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Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Literary Darwinism: Melissa Leilani Larson and Adapting Characters to a Dramatic Medium

PersuasionCLIENT_FACEBOOKMelissa Leilani Larson is a literature fiend. Before she was roped into the world of theatre by taking playwriting courses from Elizabeth Hansen and Eric Samuelsen,[1] she was firmly entrenched in BYU's English department. Before the playwriting bug bit her, I’m sure Larson originally had no comprehension that her delightfully bookish tastes would give her a chance to engage with her favorite books on a whole new level by translating them to the stage.  

Yet, now that she has succumbed to the delight and insanity that is drama, it’s been an interesting process to see her dig into the trove of her favorite novels and stories and re-work them into solid and beautiful adaptations for the stage.

A couple of years ago BYU produced Larson’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, which is one of my favorite novels, too. Mel and I have very similar literary tastes (very BBC), so she has this annoying habit of adapting some of my favorite stories (which I also had long planned to tackle) before I can get to them. I might have resented her for it, if she didn’t do such darn a good job with them.  I may still write some of them someday (especially Persuasion, as well as another of my all time favorite novels that I know she’s working on), once there’s been some distance between her excellent versions. In the meantime, I’ve resigned myself to asking her if I can produce some of them. Thus last summer Zion Theatre Company produced Larson’s Persuasion, which was one of the best selling shows that my company has ever done (the other, no surprise, was my adaptation of Sleepy Hollow).
BYU also had great success with their earlier production of Persuasion, so they decided to have Larson come back and adapt some more Austen for them. Larson’s version of Pride and Prejudice is now on deck for BYU’s next theatre season, and I think they were smart to tap back into that successful formula. I mean, if it ain’t broke, why fix it…right? Mel and I were discussing her adaptations the other day, and I’m very excited about what she has coming up. Between Little Women at the Covey, Pride and Prejudice at BYU, and another one which I'm not sure I'm supposed to name… she’s been a very busy bee.

Now some may question why a writer would even want to focus so much on adaptation. Why not write your own stuff? To be fair, Larson does that as well…her superb original plays, such as Little Happy Secrets and Standing Still Standing, prove that she does that sort of work equally as well.

But as someone who has also dabbled in adaptation,[2] not to mention someone who has written several historical plays (which is a similar process), I can definitely relate to Larson’s allure to re-working pre-existing stories. And Larson’s not the only great writer who has relied on older stories. For example, most of Shakespeare’s plays, even his signature “original” stories like King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, and Hamlet, relied heavily on already existing material.

Adaptation combines the passion of the reader with the creative output of the writer. It’s engaging with a text on a whole new level, taking one side of a dialogue (such as the works of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, or C.S. Lewis, which anglophiles like Larson and I enjoy), but then adding the benefit of being able to join in on the conversation.

Also everyone who has really enjoyed a book has had that desire to see that book come to life, to see those characters step that much closer to reality, as if you could see and touch them. You want them to become real. And mediums like film and theatre really can get close to fulfilling that desire. It’s one of the great benefits of being a dramatic writer…you see your imagination take on flesh and blood. You create something spiritually, and then see it created physically. It’s a beautiful, powerful experience to be able to take characters by the hand and feel their skin on yours.

So writers like Larson do us a great favor when they take our favorite characters and make them “real.” They’re like the blue fairy in Pinocchio, possessing a transformative magical dust that creates an illusion so convincing that, at times, you feel like Elizabeth Bennett, Mr. Darcy, Dorothy Gale, Bilbo Baggins, Huck and Jim just entered the room and sat at your table.   

[1] Mahonri Stewart, Saints on Stage: An Anthology of Mormon Drama (Provo: Zarahemla Books, 2013), p. 541
[2] My play Legends of Sleepy Hollow; as well as two works I’m currently adapting, Sense and Sensibility and Our Mutual Friend

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