by Brenda W. Clough
In December we went downtown to see a stage version of The Great Divorce, by C.S. Lewis. It was produced by the Fellowship for Performing Arts, which is best known for its hit production of The Screwtape Letters, which I also saw a few years ago (but cannot remember if I reviewed here).
There are two interlinked issues here. A project like this is akin to taking The Hobbit to the big screen. Lewis fans know the work (as I trust that you do, because I’m not going to discuss the work itself — how else can I keep this Very Short?) and can see what you did and didn’t keep in. The jump from page to stage is at least as problematic as the leap from page to screen, and the FPA is further limited by a small cast and production. They have to do with the theater arts what Peter Jackson does with CGI, and they have to do it better. The second issue is purely the dramatic question. Does the work stand as a drama? This is the core. Because by the mere act of staging a thing, you are stepping into the ring with the big boys. Ibsen, Shakespeare, O’Neill — and you. Man up, because if you fail here nothing else matters.
And… no. The Great Divorce does not stand as a stage work. Their Screwtape was tons better, and you should catch it if you can. But Divorce fails because there is no dramatic tension. Why is the action important? Why now? What’s the rush? Why care? These are questions that every story has to pose — ideally in the first paragraph, the first line, the first scene. A series of vignettes is not a drama.
Which brings us to the first point — its success as an adaptation of the book. Lewis was a total master. He knew exactly how to generate dramatic tension and get that plot moving. This is a man who could use a piece of Turkish Delight to motivate evil behavior! He built into The Great Divorce the reason why the narrator has to understand and act — because dawn is coming, and you can’t be a ghost when light is a solid object that will squash you like a bug. Lewis put it into the book. Why didn’t such an important element get onto the stage? If you were putting a Porsche Turbo onto the stage, would you accidentally leave out the engine?
Grump. I am not a theater major, not a drama professional, and I can see this. It is simple. How did they miss it? It is a puzzlement.
My newest novel Speak to Our Desires is out from Book View Café.