Ibsen on Film

Article excerpt

The author considers some of the 112 film versions of Henrik Ibsen's plays and explains why Shakespeare, Dickens, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov and Strindberg have fared better on the screen.

DURING THE SHOOTING OF THE MISFITS, THE SCRIPTWRITER Arthur Miller stood watching a scene in which Marilyn Monroe emerged from a truck and crossed a track to greet a dog. Clark Gable was to observe her with a mounting look of love. "But," Miller writes in his memoirs, "I noticed only a very slight change in his expression from where I stood beside the camera." The director John Huston seemed content and called a cut. Miller was doubtful, however, and asked Gable if he thought he had shown sufficient expression in the final shot. Gable was surprised. "You have to watch the eyes. Movie acting is all up here," drawing a rectangle around his eyes with his finger. "You can't overdo because it's being magnified hundreds of times on the screen." When he saw the rushes of the scene, Miller realized that Gable had been right; he had simply intensified an affectionate look that was undetectable to the naked eye only a few feet away from the camera. That a skilled dramatist like Arthur Miller had failed to consider this until after the writing of his script shows the sort of conceptual problems involved in transferring Ibsen from the stage to the screen. It at once begs the question of whether the stage play is the real father of the screenplay.

That early filmmakers should have assumed so is readily understandable. Films and stage plays were both experienced in public, in a crowd, and in the dark, as an aid to illusion in the theater, as a technical necessity in the case of the cinema. A play script consists largely of what the actors are to say to each other, a screenplay too consists largely of dialogue. But the similarities are perhaps deceptive and it is arguably the novel, with its closer attention to detail, that is the closer relative to film. The number of films (including television dramatizations) based on the writings of some of the world's greatest novelists seem to bear this out. Beyond the phenomenon of William Shakespeare, whose works have been filmed over 600 times, the novels and stories of Charles Dickens (209 times), Leo Tolstoy (115 times) and Fyodor Dostoyevsky (114 times) have been adapted for the screen more often than the plays of Henrik Ibsen. Among the handful of playwrights who may be mentioned in the same breath as Ibsen, Anton Chekhov has had his plays and short stories filmed 175 times and August Strindberg has had his works filmed 117 times. Ibsen's plays (and one poem) have been filmed 112 times.

Attempts to transfer Ibsen's plays to the screen began in 1911, five years after his death, when films were made of The Pillars of Society, A Doll's House, The Lady from the Sea, and Terje Vigen. Four film versions in one year is a direct reflection of Ibsen's status at the time of his death as probably the most famous writer in the world. The spread of choice in the following ten years is remarkable. Besides the plays already mentioned, Peer Gynt, Ghosts and Brand were all turned into films, as well as a second version of Terje Vigen, Swedish this time. Four new adaptations of A Doll's House appeared, an Italian Ghosts, Hedda Gabler, another Peer, two more Pillars of Society, and-perhaps in its own way as surprising a choice to modern sensibilities as Terje Vigen-a Russian version of Ibsen's last play with its tide for some reason inverted to turn it into a question-When Will We Dead Awaken? Notable absentees from the list are An Enemy of the People, which later gained in popularity among filmmakers, and The Wild Duck. The early prominence of Russia and America, the two great powerhouses of the first years of the film industry, is in evidence, and the presence of Victor Sjöström's Terje Vtgen is a harbinger of the consistently high reputation as a maker of films that Sweden has maintained throughout the age of film. …