Regular readers of this blog know that I don’t frequently review the scripts of plays. Most scripts are designed to just be the blueprint of a theatrical production; their main purpose in existing is to aid directors, designers, and actors in the creation of a live performance. So, it’s often unfair to judge a play based solely on its script as there are so many more elements that go into a successful play than just a good script. That being said, I recently read the script for Network – a new adaptation of the classic film – and I have some thoughts on it.
I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore. Howard Beale, news anchorman, isn’t pulling in the viewers. In his final broadcast he unravels live on screen. But when the ratings soar, the network seize on their newfound populist prophet, and Howard becomes the biggest thing on TV. Adapted for the stage by Lee Hall from the Paddy Chayefsky film, Network premiered at the National Theatre, London, in November 2017.
Some plays have scripts that perfectly capture the essence of the play; others have scripts that pale in comparison to what an audience would see onstage. I imagine Network is one of the latter. I suspect Network is one of those plays that is a lot better when actually seen performed as opposed to just reading the script. There’s not much to this script and it doesn’t work all that well on the page – which is somewhat understandable. A great deal of very good plays don’t entirely work on the page alone. But, as I haven’t seen this adaptation on stage, I can only evaluate it based on the script. And, honestly, it’s fine; not great, not bad, just fine. It doesn’t seem to have anything new to say and has a slavish devotion to the original film that might honestly be detrimental. It’s been a few years since I’ve seen the film, but the script seems to literally just be the script of the film, just with a few tweaks for the stage. And Hall’s introduction to this edition of the script would seem to confirm that. I understand not wanting to mess with something that works, but honestly, if you’re not gonna do it differently or have something new to say, why bother adapting something that’s easily available in another medium.
Most times, when a film is adapted for the stage, it’s changed into a musical. Musicalizing an existing film is definitely a new way of telling an existing story. I’m not saying that Network should have been turned into a musical, but something new should have been done with it. As written, it’s nearly exactly the same as the film I can already see. I feel that Hall really missed a trick by not updating the setting to the modern day, at the very least. He talks in the introduction of this edition of the script about how the film is even more relevant today than it was in the 1970s and I fully agree with him. Much of what was considered satirical in the original film is reality nowadays and it’s for that reason that I believe this play should have updated its setting to the modern day. Imagine Beale as a Fox News style anchor and suddenly he doesn’t seem so over-the-top. The play could explore more of how the 24-hour news channels have corrupted news journalism even further. Or how the internet has changed everything. Or the immense amount of fake news. Instead, it just does exactly what the original film did with no new commentary on the events of the past forty, or so, years. And that’s immensely disappointing.
From watching some behind the scenes videos on the original London production of Network, it’s apparent that the creative team has modernized the look of the play a bit. The newsroom looks more like a modern newsroom than one from the 1970s. The play integrates four cameras and a massive projection screen in a way rarely seen in theatre and it sounds like all these technical elements (combined with, what I expect, is a superb performance from Bryan Cranston) are what make this adaptation of Network unique and interesting. Unfortunately, the script reflects none of this. On the page, everything feels disjointed. There’s no sense of the passage of time, scenes seem very disjointed and often unconnected, and everything feels a bit flat. I suppose that’s to be expected with a story like this, but it doesn’t really excuse it. The script could have included some stage directions that better hinted at the vision behind this production. But, alas, no such luck.
All in all, Lee Hall’s script for the stage adaptation of Network is little more than a copy and paste of the film script with a few tweaks made here and there. Luckily, that film script is an excellent one. Unfortunately, it still doesn’t make this script a particularly enjoyable or satisfying read. Everything feels flat and scenes feel disjointed and unconnected. It does a poor job at reflecting the visual changes made to the film for the stage version. Narratively, it really could have benefitted from an update and a modernization. Instead, it seems that Hall had a slavish devotion to the original script and it’s hurt his adaptation. As a script, it’s a weak play. I’d be very interested in seeing it onstage, though. All the visual elements combined with the performances from the actors might very well be enough to make this adaptation a unique experience that I can’t get from just watching the film. But, without having seen the play, I can’t say that the script is different enough from the film to make it worthwhile. Why read a play that’s basically the same thing as the film when I can just watch that original film?
3 out of 5 wands.