Doubt (2008): Shanley’s So-So Version of Famous Play, Starring Meryl Streep, Amy Adams and Viola Davis in Oscar-Nominated Roles

John Patrick Shanley brings his play “Doubt” to the big screen, in a story about the quest for truth, the forces of change, and the devastating consequences of blind justice in an age defined by moral conviction.

It’s 1964, St. Nicholas in the Bronx. A vibrant, charismatic priest, Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), is trying to upend the school’s strict customs, which have long been fiercely guarded by Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep), the iron-gloved Principal who believes in the power of fear and discipline. The winds of political change are sweeping through the community, and, indeed, the school has just accepted its first black student, Donald Miller. But when Sister James (Amy Adams), a hopeful innocent, shares with Sister Aloysius her guilt-inducing suspicion that Father Flynn is paying too much personal attention to Donald, Sister Aloysius is galvanized to begin a crusade to both unearth the truth and expunge Flynn from the school. Now, without a shred of proof or evidence except her moral certainty, Sister Aloysius locks into a battle of wills with Father Flynn, a battle that threatens to tear apart the church and school with devastating consequences.

From the opening moments of Shanley’s “Doubt” to its powerful conclusion, uncertainty hangs in the air, drawing the audience into a provocative mystery in which two nuns, a priest, and the mother of a young boy–as well as the audience itself–are forced to confront their core beliefs as they struggle with judgment and verdict, conviction and doubt. In the battle of wills that ensues, “Doubt” raises probing questions about the challenges of navigating a world increasingly confronted by sweeping changes and moral dilemmas.

Shanley’s play, given its world premiere off-Broadway in the fall of 2004, and was later transferred to Broadway after rave reviews. It opened at the Walter Kerr Theater in 2005 and remained there for a total of 25 previews and 525 performances, which then led to a lengthy national tour and numerous international productions.


Fresh Perspective by New Actors

When it came to casting the film, Shanley might easily have turned to the some of acclaimed actors who appeared in the stage play but he wanted, instead, to start fully anew, with actors who would bring a fresh and unexpected, even to him, perspective on the characters. “I never wanted to simply recreate the stage experience in a film and I felt very strongly that I did not want to simply lift the terrific work of the director of the play, Doug Hughes, and call it my own,” he says. “I wanted to achieve a new work and put together a very creative, intelligent ensemble of film actors with great screen instincts.”

Early on in development, he started envisioning Meryl Streep taking the role of Sister Aloysius. He knew he needed an actress of unusual skill and subtlety, someone who could go well beyond the simple trope of the dictatorial, heartless nun, someone who could allow the audience, measure by measure, to glimpse the sister’s inner passion, and ultimately her doubts about her quest for justice and even her faith. With Streep, he felt, he would be assured of a performance that details and honors all that makes Sister Aloysius compelling and complex, even in her righteousness and certainty.


1944 Versus 1964

“In fact, I love Sister Aloysius,” says Shanley. “And I think that she is right about a tremendous amount, even the things that she fights for that are hopeless, like fountain pens over ballpoint pens. She is fighting battles we know she will lose, because these changes have already taken place in our culture, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t a valiant figure for doing so. I agree with her that something beautiful is lost in those kinds of changes. It’s also important to understand that Sister Aloysius became a nun during World War II, and she saw herself as part of the battle between good and evil that was very much a part of those times, but which became something quite different in the 1960s.  The posture that she has worked perfectly in 1944, but in 1964 and especially now, it can seem rather stark and outmoded. But is it really I’m not sure.”


Meryl Streep is a Six-Lane Highway

Streep, says Shanley, was full of extraordinary surprises in the role, and illuminated Sister Aloysius in ways even he hadn’t foreseen. “Meryl is a protean actress. She has so many colors coming out of her and makes so many intriguing choices, all justified within the parameters of her character,” he says. “I didn’t realize how thrilling it was going to be to work with her. Her heart and her soul and her imagination are wide open. She’s like a six-lane highway.”

