True Power: Hopes and Reservations for the Adaptation of The Normal Heart

by: Riley Thomas 

The power of The Normal Heart as a play is unquestionable.  Larry Kramer’s magnum opus is the true story that chronicles the emergence of HIV/AIDS and the founding of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, one of the world’s largest service providers to those living with the disease.  The play is a thrilling experience to witness – one of those rare pieces that is a fantastic drama but also carries an important message.  Fresh from its Broadway revival, The Normal Heart is slated to run as a TV movie sometime in 2014.  While this enables it to reach a wider audience, the creative artists are going to have to turn out the most inspired storytelling of their careers if they hope to create a truly successful product.

Ironically, work that is powerful on stage isn’t often powerful on screen.  To combat this, stage to screen adaptations must retain the integrity of the original work.  In the cast of The Normal Heart, minimalism and simplicity are the hallmarks of its power.  Subtle and nuanced performances underscored by the passionate oratory of the script are what make it sizzle.  The actors must connect with the audience until performer and viewer alike are trapped in an exhilarating loop of ascending intensity – until the audience is blown away by the potent sweeping emotion of this terrifying journey.  Haphazardly constructing a TV movie version like it’s some episode of Grey’s Anatomy is foolish.

Adapting a piece for television usually translates to watering down controversial aspects and removing offensive or difficult subject matter.  Unfortunately these traits are exactly what make The Normal Heart such a powerful piece, and if they are abandoned or truncated to make the piece more palatable, then this adaptation may as well not even exist.

Together, producers Ryan Murphy and Dante Di Loreto have brought us Glee, American Horror Story and The New Normal, three of the more successful television shows (in terms of ratings) that have graced the small screen in the last decade.  Murphy also helmed the devilishly delightful Nip/Tuck a few years back, as well as films like Eat Pray Love and Running with Scissors.  Di Loreto is also known for another stage to screen adaptation – Charles Busch’s Die, Mommie, Die!  While the artistic success of these pieces is up for debate, it’s no question that The Normal Heart absconds the gimmicks, gaudiness and frivolity that these other pieces of work embrace.  Murphy and Di Loreto are going to have to come out of their wheelhouse to appropriately develop The Normal Heart.  They can’t rely on tricks.

In an interesting twist, the third producer on the TV adaptation is none other than Brad Pitt.  Though his respectable list of producing credits includes films like Moneyball, A Mighty Heart and The Departed, it’s littered with films like Kick-Ass, World War Z and Year of the Dog.  It’s difficult to assess how his input will influence the movie, especially considering that his only notable successes have been in conjunction with powerhouses like Martin Scorsese, Aaron Sorkin and Scott Rudin.

The reason producers bear responsibility for the success of a project is because they must bring all aspects of the production together – every decision begins and ends with them.  In this case, Murphy has selected himself to direct, which means that in addition to the danger of stretching himself too thin, his vision will be unfiltered.  Single-handedly steering a project can be a huge advantage (demonstrated by Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing) or it can be a massive mistake (as evidenced by Theresa Rebeck’s Smash), but it is a risky endeavor either way.  Murphy has never ventured into that territory with this kind of material.  Developing The Normal Heart with the same production model as Glee will not access what The Normal Heart has to offer.  Murphy must channel a vision that serves the naked passion of the piece without obscuring it with production value.

The cast fosters some concern as well.  Mark Ruffalo takes up the lead character of Ned Weeks (played astonishingly well in the revival by Joe Mantello) and must become the relentless force that drives the action.  There’s no denying Ruffalo has a wonderfully watchable quality, but the everyman he often plays in his films will not suffice – Ned Weeks is larger than that.  Kramer has written a character that personifies the collective rage of an entire community, and Ruffalo will have to dig deeper than he ever has to embody the panic, vehemence and determination that define the character.  If viewers can’t get on board with Ned Weeks, there’s no reason to watch.

The supporting cast includes Julia Roberts, Matt Bomer, Jim Parsons, Taylor Kitsch, and it is rumored at this moment to include Alec Baldwin.  Jim Parsons reprises the role he played expertly in the revival, and Alec Baldwin’s body of work has sufficiently demonstrated his ability so that his casting as Ned’s brother Ben is safe, but the rest of the lineup is as suspect as Ruffalo.  Roberts’ character Emma is essentially the female version of Ned, so Roberts’ inclination to rely on her movie star status to get audiences to forgive her for turning in an ordinary performance will be a massive disservice to The Normal Heart.  Kramer gives each character a chance to move the audience, so Roberts, Bomer and Kitsch must engage atrophied acting muscles to capitalize on those opportunities.

The Normal Heart is not for everyone.  It’s intense and difficult.  Adapting it for television is an admirable and bold move when HIV/AIDS is not in the forefront of many people’s minds, and widely considered to be a “manageable” affliction.  There is a necessary message in the piece – one that hopes to reinvigorate the populace to action – and the producers should be lauded for bringing it to the American people.  If they manage to keep the essence of the piece in tact – the simplicity, the fearlessness, the edge – then it will surely be a successful venture.  If, however, they Hollywoodize it by infusing it with flashiness and succumbing to the pressures of focus groups, this adaptation of The Normal Heart will fall into obscurity like so many other made-for-TV movies.

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3 responses to “True Power: Hopes and Reservations for the Adaptation of The Normal Heart

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