All the World’s a Stage, But Only Some Novels Become Plays

Jeff Daniels as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird on Broadway. (Photo by Julieta Cervantes.)

We purchased Broadway tickets a few days ago to see a December performance of To Kill a Mockingbird, which led me to think about novels that have become plays or musicals.

Plenty of novels inspire movie adaptations, but fewer such books are turned into plays — with one reason being that there are of course more major films made than major plays staged. Also, certain elements are needed for a novel-to-play transition to have a chance to work: It helps if the novels are well-known, well-written, filled with great dialogue, dramatic, plot-oriented, and graced with memorable protagonists; and it also helps if theatrical productions feature high-profile actresses and actors. Some luck doesn’t hurt, either.

The acclaimed To Kill a Mockingbird production, which will reopen this fall along with various other Broadway plays after the long COVID shutdown, first featured movie notable Jeff Daniels as attorney Atticus Finch. Daniels will return to that role when the play resumes October 5, and is scheduled to stay until January 2. Harper Lee’s iconic novel had previously been performed as a play for several decades in Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, Alabama — an example of how a number of fiction books have inspired local or regional theater productions.

A sampling of other novels turned into successful plays performed in large venues? Alice Walker’s The Color Purple inspired a popular Broadway production and then a popular Broadway revival during our 21st century. In the 1980s, Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables became a hit musical, Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby was turned into a massive play of more than eight hours, and Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn spawned Big River. Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote was major source material for The Man of La Mancha musical that opened on Broadway in 1965. Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding was adapted for Broadway in the 1950s. James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific inspired the famous South Pacific musical that premiered in 1949. Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road was on stage for eight years starting in 1933. Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are among the many other novels that have been adapted for live theater.

There have also been theatrical duds, such as the 1988 Carrie production based on the novel by Stephen King, who of course has fared better with various movie and TV adaptations of his works.

Any novel-to-play transitions you’d like to mention and/or talk about?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” local topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — which offers a fake graduation speech 🙂 — is here.

Siblings in Fiction Get Along or Have Friction

The sisters from We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

Seven years ago, I wrote a blog post about some of literature’s memorable sibling relationships — including those in The Mill on the Floss, Crime and Punishment, Little Women, The Grapes of Wrath, Go Tell It On the Mountain, The Poisonwood Bible, and The Blind Assassin, among other novels.

I thought I would update that today by discussing siblings in several books I’ve read since 2014, starting with two recently finished novels: Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle and Mary Renault’s The Praise Singer.

Why are literature’s sibling relationships potentially compelling? We like when fictional sisters and/or brothers get along, lament when they don’t, feel uneasy when they’re super-competitive with each other, see the unfairness if one sibling is much more intelligent/popular/successful/better-looking, hate if the parents blatantly favor one child over another, etc. Those of us with siblings can certainly relate to some or all of the above.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a quirky, disturbing novel (no surprise with Ms. Jackson) that often centers on the interactions between main character Mary Katherine and her decade-older sister Constance — who’s almost like a mother to “Merricat.” They live an isolated life, and…is one of those two young women guilty of having mass-murdered several of their family members?

The Praise Singer is a well-crafted historical novel focusing on ancient Greek poet Simonides. One interesting aspect of the book is the relationship between the protagonist and his older brother Theas when they’re both living at home as boys. Their father blatantly favors Theas — who’s more handsome, charismatic, and confident than Simonides. But Theas treats Simonides affectionately, encourages him, and defends him. Theas goes on to become a successful adult, even as his poet brother becomes widely famous.

Another historical novel is Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies — in which three of the four Mirabel sisters become revolutionaries opposing the Dominican Republic’s Trujillo dictatorship at great risk to their lives. The trio (Patria, Minerva, and Maria Teresa) have quite different personalities, and don’t always get along, but share a hatred of the brutal regime. The fourth sister (Dede) is less revolutionary, and takes a somewhat divergent path in life.

As in The Praise Singer, there is unfortunate parental favoritism in Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brookyn. Katie Nolan prefers her son Neeley over her daughter Francie, yet Francie (the novel’s protagonist) and her younger brother get along well for the most part — taking some psychological comfort in their companionship as they deal with a charming but often-irresponsible alcoholic father.

Also getting along well are Jemmy and Mandy — the young son and younger daughter of Brianna and Roger, who bounce around in time more than once in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander novels. The two kids (the grandchildren of Brianna’s 20th-century-born mother Claire and 18th-century-born father Jamie) are a familar touchstone for each other during their unorthodox lives.

An example of a dysfunctional sibling relationship is the one between Hank and Leland in Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion. Hank is more confident and physically stronger than his more intellectual half-brother Leland, and the oil-and-water mix between the two helps fuel a lot of the drama in the novel.

Any novels you’d like to mention with memorable sibling characters?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” local topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about my town’s bus service resuming, LGBTQ news, and COVID’s effect on two parades — is here.