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 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.
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?