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The Art of Stage to Screen Adaptation in Denzel Washington’s Fences

 “You’ve got to take the crookeds with the straights”: Troy Maxson speaks these words to help his sons navigate the inevitable disappointments and inequities of life in August Wilson’s tour-de-force play, Fences, first performed in 1983 (Wilson 1986, 37).1 Denzel Washington, who plays Maxson in the film version (2016) that he also directed, might find recourse to this adage while sorting through the critical response to his movie.2 While it earned its share of accolades, including major award nominations and wins, there was an undercurrent of frustration in many reviews. At least one discontented critic complained that Washington failed to retain the play’s uniquely theatrical power, while, more commonly, others asserted that he had failed to adequately transform his material from the stuff of the stage to the stuff of the screen.3 I offer here a response to such arguments. Washington’s desire to foreground Wilson’s stylized and copious—that is to say, theatrical—language is obvious. But his commitment to retaining the play’s long speeches and dense verbal stylings—forms of speaking that are largely alien to mainstream movie dialogue—works in tandem with, rather than against, his commitment to creating a visually rich, filmic rendering of Wilson’s portrait of systemic racism and legacies of trauma on African Americans in mid-century Pittsburgh.  I will demonstrate that Washington’s adaptation concept creates a dynamic interaction of different media, theater and film. Washington accomplishes this through a series of subtle, cinematic modulations that inflect, rather than eschew, Fences’ fundamentally theatrical form, and that even expand and enrich some of the play’s core themes and social commentaries. Drawing on the power of filmic and theatrical signifying strategies, Fences evades an artificial dichotomy between some notion of theatrical fidelity and cinematic innovation. It instead works as a canny hybrid that exemplifies the aesthetic syncretism of thoughtful adaptation.

Stage to Screen: The Form of Fences

Film adaptations of well-known novels or plays are always fraught enterprises. Very often, reviewers and audiences who know the source material watch such films with a fault-finding eye, most often on the lookout for perceived errors of interpretation or signs that the adaptors missed the point of the original, or were mistaken to have even tried to put it on film.4 A pair of reviews of Fences, each by an adroit, influential film critic, demonstrate a more specific, formal hurdle for stage-to-screen adaptations to clear: how to render effectively a play on film. First, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, for the AV Club, writes:

As a director, he [Washington] is at as his best when he’s at his stodgiest, using the camera only to position standing or sitting actors in relation to each other…it is the tumultuous second act that turns out to be the film’s stumbling block. The interiority of the source material would pose a challenge for most filmmakers, given that Wilson’s play is set entirely in the back yard of the Maxson house and is told in gaps; its key events happen off-stage, often involving characters who are never seen. The film script…doesn’t muck with the dialogue or add characters. Instead, it opts to break up scenes across multiple locations and to fill in points with brief wordless sequences or montages, ultimately betraying the stark and elliptical structure of the drama to which it tries to be so faithful. It dulls the tragic arc. It’s one of those cases where a stubbornly stagey adaptation would be more cinematic (Vishnevetsky).

Peter Bradshaw, for The Guardian, meanwhile offered this assessment:

I can’t help wondering how it would look if they decided to make an actual movie based on August Wilson’s stage play … instead of this impeccably respectful filmed record. How about if the drama ranged further afield, with new scenes at Troy’s workplace, Cory’s school, Lyons’s club, or within Rose’s own life – and scenes showing Troy’s other woman, who is an ostentatious stagey absence? Because it’s possible to admire the technique and the stagecraft and the poetry of the speeches while also feeling them to be perhaps too weighty (Bradshaw).

One critic craves a stage-adjacent aesthetic, while another longs for a thoroughly cinematic reimagining of material written for the stage. While Vishnevetsky’s critique is an outlier, it, put in conversation with the more common critical position articulated by Bradshaw, creates a useful framework within which to examine Washington’s film. Perhaps the confusion is not surprising. Washington made certain that Fences would be shot on 35mm film, as opposed to the now more common digital formats, a decision that accounts for the film’s rich color palette and “period” look, and that indicates, too, his plan to realize Wilson’s play with a classic, big screen aesthetic (Calhoun).  At the same time, the majority of the movie does take place, contra movie convention, in a single location, and one of its most striking features is its wordiness. Wilson’s screenplay is nearly verbatim from his 1983 play script, and so gives film actors the same long chunks of dialogue that are more common on the stage than on the screen. From different perspectives, then, both critics assert that on some level the Fences movie fails its source material because it is formally incoherent. I aim to explore the way the film delivers a powerful expression of Wilson’s socio-economic and personal themes through—not in spite of—its deliberately hybrid aesthetic.

As both Vishnevetsky and Bradshaw stress, there are fundamental differences in the representational tool kits of theater and cinema. Film, as Robert Stam puts it, is a “multitrack medium” that operates, usually simultaneously, through a variety of technologies that amplify and manipulate sight and sound for audiences, as opposed to, say, the novel or short fiction, which are “single track” media that depend solely on the written word to tell stories (Stam 56). The Venn Diagram one might make for film and theater is more filled in its overlapping portions than one based on film and prose fiction. Live theater obviously depends, like movies, on performances and on audio-visual presentation, often enhanced through artificial lighting and technologically-enhanced sound. But outside of those overlapping elements, theater and film still have their unique attributes (Bazin, Sontag, Desmond and Hawkes, Zatlin). Theater offers a type of corporeal, spatio-temporal specificity that film cannot, that special sense of “liveness” that comes from performers and audience members being in each other’s presence. Further, basic representational conventions and expectations differ widely from stage to screen. Simply stated, most theater audiences accept a static visual field and much more dialogue, including unnaturally long, mannered speechifying, while film audiences expect, in André Bazin’s words, a certain kind of “inalienable realism” from cinematic visual, as well as verbal, representation (Bazin 119). Film tends to emphasize the visual variety that cameras, shooting locations, and editing enable, with less emphasis on words alone to convey meaning. Even dialogue-heavy, non-action films still tend to frame conversations through the cinematic grammar of shot/reverse shot editing to give verbal exchanges a sense of dynamism.

