The Best Movie Adaptations of Stage Plays

The Humans Movie (2021) movie adaptations

Some of cinema's most respected and best-loved movies started life as stage plays. The theatre is home to some of the most captivating characters and thought-provoking writing, so it makes sense filmmakers would look to Broadway.

More than just musicals and Shakespeare have gone from the stage to the big screen, too. Find here some of the best movie adaptations that started their life as plays before being transformed into cinematic classics.

Frost/ Nixon (2008)

Frost/Nixon Movie (2008)
Image Credit: Universal Pictures.

The adaption of The Crown creator Peter Morgan's 2006 play of the same name, Frost/Nixon, follows the Watergate scandal in 1972 and President Nixon’s resignation in 1974, depicting the 1977 Nixon interview with David Frost.

Starring Frank Langella and Michael Sheen, with Peter Morgan adapting the script himself, the Ron Howard-directed film captures the tense exchange between the pair. The key difference between the play and the film is the tone. The Oscar-nominated movie treats the material more solemnly, while the play portrays the historic TV moment as a little more light-hearted. 

August Osage County (2013)

August: Osage County Movie (2013)
Image Credit: Claire Folger/The Weinstein Company.

Tracey Letts's adaption of his Pulitzer Prize-winning 2007 play of the same name centers on a dysfunctional family who come together after their patriarch vanishes. This verbose film has an all-star cast, including Meryl Streep, Sam Shepherd, Ewan McGregor, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Julia Roberts.

As movie adaptations go, August: Osage County doesn't always succeed. However, it has built a cult following thanks to the brutal performances, morally ambiguous female characters, and family dynamics. The big-screen adaptation perfectly depicts the implosion of a family during a crisis. It’s clear from the film’s claustrophobic dinner scenes that it hasn’t strayed far from its theatrical background.

Driving Miss Daisy (1989)

Driving Miss Daisy Movie (1989)
Image Credit: Warner Bros.

Alfred Uhry's 1987 Pulitzer Prize-winning play Driving Miss Daisy is set in Atlanta and spans twenty-five years between 1948 and 1973. The stage show and 1989 movie follow the evolving relationship between the widowed Daisy (Jessica Tandy) and her African-American chauffeur (Morgan Freeman).

Uhry won an Academy Award for his screenplay adaptation of Driving Miss Daisy. Set during the civil rights movement, the drama on stage and the big screen unsentimentally depicts the character’s aging and fairly balances the South's changing political sensibilities. Jessica Tandy snagged an Oscar for her performance, becoming (at the time) the oldest actor to do so.

12 Angry Men (1957)

12 Angry Men Movie (1957)
Image Credit: MGM.

12 Angry Men started life as a stage play written for live television by Reginald Rose before being turned into a 1957 Sidney Lumet movie. The stage and film play takes place in a single room with a jury in the middle of the trial. The title jurors must decide the merit of a teenager’s murder conviction.

The iconic story happens in one room as twelve men must confront their ethics and morals. The plot is extraordinary, as who the people are outside the room means nothing to the narrative. The movie replicates the simplicity of the stage show, deconstructing the nuances of the criminal justice system to become one of the most poignant stories in cinema history. 

The Odd Couple (1968)

Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in The Odd Couple (1968)
Image Credit: Paramount Pictures.

The Odd Couple popularized the comedic trope of having two very different housemates playing off each other. The 1968 film was based on Neil Simon’s popular Broadway play, brought to life by the playwright himself. First appearing on Broadaway in 1965, the pair of mismatched roommates quickly became a cultural phenomenon.

What began as a play written by Neil Simon and starring Walter Matthau and Art Carney turned into a film with Matthau and Lemmon, then later morphed into two ABC sitcoms in the ’70s and ’80s, as well as an animated cartoon, stage productions, and a gender-swapped version with two female housemates.

Sleuth (1972)

Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine in Sleuth (1972) greatest michael caine movies
Image Credit: 20th Century Fox.

With a screenplay by Anthony Shaffer, based on his award-winning play, Sleuth is a cat-and-mouse game between Michael Caine and Laurence Olivier. This twisty tale of a working-class hairdresser and mystery fiction writer is a thrilling mind game between two very different men.

The 1972 movie shares DNA with the stage play, both set in one location with just two actors and a clear mid-point break. Despite the stage feel of the Caine and Olivier two-hander, the film has enhanced the adaptation with stunning production design and sets. The less about the remake with Jude Law, the better.

A Raisin In The Sun (1961)

A Raisin in the Sun (1961)
Image Credit: Columbia Pictures

A Raisin In The Sun became the first play written by a black woman to make it to Broadway. The stage play and subsequent film were based on the writer Lorraine Hansberry’s experiences growing up in the era of racial segregation. Many critics consider A Raisin In The Sun as one of the best depictions of the era due to its handling of housing discrimination, racism, and assimilation. 

The 1961 movie, released not long after the Broadway run, examines the racial prejudice faced by an African-American family after their patriarch dies. Starring the late, great Sidney Poitier, the film and the play depict the problems facing a family who want to escape their home after coming into money.

Amadeus (1984)

Amadeus (1984) F. Murray Abraham
Image Credit: Orion Pictures.

