Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead may have won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, but it’s not a particularly good movie, if by the word you mean a story with forward movement, or a personal use of the medium by a director with a distinctive touch. Rather, it is an entertaining adaptation of Stoppard’s play that happens to be directed by the writer himself.
The film thus provides a virtually unique example of an adaptation of a major work from another medium directed by the man responsible for the original. Stoppard’s service as director inevitably foregrounds issues about the relative importance of the script and the competing claims of writing and directing. While Stoppard is modest about his film making abilities (his interview on the supplementary DVD is well worth watching), that doesn’t make the central question raised by his participation go away: who is best qualified to realize an adaptation to its full potential?
At first, the answer seems obvious: the person who wrote the original. Even in the theater itself, however, it is not regular practice for a writer to direct his own plays. There is a recognition that someone can be a brilliant writer but have very little idea of how to turn a script into a compelling theatrical experience. Simply put, writing and directing draw on different, if related, skills. And if that is true of the theater, it is even more true of film, where the script must compete with so much more for the viewer’s attention and the director must have a high degree of purely technical knowledge.
Every time I watch R&G, I wonder who would have been the best director for it. (My personal choice would be Richard Lester.) Stoppard gets delightful performances from Oldman and Roth; he also has the guts to re-work his own play. What is lacking, however, is a thorough re-imagining of the material for film. To do that requires more than simply “opening it up” beyond the proscenium arch. As André Bazin noted long ago, theatrical adaptation needs a fundamental re-thinking of the relationship between the dialog and the spaces surrounding it. To perform such an operation requires cinematic instincts as profound as Stoppard’s theatrical flair.
When a play is adapted to the screen, it’s easy to record the actors reading the dialog to advance the action; it’s not so easy to recognize when something other than speech may be more effective. Stoppard’s writing will always be witty (his original screenplays adroitly combine the cinematic and the theatrical) but getting the most out of his word play is probably best left to someone who can level the writing’s importance, who knows how to make the surroundings live as thoroughly as the dialog.
Having said that, I’ll happily return to R&G repeatedly. It isn’t great film making, but its assets make it consistently captivating, a reliably intelligent and paradoxical diversion.