Everyone loves a good adaptation.
It’s always exciting when you hear a book has been optioned for a feature film, or a cult fave is being developed for a six-part miniseries for Netflix. In general, the process of adaptation is a linear one – a book is adapted into a play, or a play is adapted into a film.
Page to stage to screen seems like a natural progression of things, and it’s a really pleasurable sensation to watch a good adaptation of something you’re fond of.
We hear less often about a film being adapted back to the stage. Why? It could be for a number of reasons.
There’s financial incentive to adapt where the money is (spoiler: the money’s in Hollywood). There’s also something magical about seeing a story you’ve read turned into a detailed visual world.
And there’s something alchemical at play, too. Turns out, it’s quite difficult to adapt a film ‘backwards’ into a logical, artistically sound piece for the stage.
We (Sarah Hadley and Ang Collins) are the co-creators behind You’ve Got Mail, playing for two nights only at Griffin Theatre Company’s Batch Festival.
As film lovers who mostly make work in the realm of theatre, we were interested in the question of the backward adaptation – why is it so difficult to do well? And what would a “good” screen-to-stage adaption look like?
To find the answer, we turned to a Hollywood classic, filled with romcom tropes, cheesy humour, and dated gender politics: Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail.
Aside from being a romantic masterpiece of popular cinema, the romcom is a genre rarely seen on stage, making You’ve Got Mail a perfect candidate to test out ways to make the art of the backward adaptation work in an independent theatre context.
In adapting the film, we quickly realised that there were some challenges we had to address. Short scenes! Many locations! The charming ’90s soundtrack!
Trying to wrangle all these elements authentically onto a small stage in Sydney would be, to be frank, an utter nightmare. So, we dug deep into the film and thought hard about what we wanted our version to say, and from the depths of our wildest dreams, we dredged up an answer:
Our You’ve Got Mail is a queer, cyberfeminist parody of the original film.
We have exploded Nora Ephron’s film out into its raw elements, rewired them, and have made them into a Frankenstein’s monster of a show that interrogates what the film was trying to say in the first place.
In the original, Tom Hanks’s character more or less cyber-stalks Meg Ryan’s character on AOL, and harangues her in real life, until he reveals his true identity at the very end, and they instantly fall in love.
He also acts like an overgrown man-child and absorbs her small business into his much larger corporation, leaving her unemployed but “romantically fulfilled”.
This narrative has not dated well, considering we’re much more knowledgeable about the potential perils of the internet, like catfishing and the dangers of meeting men online, and much more savvy about the dominance of male privilege and gaze when it comes to their treatment of women in particular.
In other words: Meg Ryan deserves better!
Our stage show satirises these dated ideas in an attempt to re-write Meg Ryan’s character’s story, endowing her with a new-found power in being digitally literate.
If you’re a fan of the movie, you’ll enjoy this alternate take on a classic, and if you have no idea what You’ve Got Mail is all about, you’ll enjoy it just as much, too. No prior knowledge is required. It’s an hour-long rollercoaster ride of Hollywood tropes, ’90s nostalgia and hilariously absurd performances, and it’s likely something you’ve never experienced before in a theatre.
So hopefully, we’ve cracked the code of the screen-to-stage adaptation: throw everything sacred out the window, and start from scratch. – Sarah Hadley and Ang Collins