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 The latest weekly piece — which offers a fake graduation speech 🙂 — is here.

82 thoughts on “All the World’s a Stage, But Only Some Novels Become Plays

  1. When I was in 9th grade, we had to read an American play for English class. I read the play Billy Budd based on Herman Melville’s short novel, I enjoyed it but I don’t remember much about the play or who the authors were (there were two). I also know there was a movie filmed many decades ago based on this novel.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Tony! I think “Billy Budd” is an excellent novella, so I can see how the play version of it would be compelling. And I’ve heard about the “Billy Budd” movie, but never saw it.


  2. Dave, did you say Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in the theatre ?
    By R.L.Stevenson.

    The mention of that name gives me creeps.
    In late 70`s or something we were in K. City, one night PBS showed the movie, acted by Jack Palance.
    No one could have acted better than Mr. Palance, I am sure there were many versions of it.

    One scene in front of the mirror the Dr. was caressing the woman , we saw the mirror image, slowly his face was transformed into Mr. Hyde…it was so hideous, violent and creepy it is still on my mind,

    I couldn’t sleep for nights…so ugly, so violent.

    Liked by 1 person

    • “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” is indeed a psychologically disturbing story, bebe — whether in a book, movie, or stage play. I can see how the scene you describe would stick in your memory. Yikes!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi, Dave. I thought you’d stumped me with this one, until Rebecca’s mention of Maggie Smith prompted me to look up The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. The novel was indeed adapted for the stage in 1968. I’m particularly interested in adaptations of work from one medium into another because I believe that whatever human experience someone chooses to write about, there is one medium of expression that is best suited to recreate and convey that experience. That being the case, I think adaptations that stay completely faithful to the original are less successful than those that align with the characteristics of the new medium.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I haven’t seen the Anne of Green Gables play but have always wanted to! I’ve been working my way through that entire series over the last several months and have really been enjoying it. I’m also working my way through Huckleberry Finn, which I like but not as much as Tom Sawyer. I’ve also seen a community theater musical version of “James and the Giant Peach,” although I’ve actually never read the book!

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I love musicals best, Dave. Phantom of the Opera is my all time favourite, I just love the music and I have seen it live four times. I’ve also watched the movie and read the book. Other marvelous musicals that I love are The Sound of Music, based on the 1949 memoir of Maria von Trapp, The Story of the Trapp Family Singers and Cabaret which was based on John Van Druten’s 1951 play I Am a Camera which was adapted from the semi-autobiographical novel Goodbye to Berlin (1939) by Anglo-American writer Christopher Isherwood [this last bit is taken from Wikipedia, I did not know Cabaret was based on a book. A wonderful post, Dave.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Robbie! You named some all-time musicals there! “The Phantom of the Opera,” “The Sound of Music,” and “Cabaret” are absolutely iconic. Impressive that you’ve seen “Phantom” four times! And nice that some musicals are based on memoirs as well as novels.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Love the theater! The first play based on a novel I remember seeing was “Mame,” the musical adaption of the semi-autobiographical “Auntie Mame” novel by Patrick Dennis. I saw this on the West End in London in 1969, and it starred Ginger Rogers, which was quite exciting. I was really fortunate to be able to attend quite a few Broadway shows throughout my life (perhaps forty or so, mostly all musicals). Some of the ones that you mentioned were “Les Miz,” “Jekyll & Hyde,” and “South Pacific.” Others based on children’s fiction were “The Secret Garden,” Mary Poppins,” and “The Little Mermaid.” “Young Frankenstein” was (loosely) based on Shelley’s classic, but more Mel Brooks and very, very funny, And of course, there’s “The Phantom of the Opera,” which Andrew Lloyd Webber based on a French novel by Gaston Leroux.

    How lucky you are to get to see Jeff Daniels in TKAM, He was on a show once where they showed clips from the play, and he made a perfect Atticus. I’m sure you’ll all have a great time!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Kat Lit!

      Wonderful that you experienced live theater in London. Ginger Rogers in “Auntie Mame” — wow! And about 40 Broadway shows — nice. 🙂 Great mentions of “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Young Frankenstein,” etc.

      I’ve seen approximately 10 Broadway shows, mostly when I lived in NYC between 1978 and 1993, but also saw maybe 100 Off-Off Broadway plays during that time — with lots of local and some regional theater in New Jersey since then.

