Earlier this year, video essayist Lindsay Ellis uploaded a dissection of the 2019 film adaptation of Cats. Cats is a cinematic monstrosity that has to be seen to be believed, and Ellis’s video seeks to figure out why. Cats (2019) is awful in ways both rooted in the source material – the whole thing is basically a succession of cats walking into frame and singing a song about what kind of cat they are – and entirely its own – the uncanny valley visual effects make the cats somewhere unsettling between human and cat – but Ellis places a lot of the blame on the tricky business of moving from stage to screen.
“Some musicals – not all, but most of them – require a visual medium that jives with the way the musical itself is constructed. Les Misérables was constructed for the stage. Cats was constructed for the stage,” Ellis says, citing the way actors on stage frequently pantomime props or sets that aren’t there, “That is the thing about theatre… it is constructed so that the audience has to imagine what’s going on in the story. Overcoming that suspension of disbelief is built into the design of the medium in a way that it is not with film.”
These ideas about the film musical – that the suspension of disbelief required for musicals as a genre is at odds with film as a medium, or that the process of adaptation from stage musical to film is a particularly and perhaps uniquely fraught one – are really common. People talk about film musicals as particularly difficult to pull off in ways they don’t about pretty much any other genre. “The genre’s lack of realism and inherent camp” is “alienating for modern audiences”, according to Film School Rejects. Ellis basically concludes that film adaptations of stage musicals are totally unnecessary, at least outside of animation. Musicals as a form are naturally suited to theatre in ways they’re just not suited to film, is the point. But all of this is bizarre: it sounds hypothetically plausible, but isn’t at all borne out by the evidence of nearly a century of movie musicals.
I wish I could throw the words “suspension of disbelief” in the bin forever. To the extent that it is ever a helpful way to conceptualise the reader or audience’s relationship to fiction, it is treated way too often as the only way to conceptualise that relationship, as if suspension of disbelief is a basic requirement of a work of fiction being successful. As if a reader or audience suspending their disbelief is synonymous with their engaging with a work meaningfully at all. This is blatantly untrue more often than not, yet it’s still treated like a blanket rule.
The thing about suspension of disbelief is that no-one ever actually suspends their belief, not totally. Even in grounded, realistic works, I don’t ever forget that what I am watching or reading isn’t real. Ellis talks about how when you watch a play, you can see the sets and the stage and the curtain, and so suspension of disbelief is baked into the medium. But when you watch a film, you see the edge of the screen and the room around you, you remain a body that exists outside of the film, that’s drinking a Coke and might need to get up to go to the bathroom. As philosopher Kendall Walton points out, if viewers actually accepted what they’re seeing as real, they would call the police when they witness an on-screen murder. That’s a little glib, maybe, but it illustrates a central problem with taking the idea of suspension of disbelief as an inherent part of the reader or audience’s relationship to fiction. It is such a clumsy attempt to describe reality that taking its implications to their natural endpoint lands you in a place a million miles from what you were attempting to describe.
JRR Tolkien was a little closer to the mark when he wrote that stories required secondary belief, with an internally consistent fictional world allowing the reader to accept the story as true within the secondary reality of that world. But that’s still a little neat and tidy. The idea of “believing” in a fictional story is just a shorthand for the complex and varied processes by which we engage emotionally and intellectually with things we know aren’t real. But it’s a shorthand that’s so pervasive that it can distort how we think about fiction. And the emphasis on suspension of disbelief especially distorts thinking about musicals.
The idea that it is hard for audiences to engage with film musicals is easily refuted by the long-lasting popularity of film musicals. It hasn’t been consistent popularity – the booms and busts from the 1960s onward are easily delineated, usually following some notable hit or flop – but the musical has never really gone away. Westerns were the backbone of popular cinema and television for decades before petering out into nothing: only a vanishingly small number of westerns get made any more, and none of them are big box office hits. But film musicals just keeping trucking along: sometimes quietly, sometimes loudly, but never going silent altogether.
The suspension of disbelief problem is usually framed as a problem that modern audiences have, thanks to the expectations created by the increased realism of film in general. (Realism hasn’t stopped them from enjoying superhero movies, though.) Yet if modern audiences find musicals alienating – that characters bursting into song is just too jarring to overcome – it’s pretty strange to think how many musicals have become big box office hits with modern audiences, from award darlings like La La Land or A Star Is Born to crowd-pleasing popcorn fare like The Greatest Showman or the Mamma Mia films to biopics like Rocketman to Disney’s live action adaptations of its animated back catalogue. If it’s true that some modern audiences are alienated by film musicals just inherently, it’s not a significant enough proportion to stop a musical grossing half a billion dollars and spawning a hit soundtrack album to go with it.
But this idea about audience alienation from film musicals has been conventional wisdom, totally baselessly, basically forever. Talking about modern audiences having an especial difficulty in suspending their disbelief for musicals makes it sound like past audiences were sort of guileless: like maybe they thought people really did just burst into song. But early film musicals, like those of Busby Berkeley, were almost all backstage musicals, with a plot set around the production of a stage show. Rather than the characters bursting into song to express their feelings, they perform diegetic numbers that are placed in the context of a stage performance. Even films as anarchic at the Marx Brothers’ comedies generally frame musical numbers this way. The underlying reasoning is the same: that despite the popularity of musicals on stage, the realism of film made it difficult to accept characters just bursting into song. Then in 1949 Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly came along and made On The Town, a delightful film about some horny sailors in New York for the day, and from the first frame characters sing and dance, no context needed. It ruled, and everyone loved it. It makes the dominance of the backstage musical seem a bit paternalistic in hindsight: literally all it took for audiences to prove that they could process characters bursting into song was to be given exactly one chance to prove it.
