No Doubt about it: writer-director John Patrick Shanley’s commentary track makes his film of his hit play a more satisfying experience the second time around. Not that it was entirely unsatisfying when I saw it on my Oscar-watching rounds; Shanley’s adapted screenplay was nominated, as were all four of its principal actors, Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, and Viola Davis. But even if you hadn’t seen the Broadway production, the movie might have left you scratching your head, wondering why the show had won the top Tony and Drama Desk awards, and the Pulitzer Prize to boot, in 2005.
Going from stage to screen is always a tricky business. Some plays, like Frost/Nixon, are naturally cinematic, and lend themselves well to their new home on celluloid. (A shame it couldn’t draw audiences, which its April 21 DVD release will I hope correct.) Some just get lost in translation: With its original cast pretty much intact, and the show’s playwright and director retained, I thought The History Boys couldn’t miss as a movie, but a lively theatrical production was history on screen. Doubt doesn’t suffer near as badly. The show’s strong spine is there. It has, however, been padded, though Shanley, we learn, had his reasons.
Onstage, Doubt is simplicity itself, whittled away to a knife-edge of near-abstraction. The one-act, 90-minute show, set in a Bronx Catholic school in 1964, features just that quartet of characters. The starchy Sister Aloysius (Streep), for whom everything is black-and-white, refuses to see any gray areas in an apparently compromising situation between the more liberal and charismatic Father Flynn (Hoffman) and the institution’s first African-American pupil. Situated uneasily between them is a naÃ¯ve and good-hearted young teacher, Sister James (Adams), who reports on Flynn’s conduct to Aloysius but tries to remain neutral as their war of wills escalates. Aloysius, who wants Flynn out of her school, thinks she has a natural ally in the boy’s mother, Mrs. Miller (Davis)—and is forced to change tactics in the piece’s most surprising scene. On several levels, doubt creeps in.
Creeping into the film version are several thinly drawn new characters, mostly the schoolchildren, who are indifferently played. As in the current film of the play Spinning Into Butter it’s just not enough to plunk them down into the story; once we see Donald, the black student, the movie has to give him something to do—but that, of course, would pull focus off all the rest. He and the other kids, and the supporting priests and nuns, are left hanging on their periphery, waiting for a close-up that never comes. It’s perfectly sensible to have Flynn’s sermons, delivered to the audience in the show, redirected to an actual congregation in the movie. It gives the film a necessary naturalistic center that the gifted cinematographer, Roger Deakins, can explore without opening out the show too much. (The DVD, framed at the correct 1.85:1 aspect ratio and anamorphically enhanced, looks terrific.) Letting in a few fresh faces to murmur inconsequentially on the sidelines was however a mistake. In his talk, Shanley, an Oscar winner for his classic Moonstruck screenplay (and the writer-director of the quirky cult comedy Joe Versus the Volcano) addresses the problems he faced “letting go” of the chamber piece show for the big screen. My problem with the film was that rather than rethink the show he seemed to have had taken an earlier draft of the stage script—one with the bits of unnecessary and detrimental baggage left in—and shot that.
Listening to his commentary, I got where he was coming from, even if the results didn’t quite settle my own doubts. It’s a somewhat sparse but informative session, a relief from the usual director commentaries, which either spend too much time congratulating the cast and crew or clam up and lapse into play-by-play of what’s perfectly obvious to us on our monitor. Missing from the play, he thought, was his personal experience of the church, its beauty and its tyranny, and the well-chosen images of routines and rituals, filmed as much as possible in the Bronx neighborhood he grew up in, inform the film more than I had realized. Likewise, the most truant boy in the film is based on Shanley, just as his high school class had a lone black student who was largely silent. My mother, who watched the film with me, was delighted by how accurately it reflected her own Catholic school days—which she and my dad did not force their children to repeat. Knowing the autobiographical aspects of the story gives you a new way into it.
It also enriches its strongest performance, Adams’. Sister James is based on a real person, who served as technical consultant on the film (after being surprised to learn that one of her students had written a play with a character inspired by her) and has her own supplemental segment, about the Sisters of Charity, which she is part of. Goodness is a very difficult quality to impart interestingly on stage and screen, and Sister James never quite came through on Broadway. But Adams delivers a beautifully modulated performance, one that is, well, enchanted (there may be more similarities to pious nuns and virginal fairy tale princesses than I might have guessed). The plot obliges her to be offscreen for most of the final third and I found I missed her, as Streep and Hoffman are satisfactory without being definitive. Father Flynn needed a shiftier—and at the same time more innocent—presence than Hoffman, a fine actor but a doughy and untrustworthy presence. Onstage, the Tony-winning Cherry Jones (now battling terrorists on 24) and Eileen Atkins gave Aloysius staunch, no-nonsense readings; you could feel the values they represented wilting by the close. Streep, by contrast, plays into the stereotype of the mean nun, and she breaks like a dam as the traditions she upholds start to crack in the looser Vatican II era. It’s a different take on the character, feared and loved by Shanley—not, however, a better, or truer, one.
As for Davis, she and Tony winner Adriane Lenox come out about even, though I disliked how the movie breaks her one big scene into two. Nor was I thrilled with Shanley’s uninspired use of Dutch angled-shots to underscore key moments of what he calls “existential nausea”—too many cockeyed shots, like on the John Adams HBO miniseries, inspire it—or Howard Shore’s horror movie-ish music, which gets its own supplement. And I mostly love Howard Shore’s work, from the Rings films to The Silence of the Lambs; in a different context, I’d likely appreciate this one, too. The DVD, to its credit, shores up the film’s weakest inventions. On the whole, however, and despite the saving grace of Adams, I’m certain I preferred Doubt in a live and not a movie theater.
Buy Doubt (Miramax) at Amazon.
For more movie reviews and essays, visit Between Productions.