When it comes to adapting literary works for the big screen, most of the time- in my experience, anyway- it’s a hit or miss venture. You either stay as true to the source as you can and risk alienating people unfamiliar with the original work- or you “Hollywoodize” it and upset those who ARE familiar with the book or play. With plays, there’s an added element to consider- do you cast the original stage actors in the roles or go for more well-known performers?
With the Robert Bolt masterpiece A Man for All Seasons, I think, one witnesses an example of a page-to-screen adaptation that found a balance of the above factors to great success. For those who’ve never read the play, a short plot summary: Sir Thomas More (a chief member of King Henry VIII’s court) is torn between his loyalty to the king and his loyalty to God when Henry demands that all of England recognize him as head of the church. The play portrays his interactions with people on both sides of the debate leading up to More’s tragic decision. The plum role of Sir Thomas More was originated onstage by Paul Scofield, and it was tackled in the 1966 film by…Paul Scofield.
The film was a smashing success, winning Best Picture AND Best Actor for Scofield. Because the swing character of the “Common Man” from the play only works in a stage setting, the screenplay was changed to excise this character and replace him with multiple actors. Playwright Robert Bolt adapted the screenplay himself, and famed actor/director Orson Welles appeared in the movie as Cardinal Wolsey. I think A Man for All Seasons, therefore, is an excellent case study on how thespians can collaborate with screen sirens to create a new medium for stories without sacrificing artistic integrity…or potential profitability.
Thomas More’s last words were, “I die the King’s good servant, but God’s first.”