Award-winning plays don’t always translate well to the big-screen. Last fall, “God of Carnage“, “The Ides of March” and “A Dangerous Method” were all given, well, uneven movie adaptations.
But hopes run high for a film version of “August: Osage County“. Tracy Letts’ 2008 Pulitzer Prize and Tony Awardwinner about a dysfunctional Oklahoma family has just been given the A-list treatment, with Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts starring, “ER'”s John Wells directing and George Clooney producing the picture, which the Weinstein Co. wrapped production on earlier this month.
The film’s secret weapon may be Letts himself: the playwright wrote the script, seeking to carry over the subtle family dynamics and dark comedy that made the show not just an award-winner but a commercial smash.
Letts’ play tells of several generations of the colorful Weston family, particularly drug-addled matriarch Violet (Streep) and troubled professor daughter Barbara (Roberts), as they gather in the family home for a few weeks one summer, each personality trying to get the better of the other as they cope with their complicated lives.
In an interview with The Times, Letts said he tried to retain the elements that made “August” a must-see on Broadway, as well at the Ahmanson not long after.
“I think it’s very recognizably the same piece,” he said. “There’s not a lot of invention per se. There are opportunities to let them loose from the house, and I did some cutting to try to find those places in a play that sound maybe a little theatrical to the ear if you were doing them on screen. But that’s about it.”
Letts is currently making a well-received Broadway acting debut in a revival of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (more on that shortly). Several months ago, as he was preparing for that show, Letts traveled to the Oklahoma set of “August” to join actors at a table read and field questions. Roberts, Streep and others peppered him with the meaning of the text. (He said their questions were “workmanlike” queries about their characters and his intentions, “things an outsider might find banal but that are important to an actor.”)
For all his work on the film, the director believes that the odds are stacked against a good play becoming a strong movie. “I don’t think it’s a natural translation, from stage to screen,” he said. “I think it’s very inorganic. I mean, it’s simple. Stage is a spoken-word medium and film is a visual medium, and they don’t necessarily correlate.” The reason so many plays walk down the road of Hollywood folly in the first place, in his view, is that “a lot of people in movies can’t write, and by the time a play makes it to a certain point the writing quality is pretty high.”
Letts knows firsthand of stage-to-screen difficulties: he previously wrote scripts for two other movies based on his plays, Michael Shannon’s “Bug” and this summer’s “Killer Joe,” neither of which set the world afire.
Still, he knows the stakes are only so high for him on “August.”
“The first time I met John Wells, he said to me: ‘You already got all the awards. They’re already up on your shelf. Your play is in the public imagination. But if the movie gets screwed up, I’m the one they’re going to blame.’ ”