Critics of stage-to-film projects have long diagnosed the failure of such adaptations as a failure to reframe theatrical material cinematically.  According to John Desmond and Peter Hawkes, a filmmaker must “open up” a play for the screen, or risk producing a stagnant, filmed play, rather than a film per se (Desmond and Hawkes 163). “Opening up” a play, they write, “refers to a number of strategies developed by adapters to transpose the story from stage to screen conventions.” These include techniques ranging from “filming settings only suggested in the drama” and “visualizing scenes only mentioned in the drama” to “visualizing literary symbols or motifs” and “using the camera and editing to move the story into cinema time and space” (Desmond and Hawkes 165-183). When Bradshaw calls Fences an “impeccably respectful filmed record,” then, he is claiming that Washington failed to open up the play. In his critique, “respectful” is evidently a polite synonym for unimaginative or timid, as Bradshaw suggests that Washington was too awed by—or, in another like-minded critic’s words, “in thrall to”—Wilson’s authorial vision to transform it into a cinematic one of his own (Gilbey).

Now, reviewers who critiqued the film’s theatricality cannot actually believe that the Fences movie is truly a “filmed record,” akin to, say, the type of recording of a single stage performance, made for educational or special broadcast purposes, created by London’s National Theatre and other stage venues.5 However rhetorical the characterization might be, though, such hyperbole erases the innumerable instances in which Washington employs the filmic techniques Desmond and Hawkes outline. For example, the closing shot of the breaking clouds in the sky “visualizes” the ambiguous, figurative language of the stage direction at the end of Wilson’s text (a direction that, incidentally, is no less challenging for theater artists to enact): “the gates of heaven stand open as wide as God’s closet” (Wilson 1986, 101). A scene not called for in the play is shot on location at the Alleghany County Courthouse. In a kind of cinematic ekphrasis, it features the Courthouse’s impressive WPA-era mural, which visualizes workers’ rights and dignity, as Troy waits to be called in to speak with a government supervisor regarding his complaint about discriminatory promotion practices within the Sanitation Department.6 A conversation between Troy and his friend Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson) late in the film is set at Taylor’s Bar, a location only mentioned in the play (see Figure 1). And most immediately for viewers, in the film’s first five minutes Washington resituates the geography and the rhythm of the play’s opening. In the play, an initial conversation between Troy and Bono takes place as one continuous dialogue in the Maxson yard. In the film, it takes place over the course of a workday in multiple locations. We see Troy and Bono working their route as garbage collectors on the streets of a realistically rendered 1957 Pittsburgh, replete with bustling pedestrians in period dress, amidst period cars and advertisements.7 They collect their pay from an administrative table back at the depot, stand outside the depot chatting, then walk back to the Maxson household while children play stickball on the street, a sequence that uses “the camera and editing to move the story into cinema time and space” (Desmond and Hawkes 183). Throughout Fences, there are many other such modulations of Wilson’s dialogue-driven play. It is true that these moments tend to be brief. But such irruptions of the filmic reward careful attention. They supplement Washington’s dedication to long, verbatim speeches from the play script and contextualize those speeches as coming from individuals who move about within a dynamic world that, the film reminds us, impinges on and shapes them.

The Art of Stage to Screen Adaptation in Denzel Washington’s Fences 
Brian Walsh,
 Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 1: Troy (Washington) and Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson) at Taylor’s Bar.

It is worth making two more preliminary points to frame my reading of Fences. First, the stakes of “fidelity,” a longstanding point of discussion in adaptation studies (e.g. Stam) are different when we are considering a literary property such as Fences. Mark Reid has demonstrated that the relationship between Hollywood studios and black artists has historically been “neocolonial” (Reid 46). Reid asserts that black-authored films produced by big studios (like the condition of governments in decolonized African nations in relation to their former colonizers) allowed visibility and some autonomy for black writers, actors, and eventually directors, but all within a larger framework in which the dominant culture, or the white status quo, still has final say on the most consequential matters (Reid 48). Reid’s argument is a bracing reminder that when evaluating a “black-authored film,” the “analysis must include descriptions of the industry” as well as of the film’s own story, aesthetics, and adaptation choices (49).  

The path of Fences from the stage to the screen was complicated by this neocolonial context.  Wilson was famously insistent that a film adaptation of Fences should be helmed by a black director. As Wilson wrote in 1990, when he made this request to members of the film industry who had expressed interest in adapting Fences, including at least one prominent African-American actor, he was “greeted by blank, vacant stares and the pious shaking of heads as if in response to my unfortunate naïveté” (Wilson 1990). Wilson goes on to explain why he wanted a director of color:

We [African-Americans] have a different way of responding to the world. We have different ideas about religion, different manners of social intercourse. We have different ideas about style, about language. We have different esthetics [sic]…Someone who does not share the specifics of a culture remains an outsider, no matter how astute a student or how well-meaning their intentions (Wilson 1990).

