Stage to film, film to stage: The elusive art of illusion

At the end of the day, I preferred the fake horse to the real one.

The art of illusion is tricky business, especially when you start comparing movies with the plays they were based on. Take “War Horse,” Steven Spielberg’s epic film that opened Christmas Day.

Spielberg’s handsomely mounted movie is based on Michael Morpurgo’s novel, but also the National Theatre of Great Britain’s magnificent stage version that continues running in London and New York.

You simply can’t imagine such radically different viewing experiences. You could argue that “War Horse” is a graphic example of the aesthetic gulf between stage and screen.

On stage it’s a mind-blowing spectacle utilizing the most sophisticated puppets we’ve ever seen. These horses, created by hand from cane and fabric and operated by actors in full view of the audience, are startlingly lifelike. Their legs bend at the knee, their ears move, they shake their tails and they rear on hind legs. Before you know it, you’re invested emotionally. The horses, thanks to the acting ability of the puppeteers, take on recognizable personalities.

Spielberg’s movie, on the other hand, uses no puppets. He puts lots of real horses on screen. He used several horses to portray Joey, the racer at the center of the story. Sad to say, however, Joey in the film doesn’t project nearly as much personality as his hand-crafted counterpart on stage.

On my last visit to New York I was desperate to get a ticket to “War Horse” at Lincoln Center. The show was virtually sold out months in advance. After repeated phone calls and emails, a press agent was finally able to sell me a ticket and I got in. There was that kind of demand, that kind of buzz. It was a show theatergoers kept talking about.

Everyone had heard about “War Horse” and read the reviews from London. It was understood to be a special kind of play, something unique and unprecedented, and people who cared about theater owed it to themselves to see it.

When I went to see Spielberg’s movie at an advance screening, there wasn’t much buzz. The theater wasn’t very full. And nobody in the audience seemed particularly excited. The film itself seemed remote, dispassionate and formulaic — almost as if Spielberg’s heart wasn’t really in it. And it never delivered the emotional punch theatergoers experienced in New York.

Hollywood has been adapting plays since the silent era, and you can easily throw together a list of films based on stage plays or musicals that were outstanding — “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” “Amadeus,” “Glengarry Glen Ross,” “Evita,” “Rent.” The list goes on.

But movies are movies and plays are plays. There’s a level of excitement theatergoers experience simply by being in the same room with artists creating magic before their very eyes that is rarely matched by films.

Think of film and theater as cousins who rarely get along. They share a common lineage but also years of resentment, jealousy and greed. Even so, neither can escape a simple fact that they need each other.

Here comes ‘Carnage’

On Friday, Roman Polanski’s “Carnage,” based on French playwright Yasmina Reza’s “God of Carnage,” opens in area theaters. Reza’s compact, savage comedy, contained within a single Brooklyn apartment, would seem ideal for Polanski’s talents.

As two couples devolve from polite superficiality to drunken truth-telling, Polanski is deft enough with camera movements to keep things visually interesting. But in some ways he has improved on the play, injecting an element of claustrophobia with repeated use of close-ups and intimate tracking shots. But he doesn’t do much to “open up” the story, presumably because he knew messing around with the material would be a mistake.

There was a time when a Broadway hit made it to the screen without much delay. Then, beginning in the 1990s, movie versions of plays and musicals became as rare as Westerns and were viewed as novelties — like a film shot in black and white. So to have “War Horse” and “Carnage” open within a few weeks of each other is almost an act of nostalgia.

More to the point, “War Horse” is taken from a play that seems destined to run indefinitely. It has been playing in London off and on since 2007 and in New York since last spring. This year will see a new production in Toronto and a North American tour. More than 1.1 million theatergoers have seen it in Britain and the New York production reportedly sold 250,000 tickets in its first four months. By now, that figure could have doubled.

So plenty of people have seen the stage show and can draw their own comparisons to the movie. And filmgoers who have never seen the play may have a very different take on Spielberg’s film.

Cross-pollination continues

From the earliest days of cinema, filmmakers turned to stage plays for material. There were even silent versions of Shakespeare’s plays. Film was viewed as the vulgar upstart, a technically crude diversion that couldn’t compare to theater, the dominant form of entertainment for centuries. Now, with movies reaching a wider audience than ever before through DVDs and the Internet, it’s easy enough to think of theater as quaint and a little musty.

Except, that is, when Hollywood starts looking at the grosses of long-running shows — like Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Phantom of the Opera” (the film version was terrible) or the revival of “Chicago” from John Kander and Fred Ebb (the movie was pretty good). We’re talking about ticket sales in the billions.

That’s why moviemakers can’t afford to abandon the stage. It’s not unusual to see a film studio listed among the producers of Broadway shows. Sony Pictures Entertainment, for example, is one of the small army of producers of “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.” The Weinstein Co. has been involved in a slew of Broadway shows, including “August: Osage County,” “The Addams Family” and the revival of “La Cage aux Folles.” Paramount Pictures Corp. has been co-producing Broadway shows since the late ’70s. Universal Pictures now has a stage productions division. And Disney has found success adapting its animated musicals to the Broadway stage.

Ultimately, it’s about whether a certain property can turn a buck. If Broadway producers can transform a movie into a stage show, they’ll do it. If movie producers see a stage show they think they can package and sell as a film, they’ll snap up the rights.

And we, the audience, must continue waiting for that rare match made in heaven.