The suspension of disbelief thing is often invoked as one part of the argument that adapting musicals for the screen is particularly difficult. When Lindsay Ellis argues that Les Mis and Cats were “constructed for the stage”, it’s not just a specific critique of Tom Hooper’s approach to adapting stage musicals for the screen, but a critique of adapting stage musicals into films at all.
The idea that any medium is uniquely difficult to adapt into another is basically never true. People still say it all the time, whether they’re saying that musicals that are constructed for the stage just don’t translate or arguing that video games and films are just incompatible mediums to explain why video game movies are so bad. Obviously some mediums are capable of doing things other mediums cannot – only film and telvision have smash cuts, only video games let the audience move the camera, only theatre can have actors hit people in the audience in the face with pies – but that’s a feature of adaptation, not a bug. The point of adaptation isn’t to faithfully recreate the existing work, which is both impossible to do and boring to try. It’s to use it as the building blocks to make something new. If the point was just to preserve as much of the original as possible, we’d just release recordings of stage musicals instead – or better yet, skip the change in medium altogether and funnel sufficient funding into theatre that people could see professional productions outside of major metropolitan areas. But the point isn’t to recreate the experience of the stage production, it’s to create the new experience of a film.
Yet the success or failure of a film musical is so often talked about in terms of how well the film translates the features of theatre: what techniques are used to recreate the unreality of the stage, whether it’s the hyperstylisation of Moulin Rogue! or the fantasy sequences of Chicago. This attitude takes as a given that musicals are naturally at home on the stage, but concedes that they might be capable of existing on film with suitable source material and the right approach: musicals fit the stage perfectly; film musicals have to generate a way to bridge an inherent gap.
(The difficulty of this is taken for granted so much that you get Tommy showing up on listicles of musicals that should never be adapted into film, even though it was made into a film literally forty-five years ago. Variety said it was “spectacular in every way”! Ann-Margret won a Golden Globe!)
But film musicals have their own language, their own conventions, developed over many decades and entirely their own. When you see the opening aerial shots of the Alps in The Sound of Music, you’re not thinking for a moment about what it’s like on stage. When Liza Minnelli belts out ‘Maybe This Time’ in Cabaret – a song that isn’t in the original stage version – the camera orbits around her, pulling in and out, and it’s both stunning and utterly cinematic. Gene Kelly singing in the rain is unquestionably one of the most iconic images ever committed to film. Talking about how films can evoke the unreality of theatre makes it sound like every film musical is the first one made, that they have to start with the stage and figure out from the ground up how a musical could work on screen. Like there isn’t nearly a century of film musicals to draw on.
Honestly, it’s insane that adaptation is always so central to discussions of musicals on screen when there are literally thousands of musicals written for the screen in the first place, from the sung-through brightly coloured kitchen-sink drama of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg to Irish coming-of-age comedy-drama Sing Street to Singin’ in the Rain, The Wizard of Oz and Mary Poppins. And when original movie musicals are adapted for the stage – whether it’s The Lion King, Fame or Meet Me in St. Louis, or even something like productions of Cabaret incorporating elements from the film – basically no-one questions how they make the transition. If the mediums of film and theatre are naturally in tension, if one necessarily hews to realism and the other to unreality, you would think the incompatibility would run both ways. Yet if anyone suggested that a movie musical was unadaptable to the stage, the same way they talk about film adaptations of stage musicals, no-one would take it seriously.
It does not seem like a coincidence that that incompatibility is conceived in a way that favours the stage. It taps into the old-fashioned snobbery that arranges mediums in a hierarchy of “high” and “low” art. It’s a necessarily artificial hierarchy that places forms associated with the elite above those of the masses, and generally older forms above newer ones: much of what was once “low” culture has been subsequently siphoned off as “high” culture, from Shakespeare to opera. Even musicals, a comparatively “low” form of theatre, are held above their cinematic equivalent. It might be buried in theories about adaptation, but too often, it’s nothing more than an insistence that film musicals can’t compare to the “real thing”.
Musicals are not just a possible form that films can pull off. At their best, they’re one of the purest kinds of cinema there are. There are unique things theatre can do that makes musicals work on stage, but there are equally unique things cinema can do that make musicals work on screen: the first films were magic tricks, and musicals, above any genre, tap into that kind of possibility. When I saw Rocketman in the cinema, I was expecting to see a straightforward biopic about Elton John. Then, in the middle of a Narcotics Anonymous meeting, Elton bursts into song. He and his child-self sing ‘The Bitch Is Back’, and he bursts through the door into the neighbourhood of his childhood. “It’s a musical,” I whispered to my friend. I could hardly sit still and my cheeks hurt from smiling. It was thrilling. It was delightful. And it was cinema, pure and simple, without even the shadow of the stage.