Washington, when promoting his film version before a town hall audience of mostly African-Americans, was asked to address the late Wilson’s desire for a black director, and his affiliation with that thinking in directing Fences:

It’s not color, it’s culture…Steven Spielberg did Schindler’s List. Martin Scorsese did Goodfellas, right? Steven Spielberg could direct Goodfellas. Martin Scorsese probably could have done a good job with Schindler’s List. But there are cultural differences. I know, you know, we all know what it is when a hot comb hits your head on a Sunday morning, what it smells like. That’s a cultural difference, not just color difference (“Denzel Washington on Why Fences Needed a Black Director”).

Much of the critical discourse on Washington’s fidelity has missed the all-important point that close adherence to Wilson’s play was one way for Washington to exercise power within the neocolonial context that still obtains in Hollywood productions of movies based on materials by black writers. By doing so, he is not allowing other, non-black interests to water down or generalize the specificity of the conflicts and struggles that Wilson depicted. Washington was able to make his film based almost exclusively on Wilson’s script and his own directorial innovations.8 The former makes fidelity a radical act, as it foregrounds the voice of the black artist rather than the desires of studio executives concerned with mass-market appeal; the latter opens a space for Washington to intertwine his own voice and artistic vision with Wilson’s, and thus amplify the film’s African-American perspective. My analysis in this article is mostly engaged with Washington’s aesthetic strategies. But, as I hope the details of my analysis will make evident, those strategies are themselves laden with political importance insofar as they maintain, and in some cases deepen, the lived, cultural knowledge of the African-American experience that Wilson, Washington, and the cast exhibit in Fences.

And the second preliminary point I want to make is to note that all film adaptations of literature—whether from the page to the screen or from the stage to the screen—involve re-mediation, as the medium of film interacts with and inevitably alters the source medium. As Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin write, remediation is the process by which new media refashion prior media forms” (Bolter and Grusin 273). Their work involves, and has inspired, a great deal of complex theorizing about adaptation, especially as regards how new digital media forms interact with each other and with more traditional genres (Rippl). In what follows, I prefer to lay stress on the more practical aspects of the “refashioning” that occurs in remediation, while keeping in mind Bolter and Grusin’s emphasis on the interaction of media forms in adaptation. My interest is in identifying and analyzing the specific, manifest choices Washington makes in order to remediate Wilson’s stage play as a film that, like a Russian doll, nests rather than truly hides its theatrical origins.

Inside and Out: Fences Beyond the Yard

Wilson’s precise and comprehensive stage directions and production notes locate the play’s action exclusively in the yard of the Maxson home. Each raucous story Troy tells, each new layer of information we learn about the family’s history and day to day life, each fresh confrontation, spanning eight years between the first scene and the last, takes place there, amid a fairly sparse backdrop. Wilson’s description of the home and yard emphasizes dilapidation: it is an “ancient two-story brick house” with a “wooden porch badly in need of paint.” On the porch sit “one or two chairs of dubious value” while in the yard “two oil drums serve as garbage receptacles” (Wilson 1986, v). Washington’s version of the yard follows these directions closely, from the shabby, makeshift furniture to the brickwork on the house that looks to be worse for wear.

But the yard is not, in the movie, the whole story of the family’s space. The film expands its domestic geography, although in subtle ways. Indeed, in her perceptive analysis of the film, Ina Archer has noted that “the filmmaking of Fences is accomplished and ‘classical’ in the sense that it is invisible” (Archer 3, emphasis mine). In what follows, I aim to make visible some of the techniques Washington employs to add cinematic texture, so unobtrusively, to the story Fences tells. Washington uses cinematography to relocate and re-signify some scenes from the yard to the interior of the Maxson household, a space the play never shows, to shed new light on aspects of their lives. An early instance occurs during one of Troy’s tall tales about an encounter with the devil. In the play, the entire first scene unfolds in the yard. Troy and Bono share a bottle of gin and engage in rowdy story-telling and chat, while Troy’s wife Rose enters and exits, occasionally joining in their talk. Troy’s adult son from a prior marriage, Lyons, enters the yard and asks to borrow ten dollars, which leads to Troy’s digression about his demonic meeting. In the film, Lyons (Russell Hornsby) enters through the front door of the house, giving us our first glimpse inside the home as he walks through a sitting room to the kitchen and eventually exits the house into the backyard to greet the others. This apparently trivial decision—having Lyons enter through the house rather than simply appear from the alleyway in the yard as the others talk—begins the process of bringing the full domestic space of the family into the view of the audience. When Lyons asks for the money, Washington’s Troy leads the way back into the house as he begins his story. The camera follows the men inside, past Rose (Viola Davis, in an Oscar-winning role) giving dynamic, three-dimensional depth to their environment, as they pass through a kitchen and dining room into a sitting room. Troy, sitting on a brown couch, then relates how he first came to purchase the furniture for his house, using credit, which, the story makes clear, is always a Faustian bargain (see Figure 2). 

The Art of Stage to Screen Adaptation in Denzel Washington’s Fences 
Brian Walsh,
 Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 2: The interior of the Maxson home: the parlor.

It is a significant choice to set this particular moment as the first interior scene of the film. While Troy’s point is to define the retail capitalist’s use of credit and interest as inherently infernal, his story also details a moment when he took a step toward something like attaining middle class status through purchasing a furniture package. In the play, his house furniture is the stuff of fable, for it exists only in the words of this story. It remains notional, or, perhaps, might be assumed to be “of dubious value” like the chairs outside in the yard. In contrast to the more ragged yard and porch accoutrements described in the stage directions and shown in the early shots in the film, our glimpse inside the Maxson house reveals a narrow, but still extraordinarily tidy, comfortable, and well-appointed space. The dining room has a neatly arranged table and chair set, a credenza adorned with carefully arranged framed photographs, and tasteful prints hanging on the walls.  The sitting room has a stylish mid-century modern sofa and set of chairs, and a fireplace mantle neatly decorated with knick-knacks. There is a small table with a lamp that Troy turns on to flood the room in warm light that accentuates the curtains, which match the couch and stand in contrast to the clean, light blue painted walls (see Figure 3).

