Literature12 Jun 2007 08:52 am
Modern adaptations of “classic” works are common enough, especially at the movies. But, whether it’s a straight adaptation (like O, an Othello with Josh Hartnett) or a comedy (like Mighty Aphrodite, Woody Allen’s brilliant spoof on Greek drama) these movies are obviously serving up something other than the usual Hollywood fare. Every once in a while, though, a classic is so “modern” that it’s hard to believe the story you’re watching is centuries old. How many fans of Clueless are shocked to learn that it’s based on a Jane Austen novel?* Austen may have been born in the eighteenth century, but few novelists have such a modern perspective.
Another 19th-century writer with a 21st-century outlook is Anton Chekhov, the Russian master of the short story and the stage. His play Uncle Vanya was itself an adaptation of The Wood Demon, a play that Chekhov wrote nearly a decade earlier. Over a century after that play was written, the French director Louis Malle adapted Chekhov’s adaptation into one of the most original films of the 90′s: Vanya on 42nd Street.
The film began when director Louis Malle went to a humble New York City performance of Uncle Vanya. Wallace Shawn, the actor who worked with Malle on My Dinner with Andre, gathered some friends to perform Uncle Vanya at the smallest venues they could find. (They even performed it at friends’ apartments!) Malle saw one of these performances and convinced Shawn that they should film it. After rounding out the cast with George Gaynes, Brooke Smith and Julianne Moore, they set out to work.
The movie is actually about the rehearsal for a performance of Uncle Vanya. There are no costumes or sets: just New Yorkers chatting at a plain table in an empty theater. The relevance of Chekhov’s themes – and filmmaker David Mamet’s modern translation – makes it hard to remember the play’s original setting: a 19th-century Russian estate. It could have taken place the day the movie was filmed, or centuries earlier.
Buy Vanya on 42nd Street here.
Or read David Mamet’s version of Uncle Vanya here.
* Emma, from 1815. For an introduction to another Austen classic – Pride and Prejudice – check out the entry for Week 19, Day 2.
Leave a Reply
You must be logged in to post a comment.