It's generally agreed, even within the annals of this blog, that a story's source material — be it book, play, or film — will almost always prove superior to any new medium to which it is adapted.
I witnessed that gulf this weekend, when I saw a live theater version of the 1973 film The Sting. Having recently seen and enjoyed this classic film starring Robert Redford and Paul Newman as con artists, I was looking forward to seeing a fresh performance.
There were a few variations on the original script that I didn't expect. Some added to the experience, such as the story being framed as the flashback of an older woman. Others detracted, such as the two handkerchiefs Johnny Hooker switched in the opening con being different colors… talk about insulting the audience!
Such changes were minor compared to two shadows cast by the film, though. The play's impact and tension were diminished by my recent memories of the movie; what had originally surprised me was, of course, predictable the second time around. But most noticeable was the absence of Robert Redford and Paul Newman. In that respect, I cannot fault the actors who adopted those icons' roles for a weekend performance. I instead fault whoever conceived the notion that The Sting's script could stand apart from the actors who made it famous. I perhaps also fault myself for being unable to separate the two; surely I do community actors a disservice for holding them up to the standards of Hollywood, and myself the disservice of being unable to appreciate what those actors are offering.
A few years ago, I saw the play Wit performed at Harvard Law School. It was done well, but even given the different medium, it's hard to accept one storyteller's ability as equal or superior to Emma Thompson's. The caveat here is that Wit is a play adapted to film, not vice versa. So perhaps my prejudice is to accept whatever version I saw first as definitive.
Surely the concept of films performed live is not itself flawed. The flood of Hollywood scripts being adapted to Broadway musicals — The Producers, Spamalot, The Princess Bride — suggests that films can make the transition to live theater. But the three plays I listed underwent vast rewriting, expansion, and adaption to become musicals, something they previously were not. The end product was not an old experience in a new setting, but an entirely new experience altogether.
Through no fault of its performers, The Sting was not similarly invigorated, and in transitioning to community theater, sadly lost its prick.