The Art of Stage to Screen Adaptation in Denzel Washington’s Fences 
Brian Walsh,
 Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 3: The interior of the Maxson home: long shot of the dining room and kitchen viewed from within the parlor.

By bringing the camera out of the yard and giving us a rich visual sense of the appealing inside space of the house, Washington has “opened” the play’s setting, but for more than simply the sake of optical variety. Bazin argues that objects like furniture and other props on screen have a different signifying capacity than their stage equivalents. Even though in a movie, a couch is an image, unlike the actual couch one might see on a stage, “the décor that surrounds [the actor] is part of the solidity of the world” (Bazin 117). This is because on stage, in the live theater, audiences are more aware of the “wings,” from which the actors enter and exit, and thus more generally aware of the synthetic nature of props and the artifice that goes into putting a couch into a space contrived to look like a living area. Paradoxical as it sounds, film illusion gives décor like household furnishings greater “solidity.” Washington seizes on this fact to enrich Troy’s monologue so that it now highlights the family’s hard-earned comfort. The simple elegance of the house indicates, perhaps firstly, Rose’s domestic competence and care. But, more so than the play’s dialogue ever overtly indicates, it asserts, too, that the family enjoys a measure of relative stability and well-being, albeit one that is bracketed by the systematic racism and injustice that has restricted Troy’s opportunities. Compared with the stories of deprivation Troy alludes to from his own childhood in the south, of the early years of his marriage to Rose — “we ain’t had no yard!”—and that Bono tells of his own prior dwelling, “two rooms with the outhouse in the back,” the film’s depiction of the Maxson house vividly conveys its relative luxury (Wilson 1986, 7).  

This picture of the attainment of a modest version of the American dream gives way to something more complex in a key moment later in the film that Washington again inflects by bringing the camera outside of the back yard and porch area, first to a different exterior location, then back indoors. In the play, toward the end of Act 1, scene 2, we are introduced to Troy’s younger brother, Gabriel. Gabriel appears to be developmentally delayed throughout his first scene. He speaks in a childish cadence and believes himself to be his angelic namesake. While he ostensibly makes a living selling fruits and vegetables from an old basket he wears slung on his shoulder, he seems mainly to wander the streets blowing a trumpet, chasing imagined hellhounds and speaking of divine judgement. In the play’s script, he enters the yard, has a brief interaction with Rose, then Rose and Troy, then exits, singing his song about the judgement day. Rose and Troy discuss how Gabriel’s mental health issues are the direct result of a head injury he suffered during his service in World War II.9  In a conversation between Troy and Rose, we also learn that Troy had acted as Gabriel’s guardian while he was mentally unfit to manage his own affairs, and that Troy, in control of his brother’s finances, used a government disability payment to purchase their house.

Washington breaks up and relocates the action of this scene in some important ways. Instead of Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson) surreptitiously entering the yard, as in the play, here, Troy is in the backyard when we hear the sound of Gabriel loudly singing and shouting. Washington’s camera moves suddenly and quickly from the backyard, down a narrow alley between the Maxson house and a neighboring one, slightly ahead of Troy as he runs toward the street in apparent alarm. The quick camera movement creates an atmosphere of tension, and serves as a fraught transition from the private space of the backyard to the public area of the street facing the front yard. We see a group of children laughing and running alongside Gabriel. Although Gabriel seems happy with their company, Troy assumes the children are mocking him, and shouts at them to scatter, which they do. Washington’s Troy appears stricken with sorrow in a quick close up as he looks at his brother, standing in the street, oddly dressed, muttering to himself.

The Art of Stage to Screen Adaptation in Denzel Washington’s Fences 
Brian Walsh,
 Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 4: Troy tries to pull Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson) out from the middle of the street in the front of his house.

As the scene progresses, after Rose has come out and gone back inside, Gabriel stands in the middle of the street, initially seeming to be afraid of Troy, despite Troy’s calm pleas for him to move out of the street and come into the house (see Figure 4). The setting in front of the house, in the public street, emphasizes Gabriel’s vulnerability and Troy’s concern, concern that is mixed with embarrassment as he is aware of neighbors looking at them after Gabriel becomes agitated and experiences a kind of manic episode: he shouts and growls at imaginary hellhounds while Troy tries to physically pull him out of the street (see Figure 5). Gabriel eventually walks away, loudly singing about the judgment day, while Troy, seemingly deflated by the encounter, sits silently on the stoop under the staring eyes of some neighbors. In a moment that could only happen on screen, we see Gabriel receding in the distance of the city street, while, through a quick cut, we look at Troy’s sad reaction and listen to the dwindling sound of Gabriel’s manic song (see Figures 6-7). Washington and Williamson’s affecting performances lend the scene considerable power, but the whole sequence is inflected by Washington’s choice to move the action into the public area of a realistically rendered city neighborhood, and the directing choices that follow from that: close ups of Troy’s stricken face that alternate with wide shots of the street and surrounding houses, shaky, hand held camera coverage of the physical struggle between the brothers, quick cut edits that emphasize the staring eyes of the onlookers and neighbors who watch Gabriel’s breakdown and Troy’s simultaneous sorrow and shame over it, and Troy’s helplessness as Gabriel walks away down the street, away from the camera and away from Troy’s ability to protect and care for him.

