Two of cinema’s key advantages as a medium are its mastery of space and time, and its impression of reality. These two traits are not necessarily related: after all, in reality we often find ourselves stuck in one space for hours on end. Unlike theatre, though, cinema offers the possibility to change location frequently, and it is the norm for screen time to diverge from real time: cinema can cover days, months or years in just under two hours. When a film restricts itself to one location, it’s often a sign that it is based on a play. Since its beginnings, cinema has had to shun the notion of filmed theatre in order to establish itself as an art form in its own right rather than a recording device. For this reason, directors need to carefully adapt plays in order to make them cinematic.
Of course, there is no need to place limits on how a director use cinema to express ideas: there have been excellent, thoroughly cinematic films based on plays. They can take place in one room, with every minute on screen equal to a minute in real time: Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope is one example, where an apartment serves as the location for a murder followed by a dinner party. The director used ingenious long takes, allowing the camera to wind seamlessly through the apartment, creating effects that theatre never could.
Like Rope, Roman Polanski’s latest film Carnage is restricted to a couple’s apartment (with the exception of the title and credit sequences). The film centres on the meeting of two sets of parents. Michael and Penelope’s son was injured in a dispute with Nancy and Alan’s son, but the couples intend to discuss the matter in civilised way. Questions of blame and good parenting offer obvious potential for descending into argument, but equal tension arises from the two couples’ different lifestyles (Nancy and Alan very corporate, Michael and Penelope the opposite). Husband-wife recriminations also fester immediately below the surface.
Adapted plays can be claustrophobic films: it is precisely because the audience knows that film characters should be able to leave the space that makes it all the more upsetting when they can’t. Carnage demonstrates how much camera work can do to make a space seem larger: without tipping over into virtuoso shots, Polanski’s camera observes the apartment and the two couples from different angles, follows the characters along corridors and around corners, emphasises the different rooms which break the single space into many smaller ones, and includes windows and doors to keep the outside world close at hand.
While Carnage is able to magnify the apartment’s sense of space, it is unable to convince the audience that the characters need to remain there. On two occasions, Nancy and Alan are at the threshold of the apartment, or about to step into the elevator, when ‘coffee’ is used as a weak excuse to drag them back inside and prolong the discussion. In a play, the audience would be able to accept this convention much better, but in a film, it feels forced.
Above all, it is in the dialogue where the typical realism of film clashes with theatrical conventions, which suddenly seem artificial. The characters, their lifestyle and arguments realistically reflect contemporary concerns (developed vs. developing world, art vs. money, work-life balance, gender roles), but the declamatory tone of their speech, while normal in theatre, feels stilted on film. Whereas theatre needs to be more ostentatiously dramatic, playing to the back row, cinema is a more intimate medium. It is able to show the characters from close up, so their facial expressions can carry a symbolism, reducing this burden on words.
Yasmina Reza worked with Polanski to adapt her own play, The God of Carnage, into a screenplay, but it is hard to believe that many changes were made. It is possible that Reza and Polanski wanted the dialogue to be stilted in order to reflect the artificiality of the civilized fronts that the characters present to each other. Even so, they run the risk of being misunderstood: Carnage‘s dialogue sounds eminently unsuited for cinema’s mode of address.