Monday, May 2, 2011
CHARLES JOHNSON: STAGE AND SCREEN
Over the years some of my stories have been staged, filmed, and adapted for radio. Let me work slowly through some of these things as I look over my curriculum vitae.
The novel Faith and the Good Thing was adapted as a play by Keli Garrett and staged by City Lit Theater and Chicago Theater Company at Bailiwick Arts Center (March 16--April 20, 1995) and Chicago Theater Company (April 21--May 28, 1995). That play received nominations in five categories for the first annual Black Theater Alliance Awards and won the first two: Best Actress (Lydia Gartin), Best Supporting Actress (Lisa Biggs), with nominations for Best Supporting Actor, Best Lighting Design, and Best Play.
Among my short stories, "Menagerie" was performed as a play (five amateur performances) at the Ruth Taylor Theater at Trinity University in 1991, directed by Shobie Partos. It was also presented on "Short Subjects" by Symphony Space on National Public Radio, read by Gloria Foster (June 3, 1995) and included in Volume 9 of "Selected Shorts: A Celebration of the Short Story," a two-cassette audio tape sold by Symphony Space. My story "A Soldier for the Crown" was also included in 2004 in "Selected Shorts: Handsome and Lonesome," read by Ruben Santiago-Hudson. "Cultural Relativity" was made into a short, funny film entitled "In His Kiss" by David S. DeCrane and shown at the Newport Beach Film Festival on April 17, 2004.
The story "China" was adapted by film-maker Jeffrey Wray as a one-hour drama that aired on PBS. Wray wrote a fine screenplay for this, but I found his casting and directing to be disappointing so I don't talk much about this adaptation.
Regarding Dreamer, I've been approached by actor Jon Voight (he wanted to be involved but not to act because he didn't see a role for himself in it) and folks at a New York film company about filming that novel but, as with many Hollywood conversations, the right deal package didn't materialize.
In the early '90s I sat for four days in a Seattle studio recording the first 3-hour audio-cassette for Middle Passage (Penguin/Highbridge); the most recent recorded book version is narrated by Dion Graham (Griot Audio).
As for Hollywood, Middle Passage has been optioned three times. First by Tri-Star, then Interscope. On those occasions, first Warrington, then Reginald Hudlin were attached to the projects, and I wrote two screenplay adaptations for those studios. Tri-Star didn't work out for us because their executives wanted to remove the Allmuseri god from the novel, which Warrington and I refused to do. The screenplay for Interscope was the best since we added a whole new act in which we see the sailors on the Republic---but not Rutherford Calhoun---raid the village of the Allmuseri and, after a breathtaking battle, leave their ancestral home in smoldering ruins, then lead the survivors away (along with Rutherford) in chains. That is not in the novel. The third option was at Warner Brothers, where John Singleton wanted to direct it. Some years ago, he called me out of the clear blue to tell me he'd "finally" found his choice among actors to play the important role of Capt. Ebenzer Falcon, Peter Dinklage.
I think maybe one day Middle Passage will be filmed, perhaps during my lifetime or after my life is over. It's now 21 years old, in its 20th printing from Scribner, and is taught widely at colleges and universities each year. But Hollywood has never filmed a black epic (As one of my UW colleagues once put it, Middle Passage begins as a picaresque, becomes an epic, and ends as a romance.) And bear in mind this would be a very expensive movie to make well, at least $100 million (and that's a 1990s estimate made before foreign financing became so important for American movies). At that cost, a studio puts itself at risk for that year. And this story presents two, difficult production challenges. First, it's a period drama, which means all costumes, props, etc., must be circa the mid-1800s. (Think of how painstakingly James Cameron worked to get that accurate, right down to the silverware in Titanic.) Secondly, as a sea adventure story, it has to be shot on the water, and we know how difficult the elements can be to work with during a shoot. I would not want to see it done badly (or cheaply) as a film.
However, as we know, once an author signs away his film rights, he has no control whatsoever over how his story will be interpreted or how the film will turn out---it helps if the author does the screenplay and/or serves in some capacity as a "producer," but even that sort of participation is no guarantee he'll be pleased with the final product, for in so many cases the story may be basically seen by a studio as a vehicle for its star or someone the studio executives want to do business with (Remember Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and how Ken Kesey had his named removed from that film?) No one ever sets out to make a bad movie, but it's rare when all the aspects of film-making involved---the right casting, a director with a literary sensibility like Stanley Kubrick, a well-written screenplay, good editing, and funding---come together in a perfect combination to create an outstanding film. To be honest, I think it's something of a miracle when that does happen.
Posted by Ethelbert Miller at 2:03 AM