Tennessee Williams: Adaptations to the Big Screen

The weakest aspect of the films based on Tennessee Williams’ plays is their direction, or more specifically, the inability of most filmmakers to find a proper cinematic form for his highly stylized works.

The problem was not, as one critic complained, that “the material is not what is called cinematic,” or that “the screen, a visual medium, is not adaptable to soul searching in words, however good they may be.” Rather, the problem was that most of his movies were directed in a realistic or naturalistic style, in the best Hollywood melodramatic tradition, thus lacking the raw power, emotional intensity, and poetic imagery that prevailed in his theatrical vision. In some cases, the directors’ preoccupation with excessive visualization and cinematization destroyed the intimacy of the stories, and reduced considerably the subtlety and sophistication of the source material.

Twelve Hollywood directors worked on Williams’s fifteen movies with varying degrees of success. Three of these filmmakers each directed two movies: Elia Kazan (Streetcar and Baby Doll), Richard Brooks (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Sweet Bird of Youth), and Sidney Lumet (The Fugitive Kind and Last of the Mobile HotShots). Three films were made by noted and veteran filmmakers: Joseph Mankiewicz (Suddenly Last Summer), John Huston (The Night of the Iguana), and Joseph Losey (Boom!).

However, too many of his movies were staged by inept or inexperienced directors, particularly in the 1960s. For example, Jose Quintero, who built his reputation as the stage interpreter of Williams and particularly Eugene O’Neill, never directed a movie until asked by Williams to film his novella, The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone. George Roy Hill was another novice who made his motion picture debut in Period of Adjustment. This Property Is Condemned was the second movie of the then inexperienced Sidney Pollack. True, the material of these three pictures was thin and uninteresting but more accomplished directors could have achieved better effects with the same material.

The attempts at a more “cinematic” approach failed to show on screen what was distinctive about the Williams literary work. For example, Richard Brooks’s strategy to direct Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Sweet Bird of Youth as naturalistic melodramas simplified both works to the point where what was stylized and metaphoric in the plays became too literal in the film versions.

In other cases, there was a disturbing conflict between the dialogue’s lyrical quality and the film’s visual style. Stephen Taylor pointed out in his review of John Huston’s The Night of the Iguana that “the talk and the cinematography move at different speeds.” Despite the fact that Huston’s was one of the better adaptations of Williams’s work, the different pace used in telling the story and in conveying the scenic locale made the film look disjointed, lacking a unified rhythm.

In their efforts to make Williams’s work more cinematic, most directors opted for the obvious strategy of opening up the plays. But in the process, the movies often emerged as simplified, literal translations of the lyrical plays. This technique also dissipated the works’ confinement which was extremely crucial to the their tone and characterization. For example, in the outdoor scenes of The Glass Menagerie, director Irving Rapper showed Tom at his warehouse, Laura at her business school, and Amanda’s flirtatious past.

These scenes not only failed to contribute anything, but also distorted the meaning of the original play. Thus, as Yacowar has observed, the apartment in the film version functioned as a refuge for the characters, but it failed to convey’s Williams’s notion of it as a prison.
Richard Brooks’s decision to use flashbacks in Sweet Bird of Youth, to convey some episodes of the characters’ past (Alexandra Del Lago’s last movie or the affair between Heavenly and Chance) simply repeated visually what had already been established in the dialogue.

Another technique which did not add to the film’s overall quality was the use of lavish and slick color productions. The technical production of This Property Is Condemned, with lush photography by James Wong Howe, made it look glossy and more sentimental that the story really was. Joseph Losey’s big, beautiful production of Boom! overwhelmed the intimacy of the story to the point of dwarfing its characters. In general, the more elaborate the cinematic techniques were, the more ridiculous the film’s effects. Sidney Lumet’s decision to use flashbacks, in slow motion and seeped in red, to convey the amorous adventures of the two brothers in Last of the Mobile HotShots, not only looked ridiculous but also was artificially and superficially imposed on the film.

Undoubtedly, the best sequences in Williams’s films are those, which are not opened up, the indoor sequences, which maintained the fierce intensity and raw emotionalism of the original plays. Ironically, perhaps, the moments that capture the genuine Williams touch on the screen were the most “stagy” ones. The most memorable, touching, and erotic scenes in Sweet Bird of Youth, for example, were those between Geraldine Page and Paul Newman in the confining hotel bedroom. By contrast, the outdoor sequences (the political rally and parade) deflated the potentially intense power of these scenes.

