Movies and Plays: What’s It All About?

By Barry Willis

It’s quite likely that you’ll have the opportunity to review movies and plays in your writing career. The two story-telling art forms are as closely related as first cousins and have influenced each other since the days of silent film. Many films have been based on stage plays, and some stage plays have been inspired by films. Both, of course, have been inspired by novels, histories, short stories, memoirs, poems, folklore, and news reports.

Their differences are pretty remarkable, too. Once a film is complete (“in the can,” as the old industry phrase has it), it’s a permanent, unchanging performance—unless, of course, it’s subsequently re-issued as a director’s cut. Some people consider the original commercial release of Blade Runner the most refined version. In contrast, others prefer director Ridley Scott’s revision, without the narration that he felt hampered the film’s dramatic impact. In either case, your interpretation may change with multiple viewings, but the story and its presentation remain intact. All that can change is your perception.

Stage plays are a separate species because the same script may be given vastly different treatments by different directors. Cast, technical talent, venue, budget, and many other factors figure into how a play is presented and received. The audience itself can affect a play because actors can feel the response from the audience, something clearly impossible in a movie theater. Stage actors have long noted that Friday night crowds react differently from Saturday night crowds, especially comedies. 

As a reviewer, you too will be affected by audience responses, as you should be, and your agreement or disagreement with the crowd should find its way into your reviews. You may be baffled why people laughed at a scene you thought was decidedly un-funny, or your general harmony with the crowd’s reaction may reinforce your feeling that your perceptions are correct. 

A good critic becomes a trusted guide for readers and can become a valuable asset for commercial publications over time. Some critics, such as film’s Joe Morgenstern or theater’s Terry Teachout (both with the Wall Street Journal), become celebrities themselves, with legions of loyal readers. Well-written reviews are themselves entertaining art forms—and sometimes, reviews can be more enjoyable than the subjects they cover.

In any case, your purpose is to inform readers whether any production, filmed or live, is worthy of patronage. Cost is an essential difference between movies and stage plays—the price of movie tickets is negligible, even during a first run. The cost of viewing a film on television or online approaches zero. Ticket prices for stage plays are all over the map—from $15 or $20 per head at community theater companies to hundreds of dollars for a blockbuster Broadway production. Ease of access and cost of admission must figure into your evaluation, very much the way you would hold a high school football game to a different standard than an NFL game. 

Every film or play can be boiled down to its essentials—the 2004 sci-fi thriller I, Robot, might be described as “Rogue cop battles threatening androids,” while Hamlet, Shakespeare’s enduring tragedy, might be described as “Brooding prince plots revenge for his father’s murder; bloodbath ensues.” Shakespeare scholars may be outraged because Hamlet encompasses much more than a simple revenge story. Still, at its core, that’s what it is. Likewise, King Lear can be boiled down to “All hell breaks loose when addled monarch divides his kingdom among his three daughters.”

Your review needs to cover many aspects of the film or play as briefly as possible: What’s it all about? Who’s in it? Where is it being presented? Is it well-paced? Are the actors consistently believable, or are some clearly better than others? Who—or what—stands out? What’s the takeaway? You need to cover more than the story and characters, too, with insightful mentions of staging, set design, cinematography, music, costumes, and more. Minor characters who shine in their roles deserve praise, and significant disappointing players deserve to be called out, regardless of their popularity. Consistent or inconsistent dramatic quality is rightfully attributed to the director. You need to mention this.

Ultimately, is the film or play a good use of time and money? This is obviously a subjective call, but you can confidently make it if you’ve covered all the relevant territory. See enough and write enough, and eventually, you’ll acquire an essential blend of gravitas, journalistic swagger, and maybe a reputation of your own to rival some of the stars you write about. 

It all comes with experience—one review at a time, accumulated over the years. Nobody ever promised that you could leap into the game at a high level. We all come into it as beginners.

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