There are some highlights. Thankfully, one of the best is Waiting for Godot. Based on my reading of the play and my take on Beckett, it seems to me that, some fancy camera work aside, this production does ok by the play. We enjoyed it, anyway. Another is Ohio Impromptu, starring Jeremy Irons. I also felt that Not I, with Julianne Moore, was not bad. I still have yet to watch Endgame, Happy Days, or Play, among others.
Most recently, I watched Krapp's Last Tape, directed by Atom Egoyan and starring John Hurt, and it is, I think, symptomatic of the series' problems. This happens to be the only Beckett play that I've actually seen produced on stage, in a wonderful performance at Johns Hopkins by John Astin. To save some time, I'm going to quote what I said about this play and the performance in a post from last year. I wrote:
Krapp is an old man, alone. He spends part of the time listening to tapes he recorded at an earlier age. He was alone then too. We learn of paths not taken. There are, perhaps, regrets, though at the same time, he wouldn't undo what he's done, so he says. In the discussion after the play, one audience member in particular seemed fixated on the idea that Beckett didn't seem capable of "happiness". But there's happiness and then there's happiness. Krapp is alone, but he is alive. He has his pleasures. He delights in the word "viduity", as [Marina] Warner points out [in the Times Literary Supplement], but earlier he lingers on the word "spool"--theatrically savoring, to himself, the sound of "ooool"--and he enjoys his bananas, taking pleasure in their shape, color, smell. As Warner puts it:Krapp the old man marvels at the ideas held by his younger self, grand plans that didn't come to fruition, blithe talk on tape about a lost love being for the best, when it's certain details of that lost love the older man seems to linger on, at least during the play.For not everything is fizzling out, and wind is not mere wind, at least not quite, or otherwise we would not feel the tragicomic involvement that Beckett inspires. There is something to the fizzle itself.
Ok, so that's a rough outline of the "content". In the play, the stage features only a desk, with two drawers facing the audience, behind which Krapp sits at a chair, when he's not fumbling through his keys, or opening the drawers to extract bananas or a spool of tape, or leaving the stage to get the reel-to-reel player, or a drink, etc. Very minimal. Krapp himself is wearing nothing remarkable, except for a pair of insane white boots. Astin's performance was restrained, subtle.
In Egoyan's film, the same things happen, yet it's completely wrong. Why? Well, for one thing, no white boots! You can't even see Krapp's whole body! But more importantly, there's a too muchness to it that overwhelms, defeating the material. This is one of the basic problems with film adaptations in the first place: the need to fill in the blanks. Set designers appear to have been allowed to roam free and do whatever the fuck they wanted. The set is simply overflowing with crap. Papers everywhere, shelving, piles of boxes, tapes, remnants of a disheveled life. And when Krapp walks around front of the desk to open the drawers, the camera moves in, over his shoulder, so that we can see what else might be in them. To top it all off, Hurt's performance is way too emotive. When, for example, Krapp expresses some dismay about his life choices, Hurt plays it like he's doing a tortured Hamlet. He is not doing Hamlet.
I come back to this basic question: Why does someone decide to make a film adaptation? In a post about adaptations of Michael Chabon's novels, IOZ suggests that "adaptation is better accomplished by someone who appreciates a work than someone who loves it so much that he wants to improve it". I would argue further (in line with arguments I've made in the past on this topic), that appreciation should include a sense that there's some reason why the book or play being adapted existed in the form it did, particularly in the case of a writer such as Samuel Beckett. Beckett wrote poems, stories, novels, uncategorizable prose pieces, and plays, and he was rather famously interested in the problems with the forms in which he wrote. To simply film a Beckett play as if it were any old story lying around, as if it were in need of elaboration, is to fundamentally betray the play. Why did he write plays? Why is Krapp's Last Tape a play? Why does he have a play called Play? A film called Film? Why do his plays clearly not take the form for granted? I'm not going to venture answers to these questions here, but they are the kinds of questions that it seems to me are in play when problems of adaptation arise. It seems to me that the decision to adapt one of Beckett's plays for film should center on how the formal problems addressed in the play itself can be similarly addressed in a filmic context. If questions are being asked of the play format, can analagous questions be asked of film? If not, then why make a film?