      Jeff Daniels IS a terrific actor, and I’m sure he’ll be mesmerizing to see live in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Will be interesting to compare that with Gregory Peck’s awesome performance in the “TKAM” movie.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Goodness, Dave, that’s a lot of plays you’ve seen! Any particular ones that stand out in your mind, either on or off Broadway? Or any that were particularly awful? My favorite, though not from a novel, is “Blood Brothers” (which starred Petula Clark, David and Shaun Cassidy, amazingly enough), which affected me the most of any play I’ve ever seen. On the flip side, my friend and I were probably the only two people on the planet who hated “Rent.” The latter wasn’t based on a novel, but loosely based on Puccini’s opera La Boheme.

        I thought of two other musicals based on novels — “Ragtime” (E.L. Doctorow) and the quite wonderful “Wicked” (Gregory Maguire’s novel retelling of L. Frank Baum’s classic “The Wizard of Oz”).

        Liked by 1 person

        • “Blood Brothers” sounds like it was an amazing experience, Kat Lit! What a memorable “pop culture” cast! Sorry “Rent” wasn’t more enjoyable for you.

          As for the number of plays I attended, I guess it was easier to see theater while living in the city — and prices back then (especially for Off-Off Broadway) were quite affordable. I wonder how many Off-Off Broadway theaters remain since real-estate values skyrocketed and Manhattan became mostly for the affluent.

          Perhaps my most memorable Broadway experience was seeing Lena Horne’s one-woman show. Off-Off Broadway? Bobby Pickett, the guy who sang “Monster Mash,” starred in a play; I’m drawing a blank on the name.

          Great mentions of “Ragtime” and “Wicked”!


  7. Dave, long time ago we lived in Overland Park , KS.

    We had the opertunity to see the show ” Fidler on the Roof”, with the original cast.
    Such elaborate stage produntion, with House Full audiance ( perhaps in 1980`s ? ), with Chaim Topol .

    Unbelievable theatre production, still the songs and the whole production stayed in my mind.
    Then dinner iat half time.
    That was the time it was almost safe to go places in the evenings .

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, bebe!

      Great musical, which I also saw way back when. Wonderful that you saw it with the original cast! I’m not remembering who was in the cast when I saw it on Broadway as a kid. And an excellent performance of that song you linked to! “Fiddler on the Roof” was of course based on stories by Sholem Aleichem.

      Liked by 2 people

  8. Hi Dave, Trail of the Lonesome Pine, written by John Fox, Jr. in 1908, inspired a long-running musical outdoor dramatic play about mining in Big Stone Gap, VA, also made famous by Adriana Trigiani. I have a copy of the book and sure wish I’d known about this production when I lived closer to Virginia!

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Just before the lockdown hit we were lucky to catch “Gatz” at Berkeley Rep, a 6-hour staging of “The Great Gatsby” by Elevator Repair Service. One of the most memorable experiences I’ve ever had in a theater–the complete, original text, exactly as written, yet reimagined at the same time.. (And yes, there was a dinner break.) Renewed and deepened my appreciation for one of my favorite novels.

    Liked by 4 people

  10. My two entries are from shorter fiction:

    1)Sherlock Holmes stories, though I’m under the impression that early theatrical adaptions were less than scrupulously faithful to source than, say, the Jeremy Brett series that was once a fixture on PBS. But from those early stage vehicles, and not the Doyle stories, comes the line “Elementary, my dear Watson”, which is arguably the most famous of all Holmes’ pronouncements.

    2)”The Innocents” is William Archibald’s 1950 adaptation of Henry James’ 1898 “The Turn of the Screw”. It’s from this theatrical vehicle that the Deborah Kerr movie of the same name was derived. Harold Pinter directed a 1976 revival.

    A bit of writerly trivia: Truman Capote, hard at work on “In Cold Blood”, agreed to rewrite Archibald’s screenplay, which he managed to do in 3 weeks.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, jhNY! Great mentions!

      The brilliant Sherlock Holmes novels and stories were/are definitely ripe for stage (and movie) adaptations. Henry James’ work is trickier to adapt; his novels could of course be quite subtle and often not plot-heavy. I’ve never seen any version of “The Innocents,” but have heard good things about them.

      Excellent Capote trivia!

      Liked by 1 person

  11. One that comes to mind is, “Come Back Little Sheba” at the Manhattan Theatre Club. starred an excellent actress named. S. Epatha Merkerson. The dog, Sheba, was her longing to substitute for a non present husband, a life of lonliness and longing.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Michele, for the mention of that William Inge work! S. Epatha Merkerson IS a great actress; heck, I even liked her acting when she played the mail carrier in the VERY clever and funny children’s TV show “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” 30 or so years ago. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  12. King did another play/musical Ghost Brothers Of Darkland County, guess this would qualify for your last post as well re: siblings . Then there’s Dracula that was made into a ballet. So anything’s possible, Rather interesting to contemplate those possibilities. Imagine watching the news as Greek theatre since it’s so tragic to begin with, and a lot of conspiracy theories seem right out of Greek mythology. Bamboo in ballots and Jewish space lazers… I mean geezaloo alright already release the kracken, ha!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Susi!

