One of the movies I was most looking forward to this season was August: Osage County. I'd seen the stage play, which began life at the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago, and loved it. It won the Tony Award as Best Play and also the Pulitzer Prize. And the film had a great cast. But when I saw it last week, I was quite disappointed.
Mind you, it was well-acted, smartly written (adapted by playwright Tracy Letts) and solidly-directed with much texture. But it was off. Much I ascribed to it clearly being truncated. I didn't remember exactly how long the stage play was, but I've been telling people that at least 20 minutes were cut out, which is a huge amount. In the back of my mind, though, I thought more was -- I remember the play being wonderful, but seriously long. Like around three hours with intermission. But because I didn't remember exactly, I wanted to be fair to the movie. Only a few times did I tell people that maybe as much as a half hour had been cut.
I couldn't tell you exactly what was shorter, though the sense I have is that the men's roles were greatly trimmed, and connective plot lines and relationships were lost. Revelations in the stage play were admittedly a bit soap opera-ish at times, but they at least came from the structure and felt largely natural, not coming totally out of nowhere. In the film, they sort of leap out.
I also felt that as good as the acting was, it seemed wrong, much too over the top, chew-the-scenery, operatic. The problem I had with the movie was that it was trying to be a Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a searing family drama battle, when it didn't have the initial structure to support that -- on stage it was doing something else entirely, as much a comedy as powerful drama. The slyness and wit on stage slowly weaved its way around you and built up its power. The matriarch wasn't a Lady Macbeth harridan, but a sly, wistful drunk, who ruled by deep manipulation,
But mainly, the problem I had with the movie was that too much had been cut, I And so, I've kept telling people that the play was much longer, 20 minutes longer, maybe even 30 minutes.
It turns out that it’s worse than I thought.
I was trading emails with a friend back east who loves the theater though hadn't seen the stage play and was much looking forward to the movie. I didn't want to give too much away, so I was dancing around the corners. He finally saw the movie yesterday, and wrote to me --
"It seemed like a disjointed, misguided attempt to 'open up and condense what probably worked a lot better on stage. There are some explosively funny Albee-esque sequences of familial violence, and some ridiculous soap opera 'revelations." And then he added, "I feel like I was watching highlights of the play, with material that would amplify the characters excised. I'm sorry I missed the play because this is a completely false representation of what that experience must have been like."
I wrote him back that the opening up the play very slightly didn't bother me, but that it was indeed disjointed and condensed. And to really solidify that point, I decided to do some research.
Now, again, my memory was that the play was very long, but as I said I didn’t remember its run-time exactly so I always wanted to be fair to the movie, and always was erring on the short side. Only once did I risk mentioning that I thought it might even possibly be closer to three hours with intermission. I just looked it up online. And it turns out to be worse than I thought:
First, I thought the running time for the movie was 130 minutes. It turns out to be only 121 minutes, but that's with end credits. So, it's actually only about 1:55. Fifteen minutes shorter than I thought.
And second, for the write-up on the play, there’s this quote –
"In 2009, Entertainment Weekly put it on its end-of-the-decade, 'best-of'' list, saying, 'Even with a run time of three and a half hours, Tracy Letts' 2007 drama...'"
Three-and-a-half hours!!. Hey, at least I did keep insisting that the play was extremely long!
Now, to be fair, that was with two intermissions. (Yes, two, that's how long the play is!). So, that means the play runs for three hours. That means they cut an hour and a quarter out of the play! That’s almost 40% of it!!
So it turns out that my friend actually did see highlights of it.
And that's why I was complaining about the movie trying to be Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, but not having the structure of being able to maintain that. Imagine seeing “Virginia Woolf” with 40% out. Imagine seeing almost anything with 40% cut out.
(By the way, I can see Julia Roberts wanting to chew up the scenery, to make her more-supporting character be More Important. But I kept being shocked all the way through that Meryl Streep chose to do that. I guess she felt if that’s what the director wants, it’s for me to give it to him. Because I’m sure she saw the play and knows what it is, and how that role is supposed to be played. At least in the three-hour version...)
Can you imagine? They cut out over an hour. Sheesh, I knew it had been long…
Even though Tracy Letts did his own adaptation, I don't want to blame him for the adaptation. Clearly he did the work here. But just as clearly, he knows how to get it right, because he did so on stage. I suspect the film company didn’t want to release a 150 minute movie and insisted it be no more than 120 minutes, and also felt that audiences would be lost not knowing if it was supposed to be a drama or funny, and directly John Wells wanted to direct an Important Movie, and that means “serious,” and Letts got his marching orders what to do, and he did the best he could. I can’t imagine a writer changing his own work this much because he wanted to, because he thought he didn’t get it right when he won the Tony and Pulitzer.
I don’t dislike the movie. I just don’t think it’s terribly involving. What I dislike is that it got changed so drastically much from the wonderful play. They could have made a landmark film. In the end, why make a movie of August: Osage County if you have no intention of making August: Osage County?
But let's go a step further. Let's hear what someone else has to say, like...oh, Meryl Streep, who stars in the film as Violet, the matriarch.
"It retains something of the original," she told a reporter about the film version. A film version, to be clear, of the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning play!
If this had retained "most of the original" that would would have been bad enough. "Much of the original" would have been awful. But..."It retains something of the original" is -- while accurate -- a woefully misguided way to adapt a Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning play. What were they thinking?? What movie were they trying to make?
Stranger still is an interview that author Tracy Letts did with Huffington Post Entertainment. The interviewer says, "The film is an almost to-the-letter adaptation of your play, but there are some changes."
Say, what??? In what nonsensical universe is that reporter living in? It's not close to an "almost to-the-letter adaptation" -- unless your definition of "almost" is "missed by an inch, missed by a mile."
Mind you, the funniest thing in the interview is the editorial comment at the end -- "This interview has been edited and condensed."
Don't tell me God doesn't have a sense of humor.
If you have interest in seeing the movie, there's plenty enough to enjoy. But just know it will likely seem disjointed and truncated. And know that you aren't seeing August: Osage Country. You are seeing an intelligent, highly-professional, deeply unfortunate movie adaptation of a wonderful play. That retains something of the original.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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