 He explains: “It’s like capturing lightning in a bottle when you’re shooting with her because every take is completely different, yet each one is justified and grounded in the very depths and truths of the character.”

Streep came to the production excited by the expansiveness of Shanley’s screen adaptation. “This story is a living organism and John took the opportunity to come in and both expand and distill it to its strongest incarnation. And the astounding thing is the way he opened the screenplay up in a different way, adding characters, adding scenes, adding in the children who become so important and central, the fulcrum of all these events,” she says. “I thought it was amazing and brave. In getting more specific, the story becomes more true, and it applies to everybody everywhere, and is filled with things that are familiar to you from your own family, your own business, your own relationships with the world.”

Yet the story’s ability to provoke on a personal level remained the big draw, says the actress. “This is a story that people really see through the prism of their own biases and experiences, their own emotional connection to authority, both celestial and temporal,” Streep remarks. “To me, I think the story is about the quality of mercy, and our understanding of and relationship to that quality in human affairs.”


Understanding Silence

For all the discussion the story sparks, Streep was also impressed by Shanley’s willingness to not say anything at all at times, to leave stark, powerful silences–moments rife with spiritual reflection or emotional shock–in the body of film. “Sometimes the eloquence comes when nothing is said, when the moment is filled with possibility or menace or even grace–and John understands silence,” she says. In her preparation for the role, Streep worked closely with the nuns at the College of Mount St. Vincent, which she says was a distinct pleasure. “The discipline, the purity, the clear intelligence of these women was fascinating to me, and they were very helpful,” she says.


Second-Tier to Male Hierarchy

She also learned a great deal from them about another reality depicted in “Doubt ” the power gap between the priests, who could wield their complete authority in church matters, and the nuns who had to eke out power in very different and subtler ways. “Coupled with their sense of great capability, what I also got was a sense of their hierarchy in the church, how they were always second-tier to the male hierarchy of the priests and how some chafed against that,” Streep observes. “All of that was very valuable for Sister Aloysius. And all of it drives the narrative.”

Streep says that she looked at Sister Aloysius from every conceivable angle to arrive at her portrait. “I wanted to look beyond the habit at the question of who is she Where did she come from Why did she spend her life in service in this way What are her secrets What is wonderful in her background What is terrible That was my job,” she says.

That job was enhanced, Streep notes, by Shanley’s way of working with actors. “Throughout, John was very open to invention, and he’d very happily say, ‘I never saw it that way before.’ He would say that quite often and it made us feel wonderful and free, which is what you want from actors,” she comments.


Battle Royale

With Streep as Sister Aloysius, Shanley felt his options for Father Flynn were narrowed to those few actors powerful enough to truly stand up to her in the climactic one-on-one confrontation. Shanley says, “Philip Seymour Hoffman was the only actor I could think of who could make Meryl sweat through every scene. And when they had their big scene, it was a battle royale; it was gladiatorial, it was outsized, and it was thrilling to watch. It was one of the most electrifying weeks I’ve ever had.”

Shanley also thinks the two actors share something key in common that was essential for the roles. “They both have that quality where you can see a long way into them when they’re performing, but you can’t see to the bottom. You can’t unravel the last knot in the yarn, you can’t open the last door, and those are eternally tantalizing, attractive qualities,” he observes.

For Streep, the choice of Hoffman was especially interesting because she and Hoffman had previously played mother and son on stage in “The Seagull.” “In this story, we’re adversaries, but it’s also much more complicated than that, and that’s what Phil brings to it, all these layers of humanity,” she says. “So many people want to reduce the role to who’s right, who’s wrong, but with Phil, you’re never able to pin him down, because his passionate interest is in bringing out all the contradictions.”


The Set as a Ring

Shanley notes that the duo created an electric, yin-and-yang presence whenever they were together on the set. “The set became like the ring that prizefighters go into,” he observes. “They would just sit in their respective corners when we weren’t shooting, with their heads hanging down, in some private universe of some very, very tormented place, and get ready to do that scene. And then when they were called to do it, they would get in there and the walls would shake.”