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Thoughts on “Angels in America” by Tony Kushner

Cass (Bonjour, Cass!), Emily (Eat the Books!) and I coordinated our reading of Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Angels in America, and watching of the HBO miniseries adaptation. We’re all posting today, so be sure to check out their thoughts as well!

Angels in America by Tony Kushner (cover)Angels in America is actually two plays: Millennium Approaches and Perestroika. Both are set in the mid-1980s, with the second following the first after a break of a few weeks. Really, they’re two parts of the same story, even though they were published separately at first. Angels in America is about people in New York City struggling with all kinds of things, from mental and emotional problems to identity crises to terminal illnesses. Their stories overlap with one another to form the fabric of the story.

There are a ton of themes in these plays: love and hate, friendship and marriage, religion and belief, sexuality, illness, life and death, politics, and I bet a lot I’ve missed. I just read the plays AND watched the HBO version, and I feel like I could still read or watch many more times before I even came close to getting everything. It never felt like too much, though. All the themes are gloriously interwoven, overlapping and blending into one another. I think Angels in America is accessible at any level.

I’m going to say something now you may never hear me say again: I actually liked both the written play and the film version. I’m the sort of reader/watcher who prefers a story in one form. If I’ve read something, I don’t want to see the movie, and vice versa. But with Angels in America, Tony Kushner wrote the movie script, which meant most of it was close or even identical to the play. For the most part, watching the HBO version was like seeing the play performed live, as opposed to watching a poorly done adaptation. The casting was perfect, as was the filmography. It really was at least as beautiful to watch as it was to read. My only complaint was that in the play, minor characters are all played by the major characters, so that every actor has multiple roles. In the movie, only some of the minor roles were played by the appropriate major counterpart; the rest were played different actors altogether. I loved the duality of the play and was disappointed it wasn’t carried all the way through the movies. I really enjoyed thinking about why Kushner had chosen a specific major character to play a certain minor role while reading the play.

I found that having certain scenes brought to life really helped me understand them better (more on that in a moment). There was also more emotional weight to some of the more dramatic scenes; hearing someone speak the words made the words real. And yet, had I not read the play, I think some of the dialogue might have streamed past me, that I wouldn’t have gotten as much out of it as I did. And so, in this case, reading and watching together made for a great experience.

SPOILER ALERT!

I loved the split scenes in Angels in America. I think my favorite was Act 2, Scene 9 of Millennium Approaches, where Harper confronts Joe and Louis tells Prior he’s moving out. It was powerful in print, but seeing it brought to life in the HBO miniseries was amazing. My favorite scene overall was the very end, where Prior begins speaking to the camera. It brought the whole of what came before it into some kind of order, crystallized its meaning, and provided closure in a sense. I don’t cry much at movies, but the end is what just about got me in this case.

Also, I really liked Prior. And Belize. They were my favorites. I’m glad they were there at the end, together with Hannah. The jury’s still out on Louis, though. I’m not sure he redeemed himself.

I think watching the HBO version was most helpful to me when it came to Harper’s scenes. I couldn’t visualize her in the Antarctica-to-Central-Park scene, for instance, when I read the play, but I liked how it was rendered in the miniseries. The HBO version also helped me imagine the scenes with the Angel, which didn’t make a ton of sense to me until I saw them rendered live.

I think I could write several more posts on Angels in America by Tony Kushner and not run out of material. There’s so much to think about in it. I’d recommend either version, depending on your preference. I’m so glad Cass and Emily got me to read/watch it! Be sure to head over to their blogs to see what they had to say.

If you’ve read or watched Angels in America, what did you think? Do you generally enjoy movie adaptations of books?

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  • Pingback: Angels in America: Thoughts on the play and the HBO series | Eat the Books!()

  • http://eatthebooks.com Emily

    I loved Belize and Prior! Their characters were so real–funny at times, and very sad at times. I also liked the split scenes. It would be super cool if I could see the play performed on an actual stage, but the film version was pretty darn good. Glad you liked both (I liked both too!)!

    • Erin

      Yes! They were both so real…perhaps the most so in the play. I’d love to see a stage version, especially to see how they’d do the special effects and scene changes. I really enjoyed reading the stage directions as well as Kushner’s intros and notes. Thanks for reading/watching with me!

  • http://wormhole.carnelianvalley.com Charlie

    Sounds fascinating, I love books/plays/films that explore lots of different theme. Never heard of the play or the writer so I’m going to Wikipedia it.

    • Erin

      I’m not usually good with plays, but I really liked Angels in America. The HBO version is really good, too, if you can get a hold of it. If not, the play is a quick but excellent read.

  • http://carolsnotebook.wordpress.com carol

    I actually read Angels in America for a lit class in college – and I don’t remember a thing about it. i wonder if it would make more of an impression on me now.

    • Erin

      I hardly remember anything I read for school! I think it’s definitely worth a reread. I really enjoyed it, more than I even expected to.

  • Pingback: Thoughts on Angels In America | Bonjour, Cass!()

  • http://www.englishmajorjunkfood.com Ash

    I LOVE Angels in America. Tony Kushner came to Iowa City last year and gave a really incredible speech. I also love the film version and the written version and totally get what you mean about Harper’s scenes. I’m basically just gushing right now but this is one of my favorite plays.

    • Erin

      That would be amazing, to hear Tony Kushner speak! I loved reading his intros and notes, and I was really happy to see he’d done the screenplay for the HBO miniseries. The experience of reading and then watching was great, though I’d love to see the play performed live as well. Maybe someday! I can see why it’s one of your favorites. I don’t have enough experience with plays to pick favorites, but if I ever do, I don’t doubt Angels in America will be among them!

  • http://homeofaimala.blogspot.com/ Amy

    I’m thrilled to read that you liked both the written and the HBO series because I watched th HBO series but have never read the play! I think Tony Kushner was extremely talented, brilliant really…and Mike Nichols did a great job directing. It’s so powerful. I felt badly for Harper but she annoyed me at times, too. I think I liked Prior and Hannah best but what was great is that, at different times, many of the characters made me feel a variety of emotions.
    Of course, now I’m thinking I should read the play!

    • Erin

      I got a little annoyed with Harper, too! Actually, I got annoyed with most of the characters at some point, though I didn’t despise any of them. That’s quite an achievement on Kushner’s part, I think, to have written characters so real you don’t uniformly love or hate them. I definitely enjoyed reading the play as well as watching the HBO miniseries; I got different things out of both. I’d love to see Angels in America performed live as well…maybe someday!

  • http://jennysbooks.wordpress.com Jenny

    I loved the double-casting they did do. Meryl Streep was such a rock star as Ethel Rosenberg, and I thought she couldn’t be any awesomer but then she was Hannah. I mean damn.

    In other news, yayyyyyyy! I love Angels in America so much it’s painful. It is one of my desert island books — Tony Kushner is a master of one-liners. The HBO miniseries is nearly perfect, all the actors and every scene and line and moment. The “Have you no decency?” scene is incredible, and oh, ooh, the one where Belize and Louis are at the diner. I giggle just thinking about that scene.

    • Erin

      Yes! Meryl Streep was so good! It took me a while to realize she was the rabbi at the beginning, too. So impressive.

      As for the writing, it was so good that as I was watching the HBO version, I could tell when certain lines from the play were coming. Since I’d only read them once, I was really surprised to realize they’d made such an impression. The Belize-and-Louis-in-the-diner bit was great. I loved Belize.