Stage Adaptations

Dead Poets’ Society at the National

Kafka's Metamorphosis at Örkény


Adaptation is a risky undertaking especially when you move from one medium to another. Take, for example, movies adapted into plays. In Budapest alone, there is now a staggering number of stage pieces based on successful films. Maybe this makes economic sense, maybe it lures in bigger audiences, but artistically it often makes little sense. How can they hope to replicate the experience of a satisfying film or top the original?

This was well demonstrated by a guest performance from Veszprém at the National Theatre where the troupe made a good effort to bring Dead Poets’ Society to life onstage. Pál Oberfrank was decent as the teacher, but certainly no Robin Williams. Then, there were the appealing bunch of young actors who embodied the students. The stage robs them of the tiny gestures and subtle reactions that film can convey. Hence, their portrayals seemed either overacted (like the student who stutters) or colorless. (Perhaps the most charismatic was Bence Szalay, who recently starred in the film Vizkis about the infamous bank robber Attila “Whisky” Ambrus.) Finally, the antagonists were far too sketchy. The father who refuses to let his son become an actor is just a loud-mouthed asshole. The school principal is another two-dimensional bad guy. Consequently, they lose all power to engage or enrage us. 

Strangely, the ending is not triumphant at all, merely weepy. Is it because they lacked the soaring music and camera angles, which give us the sense of seeing through the characters’ eyes? Sometimes I was emotionally affected, but that was when the play reminded me of a scene from the movie and how I felt when I originally saw it at the cinema.


Producers face a different set of challenges when they tackle a famous author, especially one as strange and enigmatic as Kafka. In recent memory, there was a successful adaptation of Kafka’s The Trial directed by Viktor Bodó at the Katona József Studio in 2005 (entitled Ledarálnakeltűntem or Ground Up and Disappeared). Here, Ildikó Gáspár samples from a variety of short stories (mostly “The Metamorphosis” with portions of “Amerika,” “Unhappiness,” and “In the Penal Colony” among others mixed in). The result is rather obscure and impenetrable, like the monolithic panopticon that dominates the set for the first half.

First, Gregor Samsa’s transformation is barely glimpsed behind a pop-out window. Then, the actor remains unaffected, although he is multiplied by an onstage chorus. Is his new bug-like nature only a figment of his imagination? Meanwhile, we barely get to know his family members. In fact, the sister is much pushier and less compassionate than I recalled, which led me to wonder, “Is our classic English translation simply more sentimental?” Several English translations of notable German works are actually bowdlerized.

Similar to Bodó’s work with Kafka, Ildikó Gáspár makes the sexual content, only hinted at in the original, more explicit and obvious, but this is selectively done. The incestuous longing in “The Metamorphosis” is made clear, but not the homoeroticism or fear of latent homosexuality from “In the Penal Colony.” Bodó’s technique was to exaggerate all the motifs and add a few concerns of his own, like drug use. Gáspár is more faithful to the text, but her unique visual touches leave one puzzled. Eszter Csakányi wields a puppet version of herself, perhaps hinting at the theme of doubled or fractured identity, but then it is inadequately developed.

In the second half, the panopticon was dismantled. “Good riddance!” I thought. Then, Zsolt Kovács delivered a beautiful and disturbing speech as the officer from “In the Penal Colony.” It was moving, because it made me recall the short story and how I felt when I read it. So I find myself in the same dilemma I had with Dead Poets’ Society. These adaptations cannot stand on their own merits.

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