibilities of a different way of storytelling, it seems like a poor choice not to use all those options.

Of course you can just use the camera to document a performance and give a bigger audience a chance to see it. This is done more and more nowadays as some cinemas are showing filmed opera. But no one would think of calling this a “movie”. It’s just a documentation, a “next best” option for someone who couldn’t make it to the live show.

When the negative criticism comes up, I think it’s because a movie feels “stagy” when it doesn’t need to be that way. Many movies are built on plays that have been performed in theatre, but have been adapted for the screen so well that you have no idea of its origin. A good example of this last year was the Canadian film Incendies, which takes place in a fictive Middle East country on a number of different settings. I was really surprised to learn afterwards that this was built in a play. There was no way I could have guessed that. It was so cinematic, conveying a story not just in dialogue, but in moods created by cinematography, score and editing.”

But now I leave the floor to the guests of The Velvet Café. What do you make of Syrien’s questions? How is the relationship between theatre and movies? Is it necessarily a bad thing that you can spot the theatrical origin in a screenplay? Let’s have a conversation about this!

I give you free drinks. You give me your thoughts.


Written by Jessica

February 17, 2012 at 5:00 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

21 Responses

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  1. Heya Jessica,

    I think that you’ve hit it on the head in regards to theatre v. film expectations. Movies, due to its pre-filmed, non-live production allows it to do far, far more in regards to setting, effects, etc. that it’s expected that it shouldn’t look like live theatre – people performing for the camera – but instead should look more like it’s actually happening, even in the most fantastic situations. With movies, one should not ‘see’ that it’s a set, with actors and actresses, but instead be more immersed in the production.

    Theater, being generally performed on a fixed stage in front of a live audience, has other concerns to work with in regards to setting, effects, and costuming. Because the actors and actresses are being watched ‘live’, the stage changes and costume changes have to be worked into the flow of the production itself, in order to keep the audience immersed in the production. Movies have little concern with the flow of costuming or settings, budgetary concerns aside, as they have the luxury of time, editing, and locations. Things that are impressive in theater often lose their luster on the big screen because the expectations are higher, due to the assets films have going for them.

    For example, one of the most interesting aspects of the stage setting for Cameron MacIntosh’s Les Miserables production is the stage setting for Act two, the scenes in Paris. The ‘buildings’ are a framework that stands upright on the sides of the stage, which rotates and collapses across the stage, later in the act, to become the walls of the barricade upon which the students make their stand against the French Army during their uprising. It’s a smooth transition – the stage transforms between scenes – and the engineering and artistry that created it for the stage is praiseworthy.

    However, if the same set was used on a film, a lot of watchers would be scratching their heads. It would not have the same effect on the audience as it does on stage.

    I think it’s the perceived lack of production value of a theatrical set on film that makes the idea of ‘theatre on film’ not work. Film has access to multiple locations, editing, the ability to use more elaborate costumes and makeup, and effects that theatre doesn’t have, and therefore, not using these advantages looks like either a poor effort on the part of the filmmaker, or an attempt to be artistic (which can be positive or negative, based on the audience).

    Film and theatre are two different presentation media, and as such have different expectations attached to them. It is, therefore, only natural that the reception of the final work be based these expectations, and trying to force one set of expectations onto the other media (as in pushing the expectations of theatre onto film) can affect the reactions of the audience to that media.

    My 2 yen,



    February 17, 2012 at 6:12 pm

    • It’s very well articulated. This said: I sometimes still can think that filmed theatre is enjoyable, such as for instance Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wood? where you certainly could trace the theatrical origins, but it still was a good film to watch.