The Art of Stage to Screen Adaptation in Denzel Washington’s Fences 
Brian Walsh,
 Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 5: Neighbors look on as Gabriel’s manic episode unfolds in the street in front of the Maxson home.

The Art of Stage to Screen Adaptation in Denzel Washington’s Fences 
Brian Walsh,
 Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 6: Long shot of Gabriel walking away on a realistically rendered, mid-century Pittsburgh street.

The Art of Stage to Screen Adaptation in Denzel Washington’s Fences 
Brian Walsh,
 Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 7: Close up of Troy as he watches Gabriel walk away.

Washington builds on the potent effect of this encounter with Gabriel in the film’s next scene by again moving into the house rather than to the backyard setting. He places the crucial backstory of how Gabriel’s condition provided the foundation for his home ownership inside the home itself. After a lingering a shot of a shaken Troy sitting in front of the house, he reenters and speaks with Rose in the kitchen. The interior of the home once again is portrayed as a cozy, orderly space, full of productive activity: Rose is in the middle of baking. The kitchen is bathed in warm light, adorned with simple, neatly arrayed necessities: coffee pot, cooking utensils, a can of baking grease, etc. Troy and Rose discuss the matter while Troy pours himself coffee (see Figure 8). Troy’s key lines, as he reflects on the fact that owning their home was only possible because of Gabriel’s infirmity, in the play script read: “If my bother didn’t have that metal plate in his head…I wouldn’t have a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of.  And I’m fifty-three years old. Now see if you can understand that!” (28). Washington’s voice throughout this scene gets lower and lower, until it is almost inaudible. Washington delivers the end of that speech in a rage filled whisper that peters out at “fifty…” before he simply stops, stands and walks into the dining room, struggling to contain his anger. He returns to kiss Rose and announces his intention to go to a local bar, again only able to half articulate his lines from the script while gesturing helplessly toward the front door. And finally, in one sensational action, uncalled for in the play script, he knocks, with a sudden, violent sweep of his arm, some pots and cans off the stove as he leaves.

The Art of Stage to Screen Adaptation in Denzel Washington’s Fences 
Brian Walsh,
 Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 8: Interior of the Maxson home: the kitchen, as Troy speaks with Rose (Viola Davis).

It is later that we learn that Troy was not merely going to Taylor’s Bar to watch a baseball game as he claimed, but that he was also going out to see his mistress, who will later become pregnant with his child. Taken as a sequence that begins when Troy first hears Gabriel from the backyard, these scenes emphasize the Maxson house’s full scale. We see its exterior from the backyard, from the side, and then from the front, before entering the interior. The sequence emphasizes the pathos of Gabriel’s condition, and then reveals the connection between that condition and the Maxson family’s piece of the American Dream. Superficially, the view of Troy and Rose chatting over coffee in their calm, inviting kitchen shows again Troy’s relative comfort, but the immediate circumstances of his encounter with Gabriel also reveal the contingency of that comfort. He is forced to feel his humiliation that he has not been able to earn his family’s little bit of prosperity despite his steady, hard work with the Sanitation Department, much less through his undervalued athletic talent. Washington’s gesture to disrupt the peace within the house and send cans flying is filmed in a master shot that allows us to see from Rose’s perspective a mess she’ll have to clean up as things rattle to the floor and Troy exits. Troy enacts a miniature destruction of the order and security he, in this moment, resents because he could not provide it solely on his own, even as he walks out to destroy his home in a more far reaching way through his affair (and Rose, in a way, must clean up after that as well when she agrees to raise the child the affair produces).  

These scenes demonstrate the myriad overt and subtle ways that Washington has reworked his theatrical material and rendered it in distinctly cinematic forms that convey the complexity of Troy’s character and his family’s precarious happiness. Troy’s resentment over being too old to play professional baseball by the time it racially integrated (Archer 34) and his struggle to force the Sanitation Department to consider Black workers for driver positions serve as reminders about the constricting environment of early and mid-twentieth century-America for the Maxsons and their community. Through moving the camera inside and outside the house, we see Troy in different settings enact some ways that such constriction has shaped his fluid persona: Troy as caring but intimidating brother’s keeper; Troy as alpha-male who can command any room he is in; Troy as stifled victim of economically humbling, systemic racism; Troy as a vulnerable husband who reflects on his frustration to his wife, and tenderly kisses her on his way out the door; Troy as a philandering spouse and a combustible, domestic tyrant.

The film has many other striking scenes where Washington uses the camera imaginatively to create moods and add texture. Another instance, late in the film, depicts a drunken Troy at perhaps his lowest moment. He has argued with and then wrestled his teenage son Corey (Jovan Adepo) to the ground and momentarily choked him with a baseball bat. After he releases Corey and the young man walks away from the house, perhaps for the last time in Troy’s lifetime (Corey joins the Army and only returns for Troy’s funeral years later), Troy stands unsteadily, talking to himself, before taking up the bat and assuming the stance that made him a formidable hitter in his playing days. Washington brings the camera close to his face and holds the shot for some forty seconds, with the edges of the frame slightly out of focus as he winds the bat around in circles and mutters self-aggrandizing words to himself in the wake of his shocking attack on his son. Washington presents the film’s protagonist—by turns a deeply charismatic and troubled man—as perhaps his ugliest version of himself here in an uncomfortably close, semi-distorted shot (see Figure 9). Audiences must at this moment confront Troy unflinchingly, virtually face to face, taking in the “crookeds and the straights” of his volatile character.

