The world of Noel Coward is undeniably irresistible: a gregarious whirl of sparkling comedies and insightful satires that leap from the pages on which they are presented, thrilling readers and audiences almost one hundred years on from his first experiment with playwriting (a one-act comedy co-written with fellow performer and writer Esmé Wynne). Publishing over fifty plays throughout his lifetime, Coward is perhaps best remembered for stage productions such as Private Lives, Easy Virtue or Design for Living. Many of his plays have been adapted for film, a personal favourite being the 1931 adaptation of Private Lives. Coward’s work continues to be in the public eye, from stage revivals and public broadcasts to lavish film adaptations (the most recent being the 2008 adaptation of Easy Virtue starring Jessica Biel).
The impact of adapting a play into a film is often a point of argument. Indeed, a film adaptation can expose wider audiences to the works of a particular writer or composer; it can contribute to the ruination (or improvement) of ticket sales; it can provide life changing career boosts or quite the opposite.
Readers familiar with my writing will probably be aware of the deep connection I have formed with one of Coward’s most successful plays Blithe Spirit therefore it seems only natural that my train of thought should instantly orbit towards this particular spiritual comedy. Fascinatingly, it was the 1945 adaptation directed by David Lean that first introduced me to Blithe Spirit. Although Mr Coward produced the adaptation himself, he deemed the film as an unfortunate disappointment. Lean incorporated several unnecessary changes to the setting (the play is set entirely in the Condomines’ living room whereas the film consists of scenes set in Madame Arcati’s home, various other rooms in the Condomines’ home and several outdoor scenes). The somewhat claustrophobic atmosphere achieved in the static nature of the play’s setting is diminished almost entirely by the film’s scene changes. Charles’ determination to escape his vehement wives is somewhat reduced; the power of the wives seems to be a lacklustre afterthought, their victorious and ghostly battle truncated by a hastily rewritten ending that doesn’t quite make sense or have as impressive an impact as the original, haunting ending of the play. Not only is Coward’s ambiguous and thrilling ending omitted from the film version, there seems to be a curious misdirection throughout the entire screen production: Coward’s script is fast-paced and quick-witted yet this film cannot claim to be responsible for many laugh out loud moments. The script is, in my opinion, rushed from start to finish with Coward’s sophisticated language delivered at such a pace that it is difficult to fully appreciate the fantastic humour featured within his lengthy script.
Through the power of film, an individual interpretation is solidified – immortalised if you wish – but this interpretation may not prove to be the ‘right’ interpretation. To momentarily remain in the world of poltergeists and ectoplasm, Constance Cummings’ Ruth Condomine (Blithe Spirit, 1945) is cold and not particularly likeable. Other actresses have taken their portrayal of Ruth in antithetical directions: a weepy and insipid character (also partially distasteful – recently displayed in this West End production) to a fierce and powerful character (an incredibly enjoyable portrayal that featured in this production last year). The ephemeral nature of theatre allows these characters to be developed and experimented with. Effectively, Coward’s work (and many others like him) is continuously being changed, analysed and reinterpreted. The solidification of a play into a film may be beneficial for some but for the play itself, its reputation shall henceforth be diminished to merely “the play of the film” for a huge percentage of the population.
It’s entirely possible that the success of Coward’s work lies in its ephemeral quality; its whimsical and improbable nature translates better to the stage where there is a strong element of Coleridge’s Suspension of Disbelief. Even his more serious plays such as The Vortex and its themes of vanity and substance abuse, whilst still a fantastic success on stage, is long drawn out and boring on screen in the BBC’s 1969 adaptation. Coward’s work loses its unique sparkle on screen, the humour suppressed, the satire vanquished. There’s simply nothing quite like going to see a Coward play on stage.