      Stephen King is just SO prolific.

      LOL! 🙂 Or maybe not so funny that some of the news these days is like a bunch of weird plays. (The Trump-influenced news is definitely not inspired by books, because he doesn’t read them.)

      Liked by 1 person

  13. We saw a wonderful one of Great Expectations at our local Rep some time back. Seen Les Mis in London and a quite dire one of Treasure Island at Pitlochry Fest Theatre. Also seen, And then There Were None, and Dracula–local rep again.

    Liked by 3 people

  14. I’d pay good money to see an 8 plus hour play of Nicholas Nickleby and The Master and Margarita! The latter had scenes which would have proved challenging for set directors, and I wonder how many intermissions there were! I saw John Belushi in the UW-Whitewater, WI theater class’ production of Night Must Fall in which he played the detective, a minor role. But that was already a play, so it doesn’t qualify, really. 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

      • Thank you, Mary Jo!

        I would have loved to see that “Nicholas Nickleby” production, too! (I know someone who did; I was jealous. 🙂 ) My vague memory was that there was only one intermission, but I might be wrong.

        After having read “The Master and Margarita” about a year or so ago, I can see that would indeed be challenging to stage. Some flying scenes, for instance.

        Seeing John Belushi — wow!

        Liked by 2 people

  15. Bebe here Dave…here you are talking about my favorite novel TKAM..I can’t wait to hear what you would think of the play.
    Jeff Daniel is an excellent versatile actor, has acted in so many movies, and many television shows.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, bebe!

      Jeff Daniels is indeed versatile. Many guest and starring appearances on TV, as you note, and I believe he’s a musician, too.

      I’m really looking forward to seeing how well that play is adapted from Harper Lee’s novel. It certainly received tremendous reviews, pre-COVID, and made its money back pretty quickly.

      Liked by 2 people

  16. Oh Dave, you reminded of the first time that I saw Agatha Christie’s play – “And Then There Were None,” which was produced by a local theatre group. I was around 14 at the time. I didn’t sleep for a couple of nights. I understand that many of her novels have been adapted to plays. This past week,we watched “The Lady in the Van” a 2015 comedy-drama file directed by Nicholas Hytner and starring Maggie Smith and Alex Jennings. The movie was based on a memoir by Alan Bennett, first published as a 1989 essay and a 1990 book. It was adapted to a stage play in 1999 and into a radio play in 2009. There are some stories that find homes in many venues. This is the trailer – Maggie Smith is her remarkable self.

    Liked by 6 people

    • Thank you, Rebecca!

      I can just imagine how compelling a stage version of “And Then There Were None” would be! I loved Agatha Christie’s great novel, and also saw a pretty good film version at some point.

      Maggie Smith is indeed a tremendous actress. She is incredible in that trailer you linked to; an amazing watch.

      Yes, some novels are adapted into several different mediums.

      Liked by 2 people

  17. The first one that I thought of is ‘The Woman in Black’ by Susan Hill. A novel written in the early 80s and then made the crossover to the theatre. A performance filled with genuinely quite creepy scenes.
    Did Warhorse by Michael Morpurgo begin life as a novel before it made it to the stage?
    Frankenstein also…and of course West Side Story.
    It’s certainly nice to have something to look forward to! Will keep fingers crossed that Broadway opens up its theatres soon!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Sarah!

      “The Woman in Black” sounds very interesting (I also just googled it). Definitely theatrical drama-worthy!

      According to Wikipedia, “War Horse” did begin as a novel.

      “Frankenstein” is a great example of a book that was adapted for the stage (and also for movies, of course).

      Hoping everything will go well for Broadway reopenings this fall. I haven’t seen a Broadway play in years; too expensive. This will be a middle-school-graduation gift for my younger daughter. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

      • The Woman in Black is an exercise in writing the gothic genre. It only took Hill about 6 weeks to write apparently!

        I haven’t seen a stage adaptation of Frankenstein, although have read bits of the play. Quite an undertaking to do!

        What a lovely gift for your daughter – I’m sure it’ll be a memorable experience for both of you!

        Liked by 1 person

        • Gothic fiction can be very compelling, Sarah, as you know. And six weeks is quite a quick write!

          We’ll be a foursome for the play — my daughter, my wife, myself, and a friend my daughter will choose. 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

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