The Art of Stage to Screen Adaptation in Denzel Washington’s Fences 
Brian Walsh,
 Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 9: Distorted close up of a drunken Troy.

Montage and Interpolations 

Such moments refute the characterization of Fences as merely a “filmed record” of Wilson’s play. They are, though, relatively understated. The major, sustained cinematic irruption of Washington’s Fences is the montage sequence that occurs about an hour and twenty minutes into the film. It stands out as the most wide-ranging “un-theatrical” sequence in the film in terms of its representation of time and geography. Wordless additional scenes in screen adaptations of plays or novels, commonly called interpolations, can be a way to reduce the ambiguity of some aspect of the source material. This is often the case in film adaptations of Shakespeare plays. For instance, perpetual questions about the nature of Hamlet and Ophelia’s relationship are resolved, in one regard at least, in Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 film, where he invents flashback sequences of Hamlet and Ophelia having sex.10 But what is so striking about Washington’s interpolations in this montage is how much is still left unsaid, how many new questions are posed, even as seemingly significant things that are never mentioned in the play are shown here. The montage becomes a place for Washington to author, cinematically, some provocative and enriching additions to Wilson’s classic play. 

The montage sequence occurs just after the explosive scene in which Troy admits that he has had an affair, and that the woman is pregnant with his child. During his intense confrontation with Rose, Corey bounds out of the house to defend his mother and he and Troy nearly come to blows, prefiguring their more intense fight later on. As mother and son retreat into the house, an aerial, bird’s eye perspective shows Troy standing alone in the yard, and transitions into the montage, which lasts about three wordless minutes. It begins with Troy digging holes for the fence posts in the backyard, and moves to shots of Corey lifting weights in the basement, then to Rose sitting alone at the dining room table staring pensively into space, then to what is obviously Gabriel’s rented room somewhere in the neighborhood, but with Gabriel absent: we know it is his by the disordered pile of old trumpets and trumpet pieces that sit on the bed. There is no suggestion these shots are meant to convey a simultaneous vision of these characters or spaces. The montage gives an impressionistic tour of a six-month gap that is stated in the stage directions and implied in the dialogue of the play, moving from shots of the street, to slices of time in the backyard: leaves changing and falling, a close up of the baseball Troy keeps tied to a tree in the rain, and finally snow falling on the yard chairs.

We see Troy, now promoted to truck driver (he discusses elsewhere that this was an unsatisfying triumph over the system), driving through the city, and we see Rose looking out the kitchen window to see Troy again working on the fence after dark. Her face in this moment is inscrutable: does she watch her husband out of curiosity, with affection, or with apprehension? We also see Rose as she appears among a group of Black women, all in white gowns, apparently at some sort of baptismal ceremony in a church. Rose weeps as the women lay hands on her and appear to be singing and saying prayers. Has her pain at Troy’s betrayal sent her in search of spiritual comfort and a new community of female friends? Dialogue in the play indicates she has begun to spend a lot of time doing church activities after Troy’s affair is revealed, but these shots suggest without elaborating a new depth and intensity to her experience there.

The montage raises a number of other interpretive questions. In its most ambiguous section, Gabriel sits alone in a cemetery polishing a tombstone. The camera eventually reveals that the stone reads “Mother,” with birth and death dates. Gabriel seems content eating a sandwich, placing a small bit of on the edge of the grave marker as if to share it with the deceased. But whose mother is this? Troy and Gabriel’s? Or perhaps just Gabriel’s, implying they are half siblings? The two are from the deep south originally. Troy, in a harrowing monologue earlier in the film (which I will discuss below), speaks of how his mother had abandoned the family when he was eight, never to be seen again, and how he himself left his birthplace in the south at the age of 14, eventually making his way to Pittsburgh. The film is possibly implying that their mother, or, perhaps, just Gabriel’s if they are half-siblings, migrated to Pittsburgh at some point to, and died and was buried there. But this is not made clear, and it seems an unlikely thing for the film to try to convey. It seems much more probable that we are supposed to believe that Gabriel has simply been able to find ease in the grave stone’s comforting moniker because it is generic: “Mother.” In any case, the mystery of Gabriel’s inner life, and how he spends his time when not at Troy’s house, is deepened a bit in these moments.  

There is a cut from the shot of Gabriel at the grave to one of Troy, sitting in the parked truck and staring out the driver-side window. Is he watching Gabriel, or are the scenes disconnected? A definitive answer to whether Troy is actively tracking Gabriel’s wanderings or whether the brothers’ solitary moments are merely parallel experiences might shed more light on Troy’s relationship to Gabriel as Gabriel spirals into a worse state of illness in the play’s second half, but the film leaves this crucial question unclear. 

Little Jimmy Scott’s rendition of “Day by Day” plays over the sequence. This is the most noticeable appearance of soundtrack music in the film.11 The song is an achingly lovely ballad about devotion: “I'm yours alone, and I'm in love to stay / As we go through the years day by day.” The song’s lyrics work in interesting tension with the context of the montage. The emphasis on the words “day by day” aligns with the visual motif of change and time progressing that the images reveal, but the rest of the sentiments stand in ironic juxtaposition with the news of Troy’s betrayal that preceded the montage, and the scenes of marital and familial alienation the sequence depicts.

