Film historians have noted the close links between theatrical melodrama of the late nineteenth century and the techniques and narrative structure of early film—in content and elaborate lighting and stage effects. The obvious similarities between a play and a film—in overall length, use of sets, the apparent realism of character and dialogue—have obscured the very real differences. Stage dialogue can sound artificial and tedious when transferred directly to the more naturalistic medium of film, and, as with fiction, a successful adaptation has to be thoroughly rethought in terms of the new, primarily visual, medium of cinema. While the faults of mechanically adapted "filmed theater" are usually obvious, there is equal danger in attempts to "open out" a play by transferring interior scenes into exotic outdoor locations and hoping that will somehow make the work more cinematic. Some sort of balance between stage and film effects is therefore essential. Sidney Lumet's (b. 1924) filming of Eugene O'Neill's (1888–1953) Long Day's Journey into Night (1962) achieves its claustrophobic effect by respecting the spatial limitations of the stage while transforming it through skillful use of camera movement and lighting, and by varying screen space and distance for dramatic effect.
Shakespeare has been by far the most adapted playwright worldwide, even in the silent period, when extracts and condensed versions of his plays proliferated in most European countries as well as in Britain and the United States. The coming of sound brought the inevitable problem of how to make poetic dialogue convincing in the more naturalistic medium of film. It is often argued that the finest of all Shakespeare films is Kurosawa's 1957 Kumonosu jô (Throne of Blood), which is based on Macbeth. It retains almost nothing of the dialogue, even in Japanese, while majestically transforming theme, emotion, and imagery into purely visual terms, with Macbeth constantly surrounded by images of fog, nets, and labyrinths. Though Grigori Kozintsev's (1905–1973) Gamlet (Hamlet, 1964) and Korol Lir (King Lear, 1970) use Boris Pasternak's (1890–1960) translation of the plays, the non-Russian–speaking viewer, forced to rely on subtitles, can perhaps appreciate better the stark black-and-white imagery of the films.
The most admired English-language versions usually attempt a compromise between stylization and naturalism, both in speech and action; for example, Laurence Olivier used the confined space of the castle set in Hamlet (1948) and allowed the camera full rein in the battle scenes of Henry V (1944). Polanski's Macbeth (1971) accentuates the physical violence inherent in the play, and Orson Welles (1915–1985) brings his own superb visual sense to his Othello (1952) and Campanadas a medianoche (Chimes at Midnight, 1967, based on the Henry IV plays) without neglecting the spoken word. Examples of more radical transformations are the updating of Romeo and Juliet by Baz Luhrmann (1996) and the intensely personal re-creations of The Tempest (1979) by Derek Jarman (1942–1994) and Peter Greenaway (b. 1942) (as Prospero's Books, 1990). Kenneth Branagh (b. 1960), in seemingly open competition with Olivier, has filmed an uncut Hamlet (1996) and an impressive Henry V (1989), among others.
The most often filmed English dramatists after Shakespeare have been George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950), Noel Coward (1899–1973), Terence Rattigan (1911–1977), and Oscar Wilde (1856–1900). In most cases the results have been respectful and moderately faithful rather than inspired (though the 1928 film of Coward's The Vortex and the 1933 Design for Living had to be drastically altered to escape the censors). Anthony Asquith's (1902–1968) 1952 film of The Importance of Being Earnest still far surpasses later versions of Wilde, both as a film and as an adaptation, and both versions of Rattigan's The Browning Version (1951, 1994) and The Winslow Boy (1948, 1999) remain popular.
Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams (1911–1983), Arthur Miller (1915–2005), Clifford Odets (1906–1963), and Lillian Hellman (1906–1984) are among the most frequently adapted American playwrights, though, with Williams in particular, contentious subject matter has often forced major alterations between stage and screen. A Streetcar Named Desire, directed by Elia Kazan in 1951, remains the classic transformation of his work. Apart from the version of Long Day's Journey into Night, the best O'Neill adaptation has been John Frankenheimer's (1930–2002) The Iceman Cometh (1975). Hellman's The Little Foxes (1941) became a classic film through William Wyler, but Clash by Night (1952) and The Big Knife (1955) are largely rewritten versions of Odets. Perhaps the most interesting film based on Arthur Miller's work is Sorcières de Salem (TheWitches of Salem, 1957), from The Crucible, with a script by Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980).
In Europe, Henrik Ibsen (1828–1906), August Strindberg (1849–1912), and Anton Chekov (1860–1904) have often been adapted. The 1951 Fröken Julie (Miss Julie), directed by Alf Sjöberg (1903–1980), is still the best Strindberg, but few of the English-language films of Ibsen and Chekov have been particularly successful. Jean Renoir (Les bas-fonds, 1936) and Akira Kurosawa (Donzoko, 1957) made very different but equally fascinating films of Maxim Gorky's (1868–1936) The Lower Depths.