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Stage to Screen: 'Rabbit Hole'

 I've been sorting through my feelings on "Rabbit Hole," the film adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play for awhile now. The author of the play, David Lindsay-Abaire, remains one of my favorite interviews ever--you can read the article I did on him in 2008 here. The material is catnip for actors; Cynthia Nixon won a Tony playing a grieving mother, with Amy Ryan taking over the part in the L.A. premiere. Nicole Kidman then acquired the rights to produce the film, with herself in the lead role.

There's a lot to admire in the movie, from John Cameron Mitchell's sensitive direction to the solid performances from Kidman and Aaron Eckhart as the parents. All and all, it's a very classy production--so why was I left a little cold? Perhaps I'm not supposed to "enjoy" the material, given that it's about how the death of a 4-year-old boy affects several lives. Or maybe its the fault of this article, which details the ways in which the film is Oscar bait, that tainted my perceptions.

It could also be because there was another film at this year's Toronto Film Festival, "Beautiful Boy," that handled similar material so beautifully. While I already sang the praises of that film rather extensively, I wanted to judge "Rabbit Hole" on it's own merits. And I've come to realize that one of it's biggest assets is the screenplay, which Lindsay-Abaire adapted himself. It's an excellent example of transitioning a stage story to screen.


As someone who started out writing for theater before moving to films, I would often hear that a play being adapted needed to be "opened up" for a film audience. It was a phrase people used constantly, which I never totally understood. It sounded like they just wanted more scenes set outdoors or something. I guess I understood it in theory--the idea was to take advantage of the medium of film and show what you couldn't on stage. And "Rabbit Hole" achieves this admirably.

The action takes place entirely of the home of Becca and Howie, whose son Danny was killed in a car accident eight months before the play opens. Because there are only a handful of scenes in the play, each one has a purpose and a point to get across. In the film, these revelations are spread out and come about far more organically. We don't just hear about how Becca's sister Izzy is a screw-up; we actually see Becca getting the late-night call and having to pick Izzy up from the police station. We also get to meet characters who are only discussed in the play, be it Izzy's musician boyfriend or Debbie, a friend who has been avoiding Becca since the accident. In the film, we also meet members of a support group for grieving parents, including a mother played by Sandra Oh who develops a flirtation with Howie--something we never even suspect in the play. Perhaps most effectively, the audience gets to see a scene on film that is only discussed in the play--where Becca slaps a mother in the grocery store. I cannot overstate the wallop this moment packs when you see it played out, versus having it delivered through dialogue.

I noticed that much of the dialogue from the play "Rabbit Hole" transfers to the screenplay fairly intact--but that it's often spread out over scenes rather than all packed into one. This is mostly effective, though I actually thought it worked against the character of Becca's mother, Nat, played in the film by Dianne Wiest. Those who have seen the play likely remeber Nat from her two monologues--one an amusing rant about the Kennedy curse, the other her heartbreaking response when Becca asks if the pain ever goes away. On stage, these speeches took their time. I don't know if the dialogue was edited for film, but it appears much shorter.

And sometimes it's just the little things. Being able to close in on a close-up of a parent's anguished face. Scenes of Becca staring blankly at one of her child's drawings on the fridge. One change that stood out to me as particularly clever involves a video of Danny. In the play, it's a videotape that Howie watches over and over until Becca tapes over it--possibly on purpose. In the film, it's now a video Howie has on his iPhone, which he carries around and watches whenever he wants. This change may just have been a matter of updating technology (who even uses videotape anymore?) but it rings true because of course a father would have a cell phone video of his son. And haven't we all accidentally deleted something when messing with technology we didn't fully grasp?

Lindsay-Abaire has written two screenplays prior to "Rabbit Hole," "Inkheart" and "Robots," both children's films. When I heard he was adapting his own script, I wondered how it would work. Would it be too stagey, still feeling like a play? Would he know how to...forgive me...open it up for audiences? I'm happy to report Lindsay-Abaire succeeded in creating a entirely new work in a different medium.

-- Jenelle Riley

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