Adapting a 447-page novel to the stage is not for the faint of heart, especially a tome with the sprawling nature and epic ambitions of Edna Ferber's Giant, which attempts to chronicle the entire history of Texas by examining the marriage of a cowboy landowner to a white-glove Virginian.
Still it can be done -- just witness the success of a little musical, also based on a Ferber novel, named Showboat, which will probably still be revived in American theaters until, oh, the end of time. Granted, it helps if your creative team includes Showboat's two geniuses, Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, and if they punch out catchy little tunes like "Ol' Man River."
The world premiere of Giant, running at Signature Theatre, is a bit of a runaway steer. The first two acts gallop by. When you get to the third, well, let's just say that you wish someone would lasso that longhorn. Looking at the different choices made by the producers of Showboat and Giant can be instructive in the art of making the leap from page to stage.
First things first: with a running time of four hours, 10 minutes the stage version of Giant is officially longer than Hamlet. Someone, some time, should have cracked the whip and ordered at least an hour's worth of trims. Showboat the musical, for instance, clocks in at a relatively compact 2 hours 45 minutes -- and the themes it deals with are every bit as sweeping and tough as are those in Giant.
Both novels deal with racism, in the form of so-called "mixed" marriages. In Showboat, the object of prejudice is a mulatto actress named Julie, and in Giant, it is a Mexican-American teacher named Juana. Both novels use geograph features as metaphors for social changes in the U.S. -- the state of Texas, and the Mississippi River, respectively.
But the stage version of Showboat knows how to focus it's material, and the stage version of Giant does not. Kern and Hammerstein knew that telling a story on stage essentially is a different process than telling a story in a novel, and they weren't afraid to bend Ferber's novel to fit their needs. They weren't afraid to begin the musical at the equivalent of Showboat the novel's chapter 7, bypassing dozens of pages of lengthy exposition and introducing audiences immediately to the story's two central couples.
Hammerstein (who wrote the script) wasn't afraid to elevate minor characters in the novel (Queenie) into major ones, and to take a major character in the book (Parthy) and give her a much-reduced role on stage. (Less successful was his decision to rewrite Ferber's plot to give the stage story a happy ending, but you can't win 'em all.)
Giant, in contrast, adheres closely to the book's plot, occasionally to its detriment. The main focus ought to be the triangle provided by rancher Bick, his genteel, society-bred wife, Leslie, and Jett, the sensual ranch hand who makes his fortune in oil. But for half of the third act, Sybille Pearson's script abandons this trio to recount the problems of the younger generation. The plot loses all momentum and moseys along like a hobbled and over-burdened pack-horse.
Of course, the romance between Juana and Jordy (Bick and Leslie's son) is key to Ferber's story. Lose that, and you'd lose the racism theme. But, the audience doesn't need to see the young couple's love develop as much as we need to see the effect it has on Bick, and the way his reaction strains his own marriage.
In a novel, you can ramble down twisting pathways for 447 pages. Readers will tolerate, and even relish, a few unexpected sidetriips. But in a musical or play, you better know what story you're telling, get to it right away, and stick to it.
I'm sure you have other examples of books that successfully made the transition to either stage or screen -- and those that floundered. (Harry Potter? To Kill a Mockingbird?) I'd love to know your thoughts as to which of these adaptations work, which don't, and why or why not.
Pictured are Lewis Cleale as Bick and Betsy Morgan as Leslie in Signature Theatre's new production of Giant.