EVERYMAN FOR STAGE AND SCREEN
His plays are revered and revived, but it’s less wellknown that Tom Stoppard is a prolific screenwriter, writes Benji Wilson
I WAS expecting bedazzlement. Tom Stoppard, after all, has a half-century of dazzling behind him: dazzling wit, dazzling fluency, dazzling scope, dazzling hair. I recall emerging from Arcadia at London’s National Theatre in the early 1990s feeling in urgent need of a complete intellectual reboot after a three-hour brain glut. Stoppard was the writer who wrote cleverly about clever people.
Yet in person the most dazzling thing about him is the lack of dazzle. There is no pretension, just an offer to pay for the tea afterwards, and a phone number should there be ‘‘ a quote-shaped hole’’. On the page, he is best known for writing crisp dialogue for the educated and the eloquent; in the flesh he is, as no character in any of his plays would ever say, a very nice man.
I shouldn’t have been surprised — both sides of Stoppard are there in the work, but you have to know which work to look at. While his plays are anatomised, revered and revived, it’s less well known that Stoppard is a prolific screenwriter. There was the Oscar for Shakespeare in
Love, of course, but Stoppard has also script-doctored countless Hollywood movies uncredited, from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade to (it is rumoured) one of the Star Wars films. Stoppard is — and this may be the true measure of his talent — a writer for everyone.
Next year will be something of a local showcase for Stoppard the screenwriter. His bigscreen adaptation of Anna Karenina opens in January, with Joe Wright directing; Parade’s
End, his bravura BBC adaptation of Ford Madox Ford’s World War I epic also will screen in Australia next year. Neither of the two source novels (or five source novels; Parade’s End is a tetralogy) is a doddle: the first is a little-read high modernist workout, the second a widely read, endlessly adapted set text. Both needed expert filleting and, in both cases, Stoppard has delivered. He is the master crux-finder, able to vacuum up detail, decide what the chase is, then cut to it. Having established narrative clarity, he cossets his story in wit and gives actors lines they relish repeating. That is why film and TV love him so.
Wright’s Anna Karenina, with Keira Knightley playing the doomed heroine, is a self-conscious, experimental affair that announces itself as Not Just Another Period Drama by having most of the action take place in a dilapidated theatre. Not just on the stage, either: scenes play out in the fly tower, the auditorium, the props room and the scene dock. The conceit is that the dramatis personae have no idea their lives are a performance.
Stoppard says his script contained none of this. It was ‘‘ an orthodox telling of the story’’,