What should and should not be adapted

By its very nature, theater requires a suspension of disbelief. Often sets and costumes are minimized because of budget constraints or aesthetic choice, and there’s an understanding that audience members will fill in the gaps with their imagination. Also, depending on the ambition of the script, it’s impossible to construct fully immersive sets for every location visited, and shortcuts are often taken to imply a change of scene. 

Shakespeare, for example, often had characters announce where they were at the beginning of a scene, or they might mention how dark and ominous the forest is, which lets the audience know where things stand.

Some plays lend themselves well to film adaptations in which these limits don’t exist. Les Misérables, with its dramatically different set pieces that take us all over France, works very well as a film. Les Mis is also about a violent revolution, and being able to realistically capture that violence is to the adaptation’s advantage. 

Some pieces, however, don’t stand up as strong candidates for realistic adaptations, and some – even worse – completely come apart at the seams.

CATS can be a tough pill to swallow even for seasoned theater lovers, and in fact, it’s often held up as the prime example of bad musical theater when the genre is spoofed in popular culture. I struggle with it enough on stage, where it’s at its best, so I was not optimistic going into the 2019 film adaptation – and that was before the critical reception absolutely lampooned it.

A brief preface: In 1931, T.S. Eliot wrote a book of silly poems about cats, and for some reason, in 1981, Andrew Lloyd Webber thought it would make an excellent musical. It seems Webber was at least somewhat correct because CATS stands as the fourth-longest-running Broadway musical of all time. 

The most challenging problem to solve on stage is that all of the characters are cats, and to solve this, some basic concessions are made.

First off, people aren’t cats, so the hair, makeup and costuming have to come together to make the actors look like cats. (I know this is basic stuff, but when we get to the film version, you’ll understand how the adaptation fails at even the fundamentals.) The thing is, the audience knows that people aren’t cats, no matter what those people are wearing, so the designers were free to play with the designs in a crucially important way. 

CATS premiered in 1981, so bands such as KISS were still very popular, and the world was right in the middle of the ’80s hair metal explosion. So, if you look at the hair and costuming of the original CATS production, it’s easy to imagine Gene Simmons walking on stage in his KISS outfit, and no one would bat an eye. With that cultural touchstone in place, the aesthetic of CATS worked really well when it premiered. 

In contrast, the 2019 film adaptation considered that same challenge and went in a different direction. Rather than seeing the impossible task of making people look like convincing felines as an opportunity to home in on a radical aesthetic, director Tom Hooper instead took the Les Mis approach of heightened realism and created something akin to Lovecraftian cat monsters that did not stop surprising – and horrifying – me for the entire movie

I expected to get used to the jarring computer-generated imagery (CGI) with time and exposure, but unfortunately, that was not the case. It would be one thing if the aesthetic were uniform and I just didn’t happen to like it – because then maybe I would have stopped noticing it – but any rhyme or reason was constantly interrupted as new characters were introduced.

Some cats were all fur, which made sense because real cats don’t wear clothes. Some cats such as James Corden’s Bustopher Jones had patterns and coloring that suggested clothing – in his case, a bow tie and white waistcoat – but then that cat put on a bow tie and white waistcoat, so why did he have that coloring in the first place?

Other cats wore fur coats to suggest a plumpness to their fur, but then Jennyanydots – played by Rebel Wilson, who wore only a collar – unzipped her fur to reveal clothing underneath. The horror was inescapable.

I could go on about the cat monsters, but there are two other important issues with adapting a play that relies so heavily on the audience’s imagination that we should discuss. 

The set design for CATS on Broadway is simple but effective. In practice, it’s a jungle gym of bars, platforms and holes that the cast members can use to fling themselves across the stage in interesting ways. Upon closer inspection, you realize it’s a junkyard that’s in proportion to the cats. For instance, one of the major platforms on stage is an oversized tire, and you can see huge license plates littering the floor. This aesthetic helps to strengthen the concept that you’re looking at real cats while still being vague enough not to force you to ponder further implications. 

On screen, we’re treated to fully realized recreations of the London streets, blown up to massive proportions. Now that we see the cat monsters living in the real world, suddenly we have to consider that they roam among people. What do the people look like? Imagine a giant human stroking Idris Elba’s fur. Now remember that Idris Alba’s cat is wearing a trench coat and hat, and the mind reels.

One brief but important tangent regarding the world: During the end of the movie, the cast is perched atop giant lion statues, but the lions are real-world lions, not humanoid cat creatures. Why are the lions lions, but the cats monsters? I digress.

Finally we get to the last fundamental flaw in adapting CATS for the cinema: the story line. CATS is loosely based on a collection of whimsical poems, not an epic fantasy. The world of the play is fancifully composed of gibberish words such as “jellicle,” and the main objective of the story is to ascend to the Heaviside Layer, which is an allegory for death and rebirth. 

If I had to give an honest synopsis of the plot, though, I wouldn’t even mention those things. I would just say, “Look at the silly cats” because that’s really the main through line here. Tom Hooper decided there was enough of a thread connecting each vignette in the original that he could string together a cohesive plotline. 

The problem inherent with that line of reasoning is simple: As soon as you construct a narrative, we have to take it seriously, and I cannot, even for a moment, take Judi Dench seriously when she’s wearing a full-body fur suit, and they didn’t even CGI her wedding ring off her hand.

I’ll end with a positive thing about the film: Gus the Theatre Cat’s scene, performed by Ian McKellen, was very well done, and it’s the closest the film got to nailing the experience from the stage version. I don’t recommend watching CATS, but checking out that piece online is worth a few minutes of your time. 

All of this is to say that theater is an interpretive medium. A stage play can never fully immerse you in the realism of the world, but all good plays immerse you in the heart of the performance. You might think that the more fantastical the play, the better candidate it is for a film adaptation, but clearly that’s not always the case. Sometimes the details are best left to our imagination.