      February 19, 2012 at 11:40 pm

  2. I think it all comes down to quality of the show in consideration. There are a few stage plays or musicals (Doubt, Jesus Christ Superstar and To Kill A Mockingbird) that I’ve seen live and loved far more than the cinematic adaptations. There are adaptations (Phantom of the Opera and Rent) that I’ve liked far more than the staging. And then there are essentially filmed staging. My favorite film of all time, 12 Angry Men, has almost nothing that couldn’t have been done on a stage in front of an audience. You’d just have to knock down one wall and cut the open and closing scenes outside the jury room. That it is stagey rather than cinematic doesn’t even remotely hurt it. Another example is the filmed staging of Cats they released a bit over a decade ago. Though it is staged for camera and not crowd, it is very much still a stage. Still, letting the camera get closer than you ever could as an audience member really magnified the effect of the story and the dancing compared to when I saw it live.

    Speaking to Carnage, my problems had nothing to do with it being “filmed theatre” but not being, for me, good theatre.


    February 17, 2012 at 6:20 pm

    • Bondo,

      I think you’re right about what is being adapted being as important, if not more than how it’s being adapted. One of my favorite movies A Few Good Men is an adaptation of a stage play, and while I can see how it could be done as a stage play, I feel the movie was an excellent adaptation that took advantage of some of the things that film allows that stage cannot do, such as setting changes. While not necessarily integral to the story, it added to the presentation of the production and created a very enjoyable film.

      With productions, especially musical productions, often the cast can make a difference in the opinion of whether something is a better adaptation or not. For Phantom of the Opera, I thought that while it was a good adaptation of the original, the performers I had seen in the production I saw in the theatre were slightly better, and that the movie cast did not hold a candle to the original cast, which included Sarah Brightman and Michael Crawford. I would be hard pressed to find any cast that could compare to them.

      And I also believe that there are some productions that are unique because of the medium that they are presented in, and probably would not adapt well if there was an attempt to change the medium. The best example of this is probably Avenue Q which was unique due to its use of puppets (Muppet-style puppets) on stage, with actors and actresses working them and voicing them on stage, interacting with other puppets and actors and actresses. I think the puppetwork is the essence of that show, and adapting that to film, where the puppets could be animated by other means and/or performed without visible actors and actresses controlling the puppet, would change the entire presentation in a negative fashion.

      Both factors play an important role in an adaptation of theatre to film. What you adapt and how you adapt it are both critical to the final product. Casting, setting, and the changes in presentation due to the format differences are all essential elements of an adaptation – it’s the same as adapting a book to theatre or film.

      I’m nervous about the upcoming Les Miserables adaptation, as the production has gotten many great performers in the past – Colm Wilkinson, Lea Salonga, and Philip Quast, to name a few. (In fact, for you Iron Chef fans out there, (Chairman) Takeshi Kaga even performed Les Miserables in the Japanese production, having performed as both Jean Valjean and Javert over multiple runs of the show.) After seeing the 25th Anniversary Concert DVD – where Nick Jonas performed as Marius Pontmercy – I do hope that the singing. (Jonas appeared to be the only person in the cast not classically trained in singing, and it showed in his lack of depth and projection when compared with the rest of the cast.)

      We’ll see, though. I do want to see it on the big screen. I hope I can be more forgiving of it than I was with Harry Potter.

      My 2 yen,



      February 17, 2012 at 7:30 pm

      • Sorry, that should read “I do hope the singing is handled well.”


        February 17, 2012 at 7:32 pm

        • Hi,

          Just wanted to say thanks for the comments so far (and that includes Jessica of course)! Some ramblings to add to my already rambling question:

          @Bondo: When you say that “Speaking to Carnage, my problems had nothing to do with it being “filmed theatre” but not being, for me, good theatre.”, that makes perfect sense to me (I had fun watching it, but that is besides the point). The bad filmed theatre = bad movie equation is easy to follow. But could a movie be good theatre and a bad movie at the same time?

