Posted: 12/07/2008




by Jon Bastian

There’s no doubt that this one benefited from the adaptation…

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Having seen both the 2006 Los Angeles stage production and the 2008 film adaptation of John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, I think I’m qualified to compare the play to the movie. The play left me entertained, especially by the amazing Cherry Jones, (Signs, “24”), but it also left me somewhat unmoved. The film was far more engaging and powerful, and it may be that the original story is just better served by that medium.

This isn’t a put-down of live theatre; far from it – I do consider myself a playwright first, screenwriter second – but there are just some tales that are better told in one form or the other. 2001 or Lord of the Rings are better served by film or novelistic treatment. Wisely, no one has ever tried to adapt Kubrick’s masterpiece to the stage, and no one remembers whatever happened to that musical adaptation of Tolkien’s monster. Likewise, there are fantastic plays that fall completely flat on film – Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead and The Fantasticks are just two examples. On the other hand, Hair, Casablanca and Cabaret, all are better films than plays. (Note that musicals tend to adapt to film very well, because they allow the realistic medium of cinema to indulge in the surrealism of theatre and make it work within its own context.)

Where I think the story of Doubt benefits most in the transition is in the “opening up” of the story – that is, expanding what we see from the insular world of a stage with limited sets and characters to a recreation of the entire world around the events. Doubt’s story is incredibly informed by the world and events around it, and unless you were a pre-teen student in a stifling Catholic school in the pre-Vatican II days of 1964, you just don’t walk into the play with enough baggage. This is probably why it left me flat, even though I’ve read plenty about the quirks of the era and plenty of survivors have managed to document it in books and films (q.v. Heaven Help Us (1985)). But from the very first shot of the film version of Doubt, we are dropped right into the world of this Catholic neighborhood in New York in 1964, and the opening monologue/sermon gives us the entire congregation in action.

This world includes the children of the school, and their inclusion is an element that immediately ups the stakes missing on stage. The original cast is four people – a Priest, two Nuns and a Mother (of the non-superior type). Without the visible reminder of children possibly in danger, it remains in the abstract. Here, concrete examples pass before our eyes constantly, as when a misbehaving student is whacked in the back of the head by a menacing nun – Shanley gets to show instead of tell here, and that strengthens the telling of the tale.

Another nice addition is the opportunity for comic relief, which was scant in the play, and mostly of the “spot the irony” variety. (“They make them so small nowadays,” says a nun when contemplating a transistor radio the size of a paperback book.) Here, Shanley gives us some peeks behind the consecrated walls, and the Nuns’ Dinners become very funny moments, as do a series of “exactly at the wrong time” interruptions during what was a long talky scene in the play, one of which brings in a very nice metaphor about cats and rats that echoes the theme of the entire piece.

Finally, the inclusion of the world adds a layer to the subtext underlying the original play, making that stronger, too. Being set in 1964, the events of Doubt occur at the cusp of a massive change in the Catholic Church, a point after which the modernists and liberals took over and the traditionalist conservatives were given a big shove to the back of the bus – something that did not change until the Papacy of John Paul II. The big event was Vatican II in 1966, which made a lot of changes, the big two being: decreeing that Mass would be said in the local vernacular instead of Latin; and Nuns were not required to wear their habit at all times. There were minor changes as well, such as allowing contemporary music during mass, and using accompaniment beyond the traditional organ, such as guitars, pianos and small rock bands. Many old-school Catholic heads exploded. There are many nods to this in the play, as well as in the film – for example, priests appear several times in public without a Roman collar, something that would have been unheard of previously, and an old nun doesn’t see any problem in hanging a photo of the “wrong” pope, John XXIII instead of Paul VI, as a clear protest of reform) . But… Shanley expands on this in his treatment of the nuns and priests absent in the play, particularly effective in a jump cut from a raucous, bawdy joke-filled dinner with priest, monsignor and cardinal to a silent somber meal in the nunnery for which the glasses are being filled with milk. Also, most of the nuns are aged beyond belief, while the priests are young and vigorous – clearly, one group represents the old Church and the other the new. The Vatican II fans were the heroes here; its opponents being ineffectual, decrepit and useless. A subtle zing present in both versions is a blind nun who is being hidden by her sisters, since the priests will throw her out of the order if they discover her handicap. Left unmentioned – all that stuff Jesus said about helping the less fortunate – and, in his typically complex way, Shanley makes the bad nuns the good guys on this issue.