1984’s Oscar-winning Amadeus adapts the Peter Shaffer 1979 play of the same name. Starring F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce as Antonio Salieri and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the story weaves fiction and the real-life biography of Mozart. The film and play explore the intense rivalry between the pair, which lasts until Mozart’s untimely death.

Amadeus changes the focus of the play from Salieri back to the titular Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Peter Shaffer’s stage version was highly theatrical, making it almost impossible to adapt by Milos Forman. The director reimagined the story for the big screen, altering the narration and cutting characters to take full advantage of the dramatic power of cinema. Today, it still stands as a giant among movie adaptations.

Doubt (2008)

Doubt Amy Adams
Image Credit: Miramax.

2008’s Doubt is based on John Patrick Shanley's Pulitzer Prize-winning and Tony Award-winning 2004 stage play Doubt: A Parable. Set in a catholic elementary school led by Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), the movie centers on her investigation into Father Flynn (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) after he suspiciously favors the school’s sole black pupil. 

The 2008 movie, brought to the big screen by the playwright John Patrick Shanley, is a faithful adaptation of the stage show. Aside from expanding the characters from the four depicted on stage, the movie follows the same beats and almost the same script. Doubt is remembered mainly by film fans for showcasing Viola Davis' talents to a broader audience.

The Humans (2021)

The Humans Movie (2021)
Image Credit: A24.

Stephen Karam brought his 2016 Tony award-winning play to the big screen in his directorial debut. This A24-produced film sees a family gather in their daughter’s new apartment, with family secrets and resentment spilling out over a tense dinner.

Starring Richard Jenkins, Steven Yeun, Beanie Feldstein, and Amy Schumer, The Humans depicts post-9/11 New York relationships. Karam effortlessly brings his play to the screen, replicating the charm of the 2016 production.

Closer (2004)

Closer Movie (2004)
Image Credit: Sony Pictures Releasing.

Based on the Patrick Marber award-winning 1997 play of the same name, Closer focuses on two London-based couples throughout their turbulent relationships. The 2004 movie starred Natalie Portman, Julia Roberts, Clive Owen, and Jude Law as the couples falling in and out of love over the years.

Although the movie closely follows the stage play source material, one key difference exists. In Marber’s play, the women are more morally flawed than the men, which doesn’t come across as the same in the film due to some cut scenes. For example, Alice (played by Portman) appears more conniving on stage than on the big screen.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1962)

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf Elizabeth Taylor
Image Credit: Warner Bros.

Edward Albee’s famous play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf earned a big screen adaption four years after the play’s debut. The film, starring Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and Sandy Dennis, follows an associate professor who gets into an alcohol-fuelled fight in front of their guests. After a young couple witnesses the pair’s fight, they must all confront the older couple’s dysfunctional relationship.

The film stays highly faithful to the play due to the filmmakers using the play as the screenplay. The movie expands on the four characters of the play, moving the proceedings from exclusively taking place in George and Martha’s home. Aside from minor changes, including toning down profanity, the play and movie look almost identical.

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

A Streetcar Named Desire Movie (1951)
Image Credit: Warner Bros.

Elia Kazan effectively brought Tennessee Williams’ most famous play, A Streetcar Named Desire, to the big screen in 1951. Set in New Orleans, an English teacher clashes with his sister and husband in this Southern Gothic masterpiece.

Brando's cry of “Stella,” has become one of the most iconic moments in cinema history, even if it’s now more associated with The Simpsons. Williams expressed that every scene on the stage show is essential, resulting in an almost identical film and play. The one difference is that the film version of the 1947 play was censored, with much of the language and sexual scenes toned down for the big screen.

Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (1958)

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
Image Credit: MGM/Warner Bros.

The film adaptation of Tennessee William's iconic 1955 play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, explores the breakdown of facades. Richard Brooks' 1958 film adaption simplifies Williams' writing and exploration of modern America.

Paul Newman plays a man haunted by how his life has turned out: childless and lacking estate. Newman and his co-star Elizabeth Taylor give career-best performances in this critique of the American dream. To ensure compliance with the Hays Code, the film version of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof was edited to remove Brick's homosexuality, which makes for something of a nonsensical plot.

Casablanca (1942)

Casablanca Movie (1942)
Image Credit: Warner Bros.

One of the most iconic films of all time, Casablanca started life as an unproduced stage play, Everybody Comes to Rick’s. Written by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison in 1940 before the United States entered World War II, the play acted as anti-German and pro-French Resistance. When the writers couldn’t find a Broadway producer interested in their story, they sold the rights instead.

Set in the Moroccan city of Casablanca, an American called Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) runs a nightclub during World War II. The original stage play writers would not earn credit for creating Rick and his bar until decades later. The play finally made it on stage in 1991.

Author: Amelia Harvey

Bio:

Amelia Harvey is an English film and TV critic. Her great loves include quiet dramas, noisy reality TV, and ridiculous blockbusters. Amelia has been a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic since 2019 but has been writing lifestyle and entertainment articles since 2012. Her bylines include Why Now, Signal Horizon, Screen Queens, That Hashtag Show, Digital Spy and Screen Rant. An English literature graduate and former tutor, Amelia is passionate about female stories and LBGTQ+ voices.