I had doubts about whether even Meryl Streep could live up to Cherry Jones' galvanic stage perfomance as Sister Aloysius in John Patrick Shanley's Doubt, but we saw the film version today, and my doubts on that score were dispelled. Streep was really terrific, creating her own ferocious version of the rock-of-certainty nun, paying tribute to the character created by Cherry Jones, but making it her own. Philip Seymour Hoffman as Father Flynn (the new priest with new ideas), and Amy Adams as Sister James (the young innocent nun) also gave strong performances, as did Viola Davis as the mother of the school's first black student. The film adaptation was written and directed by John Patrick Shanley, so it is not surprising that it tracks the play very closely, and Shanley does a nice job of exploiting the new medium. There are some nice visuals unique to the film -- the repeated theme of the blustery winds, Father Flynn stopping to regard an "all-seeing eye" in a stained glass window, the parable of the slashed pillow (sermon on gossip), a bit more of the neighborhood and the parishioners. But there were some surprising differences from the stage play too. While I can't put my finger exactly on it, I left with the strong impression that the stage play was somehow more delicately balanced. With the play, I left truly uncertain even at the end whether Father Flynn was guilty or not, a result of the masterful finesse of Chris McGarry's stage performance and the role Shanley created. In the film, it somehow didn't seem as balanced, and I can't put my finger on whether the play gave Father Flynn just a bit more chance to voice his side, or whether it was just that Hoffman was just a bit more suspicious and overcome by Streep's certainty, but none of us left the film with much doubt about Father Flynn's guilt. The other surprising difference is the very end. (*** spoiler alert ***) The film ends with the same line as the play, but I took it completely differently. When I saw the play, the final line seemed (to me at least) to refer to Sister Aloysius's doubts about whether she rightly accused Father Flynn. In the film, I didn't think she seemed at all uncertain about Father Flynn, and the final line seemed to refer to a more general crisis of faith. A close shot of her cross being pulled to her chest seemed to reinforce that interpretation. A friend we saw the film with had the same impression, and further saw it as a reference back to Father Flynn's first sermon on doubt, and a kind of bond between Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn. I also think Sister James came across differently in the final scene. In the play, I recall her being more critical of Sister Aloysius, while in the film she seems more supportive and admiring. On stage, I also remember the confrontation between Sister Aloysius and Ronald Miller's mother being much more powerful and critical of Sister Aloysius. Perhaps the criticism of Mrs. Miller and questioning of Sister James were part of the more successful counterbalance to Sister Aloysius's certainty in the stage version.
The movie is well worth seeing for its powerful performances and provocative story, especially for those who did not see the play. But the film is not as powerful and provocative as the play. This is especially surprising to me since the playwright did his own adaptation and directed it too. I'm wondering whether Shanley has changed his mind about the sorts of questions he wants to challenge his audience with, or whether he just balked at being so provocative to a wider audience. In any event, the film adaptation subtly but profoundly alters the play.