As told beautifully in the film, Doubt is a story working on many levels at once. In broad outline, we begin in 1964 in a small Catholic church, rectory, convent and school in a blue-collar borough of New York. Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep, Mamma Mia!) is an old-school traditionalist who takes “it is better to be feared than to be loved” to heart, and is so extreme in her views that she objects to students using ballpoint pens, because it makes them press down and “write like monkeys”. A priest, Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Synecdoche, New York), has drawn her attention, and she instructs the nuns to be on the lookout for anything of concern. One of them, young novitiate Sister James (Amy Adams, Enchanted) thinks she might have seen something improper involving Father Flynn and a twelve year-old student, Donald Muller (Joseph Foster, Twelve and Holding). Sister Aloysius jumps to conclusions and makes it her business to prove that Father Flynn is a pedophile. Well, that word is never spoken, since this is 1964, but she has absolutely no doubt that something dirty is going on.

From that point on, the film is a game of cat and mouse (or rat) being played by four fantastic actors in the context of a larger world populated by absolutely fantastic casting. As she did in The Devil Wears Prada, Streep again assays a total bitch on wheels and still makes her sympathetic because, as always, she finds the humanity underneath the surface evil. We may not like her villains, but we always understand them, because their actions do not come from a place of malice. Philip Seymour Hoffman proves himself a modern Spencer Tracy and embodies the changes of Vatican II. He is the ultimate “cool priest”, the kind of guy you’d trust as a kid and hang out with as a grown-up. In other words, the one who seemed to only read all the positive messages in the Bible and forgot the gloom and guilt. Hoffman has the harder role to play, because a lot of what he’s going through is beneath the surface, but there isn’t a twitch or a glance or a pause that isn’t loaded.

Holding her own against these two Titans, relative newcomer Amy Adams nails it as the innocent naïf who has a slow awakening because of the events around her. This character also benefits in the film with more scenes, including a tour de force in which Sister James tries to teach like Sister Aloysius and fails miserably, with possibly lasting results.

As the fourth member of the original stage quartet, Viola Davis (Nights in Rodanthe, “The Andromeda Strain”) has one of those one-scene, career-making moments as Mrs. Miller, Donald’s mother, in which she goes toe-to-toe with Streep and wipes the screen with her. All I can say is expect this exceptional actress to get plenty of nods, including an Oscar Nomination, and don’t be surprised if you suddenly see her everywhere. She provides a short but intense emotional roller-coaster that is the heart of what Shanley is getting at in his story, and it will burn itself into your brain, thanks to her incredible acting chops. I can’t say enough good things about her. She is the stuff of superstars, and here’s your early glimpse of her twelve-year “overnight” success.

In his second directorial outing since the dubious Joe versus the Volcano, Shanley wisely avoids any director tricks more complicated than the occasional Dutch angle to heighten moral ambiguity, and shoots in a straightforward, but non-stagy manner.

I was fortunate enough to attend a screening after which he spoke, and Shanley studiously avoided giving any indication whether Father Flynn was guilty or innocent and, as well, the film never answers that question. He did make one rather telling comment, which may be useful after you’ve seen the film. His intent, when he set out, was to start with the stereotype of the Nun and Priest, and then gradually peel that away to reveal the real people beneath. It’s up to the audience to deliver their verdict, but Shanley hasn’t made it easy to find the truth, unless we’re willing to give up our preconceptions.

Doubt plays with our preconceptions, and that’s half the fun of the ride. It’s well worth seeing just to watch the thespian fireworks on display, but they serve the story and the story serves them and, at least this time around, a play that was already deemed good enough for the Pulitzer is dramatically improved.

*****SPOILER ALERT FOOTNOTE – Do not read if you haven’t seen the play.*****

There was a single instance in which opening up the play may have hurt the story, and skewed things toward the priest being guilty, and this occurs in the final confrontation between Flynn and Aloysius. She tells him she saw him grab William London’s arm. Now, in the play, Flynn gives the explanation, since we never saw the incident – he was checking the boy’s fingernails to see if they were clean. In the film, we saw this moment in the opening, so we know what happened – but Flynn offers no defense. In not stating the obvious to Aloysius, he seems to be hiding something. In the play, he isn’t. However, if you watch carefully and remember the scene with Donald’s mother, what Father Flynn is really hiding is this: Donald has confessed to him (since altar boys must confess to the priest before serving Mass) that he likes boys. Father Flynn doesn’t know that Mrs. Muller has told Sister Aloysius that this is the case, and so he is actually protecting Donald in not defending himself. This relates to my comment on Shanley not making it easy to find the truth in this story. It involves rejecting stereotypes and putting two and two together. If your initial impression of “Priest” is “Kiddie Diddler”, than you have to look beyond that to find the truth here.

Oh — one other thing worth mentioning. since so many people at the screening wanted an answer to this question, which Shanley did not provide. What is the meaning of this line: “You are taking a step away from god, but in his service.” Note that Doubt is the opposite of Faith, then ask yourself how Sister Aloysius changes over the course of the film. There is your answer.

Jon Bastian is a native and resident of Los Angeles. Watch for his upcoming play “Strange Fruit”, which he hopes will help him keep his two dogs rolling in kibble…

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