Dreamcasting: We all do it. When we read a great book, it’s second nature for many of us to imagine who would play each character in an adaptation for either the silver screen or the stage. Amy Poeppel knows the feeling: She has a deep and abiding love of theater, and often thinks about novels that would make great plays. Here, to celebrate the release of her novel Limelight, she shares six novels that she thinks would make excellent plays.
What I love most about reading great fiction is the experience of getting completely caught up in the descriptions, the dialogue, and the drama the author creates. Imagine my excitement—back when I was a recent college grad—when I heard that one of my favorite novels, John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, was being staged at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago (adapted by Frank Galati). I happened to be living in Chicago at the time and immediately went to see it. I was completely rapt through the entire play. I saw this show way back in 1988, and I can still remember that moment when Gary Sinise ran across the stage (I think naked, but maybe I’m embellishing) and jumped into a swimming hole. It was a terrific adaptation, a production that Frank Rich said, “makes Steinbeck live … not by updating his book but by digging into its timeless heart.”
It’s not surprising, given my love of theater, that when I began writing, I wrote plays. My first novel Small Admissions began as a play, and eventually I went about the tough work of adapting it into a novel. Small Admissions was set in a school admissions department, with parents desperately making their case to get their kids accepted and action that I hoped was fast-paced and humorous. The stage worked well for that particular story. I sometimes think about turning it back into a play as I can so easily imagine the interview scenes performed in front of a live audience.
With exciting news breaking often these days about novels heading to Hollywood and the big (or small) screen, it’s no wonder we often read books with our minds casting the film version and visualizing the action. But I’m a theater person, so when I read books, I try to decide which novels would work well on stage and which wouldn’t. Theater has a wonderful intensity and immediacy that makes it a fabulous medium for a good story. Here are some books I’ve read quite recently that I think would make terrific plays. What do they have in common? Wonderful settings, fabulous dialogue, and high-stakes conflicts!
This book would be so fabulous on stage! I can picture the set perfectly: a cross section of the two-story house with the family of one brother upstairs and the other downstairs, a staircase connecting them, and perhaps a yard below. This novel is filled with family secrets and drama, and I can imagine an audience completely aghast as the truth about what really happened the night of the big storm unfolds in front of them. Pass the tissues!
I picture a few fairly grim, minimally furnished sets (like the cover of the book itself) to capture the suspense, hopelessness, and fear in Tiffany D. Jackson’s page-turning YA thriller. A director would likely want to stage scenes in the group home, in the “baby jail,” and perhaps on the streets of Mary’s neighborhood. There could be two actresses, one playing young Mary and another playing the teenage Mary. The twist at the end of this book would play so well on stage, and the audience would be left breathless.
The family beach house in Jamie Brenner’s latest novel would make such a wonderful stage set! You’d need the sound of the ocean, expert lighting for the sunrises and sunsets, and a fabulous cast to bring this family story to life. I love the idea of opening the curtain on the large rambling house, occupied only by our independent main character Lauren, and then watching as it slowly fills up with her sister, her nephew, and her parents and family friends, making a lively setting for the drama to unfold. The fate of the house and the family will keep audience members on the edge of their seats.
Fiona Davis is the queen of bringing iconic New York City buildings to life! How fun would it be so see The Dollhouse (or The Address… or Davis’ latest The Masterpiece) staged in a New York City theater? It would be a wonderful challenge for a set designer to capture two distinct time periods in the same setting, whether it’s the Barbizon, the Dakota, or Grand Central. And the intertwining of storylines from different time periods would make for wonderful drama. It’s no surprise to me that Davis has a background in theater! All of her novels would all make excellent plays.
Who loves musical theater? I’d buy a ticket immediately to see The Little Clan on stage, and because of its mix of whimsical scenes and quirky characters, I like to imagine it with a little song and dance. The humor in this wonderful debut centers on an old residence in Manhattan called the Lazarus Club, an arts society that is a throwback to an earlier era. I can imagine Ava and Stephanie refurbishing the room they want to use for their new literary salon, as a geriatric club member wanders in and out or snoozes in a chair in the corner. The two young women, one outgoing and glamorous, the other introverted and old-fashioned, are such wonderfully unique characters. I’d love to sit in for the auditions for their parts! And I can imagine some terrific, snappy dance numbers, reflecting the classic New York City represented in this lovely debut.
There is a wonderful, old, dilapidated New England home in this book. The house brings together two middle-aged characters in periods of major transition in their lives: Julie and David, exes who haven’t seen each other for years but come together at a time when they unexpectedly find that they suddenly need each other again. As they work to get the house in shape, they uncover old resentments, fond feelings, and a desire to move forward into their new lives. But together or apart? The audience will have to wait to find out. The front of the house, with rocking chairs on the wrap-around porch, is where I imagine many of the funny conversations, confessions, and arguments taking place. Add a steady flow of neighbors and Airbnb guests, and the result is delightful.
Amy Poeppel is the author of the novels Limelight and Small Admissions. Originally from Dallas, Texas, she lives with her husband and three sons in New York City. She workshopped a theatrical version of Small Admissions at the Actors Studio Playwrights/Directors Unit. Her writing has appeared on The Rumpus, The Higgs Weldon, Mock Mom, and Working Mother.