This is probably the reason why Elia Kazan was one of the best film interpreters of Williams’s work. The two movies which he directed, Streetcar and Baby Doll, are characterized by a unified and coherent style. They are arguably the only two movies in which the sum total is as good or even better than the parts. True, even in the badly directed movies (Summer and Smoke), there are always effective moments, explosive lines, and some powerful scenes.

Kazan’s movies seem to be impressive as a whole. Streetcar, which Kazan also directed on Broadway, is so theatrical and stylized as a film that some reviewers criticized his stagey direction and the fact that the sets and arrangement of actors were “too transparently worked out.”

What was distinctive about Streetcar was Kazan’s decision not to create the physical reality of the play on screen, but to stress instead its emotional reality and to amplify the characters’ raw emotions. In this respect, Baby Doll is even a greater directorial achievement because it conveys visually as well as thematically its specific locale and particular characters. The film’s style is an interesting blend of harsh realism (the stark black and white images of abject decay in a dirty, rotten mansion, with its huge empty rooms and broken furniture) with stylized acting. Few directors, for example, have used closeups to such effective and frightening results as Kazan did in Streetcar and Baby Doll; Vivien Leigh in the former and Carroll Baker in the latter seemed, in some powerful scenes, to be stripped of both their bodies and sould.

Most of the directors who helmed a Williams picture came from the stage and their theatrical backgrounds often betrayed them: their movies looked like stale, uninteresting filmed plays. But their theatrical origins also had an advantage: they knew how to extract great performances from their casts, particularly Kazan. Carroll Baker, for example, has never matched the quality of her acting in her stunning debut in Baby Doll. Others, like Vivien Leigh, Marlon Brando, Eli Wallach, Karl Malden, and Kim Hunter, have never topped their performances in Williams’s movies.

Several Williams’s movies lacked artistic distinction because they were directed by poor filmmakers. For example, Daniel Mann specialized in directing melodramas on the order of Come Back Little Sheba or slick and glossy productions like Butterfield 8. His staging of The Rose Tattoo, which he also directed on stage, lacked any visual inventiveness or technical sophistication. Mann was fortunate to have Anna Magnani in the title role, though he surrounded her with a below average cast.

Worse yet, the movie is shapeless, lacking any consistent mood or tone: comic scenes alternate with tragic ones with no link or continuity between them. The Rose Tattoo consists of two separate, disconnected parts: the first is gloomy and severe; the second, silly and funny. Mann also failed to convey the original play’s sense of irony.

Another weak screen version is Summer and Smoke, the third feature of English filmmaker Peter Glenville, who started his career as an actor and stage director. A Hal Wallis lavish, color production, it is directed as a typical Hollywood melodrama, with an undistinguished, but noisy, score by Elmer Bernstein. Once again, the worst sequences in the movie (the band concerts, the cockfights, the gambling house) are those that were meant to open up the play and supposedly make it a more interesting movie, though they achieved the opposite effects. Bosley Crowther, reviewing the film in the N.Y. Times, described Glenville’s direction as “pageantesque,” and the whole production as “overcrowded” and “overcolored.”

It is regrettable that William Wyler (The Best Years of Our Lives, l946) never directed a Williams play. The seriousness of this perfectionist artist and his technical ingenuity in mise-en-scene would have been perfect in bringing out Williams’s poetic vision on the screen.

Wyler, particularly in his collaborations with cameraman Gregg Toland, was able to achieve great technical craftsmanship even while working on lesser material. Intrigued by Lillian Hellman’s plays, Wyler adapted some of them to the screen. His first production for Samuel Goldwyn, These Three (1936), was based on Hellman’s stage success, The Children’s Hour, which he directed again (in 1961) under the original title. Wyler’s long takes and deep focus shots were most effective in directing another Hellman play, The Little Foxes (1941). One could only imagine the stunning effects if Wyler directed Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, a play which bears some thematic resemblance to The Little Foxes, or Summer and Smoke.

This essay was written and presented in a cinema studies conference in 1987.