Perhaps the boldest addition to the play’s script is another wordless scene that occurs a bit later, just after Rose confronts Troy about, among other things, whether he has signed Gabriel into an institution so that he could collect more of Gabriel’s government disability money for himself. Troy adamantly denies doing this, an accusation that neither the play nor the film ever resolves definitively. In the next scene in the film, though, one that is wholly unprecedented in the play, we see Troy tenderly feeding Gabriel some kind of porridge with a spoon, in an institutional setting. The scene includes a playful moment when Gabriel points at Troy to try the food himself which he does, prompting Gabriel to laugh. Gabriel looks more disconnected from reality than previously, and, his formerly ubiquitous hat removed, a visible scar on his head serves as a vivid reminder of his traumatic brain injury. The scene again prompts rather than answers questions: had Troy seen signs that Gabriel was getting worse, and thus had him hospitalized for his protection? Is he here now out of guilt, prompted by Rose’s accusation that he seeks to profit off of Gabriel’s institutionalization? Or does his presence as caretaker here indicate a selfless regard for his brother independent of Rose’s allegation? Because nothing like this scene occurs in or is suggested in the play, it also prompts a poignant question the play never does: if, regardless of the reason, Troy is capable of so tenderly nurturing his brother this way, why is he incapable of doing anything that would be appropriately comparable for his own children? The question becomes urgent in the choking scene with Corey that follows soon after this one in the hospital. Troy’s search for peace and vindication is haunted by the racism that kept him out of professional baseball despite his talent, and that unavoidably continues to shadow his whole existence. Wilson’s play is clear that this legacy is a context, if not exactly a reprieve from accountability for, some of his own bad choices, such as the botched robbery and manslaughter he committed as a youth, for which he served time in prison, his coldness toward Corey and skepticism toward Lyons, and his family-wrecking affair. Washington’s montage and other interpolated scenes, such as a few never explained shots of Troy gazing up at a dilapidated house with a broken window in the yard next to his, expand the complexity and ambiguities of Troy’ inner life and his existential struggles. 

Cinematic Inflections of the Theatrical

To argue, as I have been doing, that Washington has decidedly “opened up” the play to cinema time and space, and modulated it through cinematic technique, is not to ignore the fact that the film is more “theatrical” than the average motion picture. It is irrefutable that the majority of the film is anchored in one spot, the Maxson yard, theater-style; and it is irrefutable that, for extended stretches of the movie’s running time, Washington has preserved the rhythms of Wilson’s voluminous dialogue, as the characters deliver long speeches, largely verbatim from the play’s text. But even in sequences that seem, superficially, theatrical, we can glimpse subtle cinematic modulations at work.

A scene in which Troy details his early life and the incident with his father that prompted him to leave home and head north at age 14 is an example of this. The film leaves it in the backyard, rooted in its theatrical setting. Troy is speaking with Bono and Lyons. As they discuss the question of paternal responsibility and absent parents, Troy tells about his own father. We learn that, as a teenager in Alabama, Troy had snuck off from his chores to engage in sexual play with a thirteen-year-old neighbor girl; his father finds them and begins to whip Troy with leather mule straps. The confrontation escalates and the father beats the boy unconscious. Washington delivers this speech nearly verbatim from the play, where it takes up an uninterrupted page and half in the printed text, nearly fifty lines of dialogue, with two stage directions for pauses (Wilson 1986, 52-53).

The scene is ripe for an interpolation. One can easily imagine many filmmakers choosing here to show, perhaps impressionistically, an enactment of the violent scene accompanied by Washington’s words as voice over. But Washington affirms here his ultimate commitment to a “stagey-ness” at the heart of his film adaptation.  He obviously believes not only in the compelling nature of Wilson’s language, but also in the power of his own delivery of it to keep audiences engaged. A cynic might regard this as merely an egotist’s desire for screen time, but the point can be extended to the other actors who get to deliver their lines similarly, most prominently Davis and her electrifying rendering of the speech that begins with her emphatic declaration, in response to Troy’s excuse for his affair being that he felt that he was “standing in the same place for eighteen years,” that “I been standing with you!”

Troy’s story about his father is not filmed statically, though, either as a pure close up of Troy or a theatrical master shot. It lasts almost three minutes in the film, divided into about fifteen separate shots, some masters of the three men, mixed with close reaction shots of Troy’s auditors. One especially meaningful cut away is a close up of Lyons registering his shock when Troy reveals the turning point of the story, which is also a turning point in his life: Troy’s father, having interrupted the sexual liaison between the adolescents, attempts to chase Troy away so he “could have the gal for himself.” As Troy continues to tell of his father’s fury when the boy attempted to fight his father off, the camera lingers on Troy for the final minute of the speech, slowly pushing in to a tight close up of Troy, eyes closed, reciting how his fourteen-year old self woke up from his beating, his eyes swollen shut, and resolved then “to leave my daddy’s house.” The scene unfolds in the the theatrical time scale of a long, uninterrupted speech delivered by a single character, but it is subtly filmed and edited to create a different, filmic rhythm within that theatrical time scale. The weight of the speech is great on its own, but its affect is enhanced by, for instance, the brief cut from Troy to Lyons that allows audiences to take in the speech’s impact on Lyons, who is suddenly made aware, for the first time, of the depth of his father’s own childhood trauma.