          @Akiosama: I totally agree that there are some unique opportunities in theater and some in movies. Your comments about stage settings were illuminating to me – I often thought of movies as “less realistic” because you can do totally impossible things in a movie, but you are of course right when you say that a theatre stage is a lot less like the real world than most movies are. And acting can be “theatrical” in the sense that it is, hm, kind of baroque, over the top, the way you might need to act to convey feelings to someone sitting at the back rather than through a close-up on your face. I guess this is another case of the theatre being less realistic. Thinking about Carnage, the acting seemed a little theatrical in that sense. It still worked (for me) though 🙂


          February 17, 2012 at 9:18 pm

          • “But could a movie be good theatre and a bad movie at the same time?”

            I’m sure it could be in a broader sense. A lot of older musicals have very stagy looking sets and they would be impressive live but when filmed just lack something. When I used the phrase I was not really speaking to its staging qualities so much as it just happened not to be a script that ultimately worked for me, at least as acted. I was trying to say that the problems I had with Carnage were inherent to the story and not to the setting, so it likely would affect the stage play as much as the film.


            February 17, 2012 at 11:34 pm

      • Yeah, I saw Michael Crawford in a different show, EFX, and I’m sure if I had seen him in Phantom it would have been my favorite version. The staging I saw had a Phantom who sounded like Kermit…it wasn’t a good experience, so the film stands out more as a result.

        I am deciding to remain hopeful about the Les Mis film, though I agree Nick Jonas in the 25th Ann version was horrid. The 10th Ann was such a good performance though. I’ve never seen it properly staged so I’m just hopeful to get a general idea of the further drama of it beyond the songs.


        February 17, 2012 at 9:06 pm

        • Bondo,

          And all three of the actors/actresses I mentioned above, and Takeshi Kaga, were all featured in the 10th Anniversary concert for Les Mis. I think they’re going to have the movie crew will have their work cut out for them – I took a look at the cast list and was a bit surprised – Hugh Jackman for Jean Valjean, Russell Crowe for Javert, and Sasha Baron Cohen for Mssr. Thenardier? I really hope they can carry the singing.

          Oddly enough, while I think that Cohen can carry the comedic aspects of the Thenardier role, I’m surprised they didn’t go with Matt Lucas for that role – he’s done acting on screen before (I remember him vividly as the badguy Chancellor Donold David Dongalor, and as Tweedledee/Tweedledum in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. His performance of Thenardier, while very different in feel than Alun Armstrong’s performance in the 10th Anniversary concert (primarily because of their differences in body type, I think), was excellent, both for the singing and the portrayal of the character.

          It’s hard to have confidence in actors for singing roles when you’ve seen the theatrical versions onstage by performers who are trained to sing, I guess. As this show holds a particularly high place in my heart, I am extremely nervous about whether or not they can pull it off well.

          At least Colm Wilkinson will be in the production – as the Bishop who sets Valjean on his new path.

          It’s unfortunate, but understandable that the best cast of the theatrical production can’t be the cast for the film – due to age, and such other concerns. The cast from the 10th Anniversary special – Wilkinson as Valjean, Quist as Javert, and Salonga as Eponine are who I imagine the quintessential characters to be, and it’s going to be hard to change that.

          (On a smaller note, I’m surprised that they didn’t keep Taylor Swift for Eponine, though I’m not sure how she would have done, simply for the fame factor – and I can’t imagine Swift as a brunette – Cosette instead, maybe? Very surprised they didn’t go with Lea Michele as well, given that she’s done Les Mis onstage before (different part, though), and that she showed on Glee that she can do a very good Eponine, having done a great rendition of “On My Own” in the pilot episode. Still, Lea Salonga has really, really, really big shoes to fill – she’s a one of a kind vocalist.)

          Here’s hoping that Les Mis does well on the big screen.

          My 2 yen,



          February 18, 2012 at 1:28 am

          • Bleah – I wish I could edit my responses here.

            That should be “I think the movie crew will have their work cut out for them…”

            And Matt Lucas was Chancellor Donold David Dongalor in Krod Mandoon and the Flaming Sword of Fire.

            I think I got everything else mostly correct. (Sorry, Jess!)

            My 2 yen,



            February 18, 2012 at 1:31 am

          • Well, Hugh Jackman won a Tony for The Boy From Oz, I think he’s got the chops. And apparently Crowe, hard as it is to believe, started in musical theatre. And I’m curious about Baron Cohen in that role. I wasn’t so fond of Matt Lucas in the role.


            February 18, 2012 at 4:10 am

          • You seem to know this musical so well. Sadly enough I haven’t watched it once. The closest I’ve been was giving my mother a ticket to the current set-up in Sweden. She sad it was fantastic afterwards. I probably should have given one to myself. But I’ll wait for the theatrical release. It’s no doubt about time I see this.


            February 19, 2012 at 11:48 pm

      • You didn’t like Harry Potter? I think at least the final movies were great. The first couple felt kind of childish I guess…

        I’m impressed by how many musicals you’ve watched! As regarding Les Miserables, it’s a Tom Hooper movie and the ones I’ve watched earlier – Damned United and The King’s Speech have been awesome. I’m hopeful!


        February 19, 2012 at 11:44 pm

        • Actually, it’s not that I didn’t like Harry Potter as a franchise, but I thought the books were extremely well done, charming, and just ended up with far too much to be shown on the screen and do it justice. I’ve been meaning to give it a second chance, though, as I’ve only seen the first one and I have been told that it was a lesser film compared to those that came after. The first film felt like it raced from plot point to plot point, and lost nearly all the charm that captivated me when I first read the book.

          (I am not sure what it was that completely charmed me, but I was sure I was going to read the entire series after the first chapter or two, and that first chapter was completely left out of the movie, if I recall correctly. I just think that I enjoyed watching the wizards v. Vernon Dursley and the jaunty way she presented the wizarding community and the Dursley family in just that short prologue.)

          But I’ll have to check the movies out. The books though, are among my favorites, which makes it tough.

          My 2 yen,



          February 20, 2012 at 11:19 am

          • If you only watched the first I totally get where you’re coming from. I never liked the way the Dursleys were pictured in the movie either. But you have to believe me – the last two movies, which are the ones I have most fresh in mind, were really good. In part two there was even an extra scene that wasn’t in the book, picturing Harry and Hermione dancing. I really loved that addition.


            February 20, 2012 at 12:50 pm

    • I think my problem with some musicals is when they play it as if they were playing it in a huge theatre needing to reach out to the row in the back. That was a bit offputting in for instance My Fair Lady. If it’s going to be stage-like, it should at least be a small, intimate stage.


      February 19, 2012 at 11:42 pm

      • I don’t necessarily agree with this being a problem in My Fair Lady, but I do think one aspect of translating from stage to screen, whether a musical or a drama, is toning it down because like you say, it’s easier to get emotions across a few feet from the camera than to the back row of an auditorium.

        P.S. I know for a fact you’ve heard at least one song from the Les Mis musical. 🙂


        February 20, 2012 at 2:30 am

  3. I’m generally not a fan of filmed theater, but this has nothing to do with my opinion on theater. I think, for the most part, plays don’t translate well. Film is a visual medium, and most filmed theater pieces I’ve seen have felt rather stagey; I’ve felt like I was watching a play without the added bonus of spontaneity.

    Dave Enkosky

    February 18, 2012 at 3:40 am

    • Again: it depends on what liberties the film makers take. As I said: Incendies was built on a play that had been on a stage and there was really no way to guess that. The used the film medium for what it was good at.


      February 19, 2012 at 11:49 pm

  4. Hold up… Incendies was adapted from a play??? WHAT? How? Why? When? OMG!! Awesome fact. I have learned something today

    Scott Lawlor

    February 20, 2012 at 10:14 am

    • Yes, I was astounded too when I learned this. This is a good example of someone who managed to make a truly cinematic adaptiation.


      February 20, 2012 at 12:46 pm

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