This sequence exemplifies my larger point that Fences is neither too rooted in the stage, as many critics complained, nor distractingly cinematic, as at least one commentator claimed, but is instead a beguiling hybrid of those aesthetic forms. Washington’s adaptation strategy is syncretistic, so that the most distinctive feature of Wilson’s stage version of Fences, its densely layered, demotic-poetic verbal energy, here dynamically interacts with the cinematic elements that Washington’s camera, almost “invisibly,” limns. The film’s cinematographer, Charlotte Bruus Christensen, tellingly reports that, alongside preferring 35mm film, Washington was insistent that she shoot the film using anamorphic lenses (Calhoun). This is a seemingly counter intuitive decision for a film that is restricted to mainly small spaces, given that such lenses are generally preferred for the wider field of vision they provide. Indeed, these lenses were first popularized in Hollywood as a way to differentiate the look cinema could offer from the rising popularity of television in the post-World War II era (Malkiewicz and Mullen 17-18, “History of Film”). Washington explained to Christensen that the anamorphic is an “actor’s lens” because, as an axis lens, it ultimately allows for a distinctive focus on the actor’s face (Calhoun, Desowitz). This seeming paradox—the wide lens that is also good for capturing actors delivering their lines—showcases Washington’s strategy in a nutshell. He guides his director of photography to employ a distinctly “cinematic” lens because it will highlight the actors’ faces and thus foreground the unfiltered, theatrically-sourced dialogue those faces deliver.


Victoria Lowe has recently argued “that the movement between stage and screen is not simply a transposition of one medial event within another medial framework but a socially and culturally charged space in which media are in constant and dynamic exchange” (Lowe 101). I have argued that this kind of exchange is on display in the film of Fences. Lowe’s insight resonates with Bolter and Grusin’s concept of remediation, which, as I noted above, accounts for how “new media refashion prior media forms.” Washington refashions elements of his theatrical source material through cinematic techniques when he brings certain scenes indoors, and when he moves a key scene such as Troy’s interaction with Gabriel from the secluded backyard space to the street in front of the house. Those scenes are further inflected as filmic through conventional film techniques such as close-ups and through editing that creates quick shifts in perspective, moves that alternate with, and within, moments that unfold in a more theatrical style via a long take master shot, as when Troy struggles with his rage over the fact that he profited from Gabriel’s injury and storms out of the kitchen. The cinematic elements enrich, and are enriched by, Wilson’s verbal artistry insofar as they add poignancy to what the play’s language conveys: there is a larger world of possibility and growth that is only fitfully available, or more often tantalizingly out of reach, for these characters, who are hemmed in by the systemic racism, oppressive gender expectations, and cycles of abuse that Wilson exposes throughout Fences. Washington’s adaptation concept enacts the central metaphor of the play’s title by allowing audiences brief, fleeting glimpses of the world just beyond the literal and symbolic fences that Troy, Rose, Cory, Gabriel, Lyons, and Bono can never surmount (Archer 34). Washington’s choices amplify Wilson’s urgent message about the legacy of enslavement and oppression in the United States, and its impact on individual psyches, interpersonal relationships, and on the availability of the American Dream to perpetually disenfranchised communities. His remediation of Wilson’s work also injects further complexity into the world of ideas and problems that Fences holds up for scrutiny, through ambiguous moments in the montage sequence and elsewhere that raise new questions about how we can understand Troy, his family, and his community’s struggles. Neither “crooked” nor “straight,” Washington’s Fences exemplifies the artful hybridity that animates all compelling adaptations.


1  Troy speaks these words to his younger son Cory. After Troy’s death, his older son, Lyons, quotes them as a well-worn paternal saying, 94.

2  August Wilson is credited as the screenwriter of Fences, based on his own play, although Wilson died in 2005, a decade before the film was made and released. Tony Kushner was reportedly hired as a consultant on structural aspects of the screenplay, but he did not add any dialogue (Zeitchik, “Adapting August Wilson”; see below for the single line that Washington did add to Wilson’s dialogue). For the purposes of this essay, I implicitly credit Washington as the “author” of the film, and thus ascribe the filmmaking decisions I examine to him. Films are, obviously, always collaborative, and surely Washington’s powerhouse cast and distinguished crew—including cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen—also deserve credit for the finished product, along with, of course, Wilson himself.

3  Fences was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Viola Davis won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her performance as Rose Maxson. For reviewers that critiqued it as an inconsistent or even failed adaptation, see, for instance, Bradshaw, Brody, Gilbey, Mulvihill, Ross, and Vishnevetsky.

4  This concern with “fidelity” has been discussed exhaustively in adaptation studies. For an early argument against using fidelity as an evaluative criterion, see Andrew, “The Well-Worn Muse,” and for a recent one that attempts to recuperate the idea, see Hermansson, “Flogging Fidelity.” See also Thomas Leitch, “Mind the Gaps,” for an overview of various types of audience expectations when watching film adaptations.

5  See Hitchman, “From Page to Stage to Screen” for a consideration of the particular formal elements and aesthetics of that type of filmed theater.  

6  This moment includes what was reportedly the only line added to Wilson’s play script, “Mr. Maxson, the Commissioner will see you now” (Zeitchik, “Adapting August Wilson”).

7  Ina F. Archer compares these street scenes to the work of “Charles ‘Teenie’ Harris, the African-American Hill District photographer whose work comprises a rare archive of images of the social world of Pittsburgh’s black communities,” “Giving Us Life,” 34.

8  Although see note 2, above, regarding Tony Kushner’s involvement as a consultant on the screenplay.

9  Audiences learn this retroactive to “meeting” Gabriel; however, in the printed play, the stage directions inform readers of his war injury before his first lines of dialogue.  See Wilson 1986, 24.

10 On interpolations in Hamlet, see Monique Pittman, "A Son Less Than Kind.”

11 On the sparse soundtrack, see Daniel Schweiger, “Interview with Marcelo Zarvos.”


I am grateful for the helpful comments on this article provided by an anonymous peer-reviewer for LFQ

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