Films based on plays almost always have to confront and wrestle with the question of adaptation. Namely: how do we transfer a story made for one stage and typically one set in one in-universe location to a medium with the capability for greater scope and where that kind of static artificiality, if not hidden well enough, can become extremely noticeable and ultimately a detriment? This, of course, has been a problem for decades but it is one I’ve been actively noticing a lot more in recent years; partly due to a rise in such films, partly due to my getting older and recognising it as a thing.
I’m not going to sit here and pretend that I have any answers for how best to get around it, because they really do vary from film to film. You might think the answer would be to move the play around rather than confining it to one specific location, having certain conversations or scenes happen elsewhere and splitting characters off in order to fill out the world some more. But, as August: Osage County proved, that could just very noticeably disrupt the flow of the story and come off as even more artificial than if we did just stay in the one room the entire time. You could use the film as a chance to visualise information and scenes that are otherwise delivered as potentially-clunky verbal exposition. But, as The Riot Club proved, that could also cause the sense of momentum the film version builds up to come to a screeching halt once you finally reach the stretch where you have to do the play. Maybe you just shoot the play pretty much as is and hope that the material is strong enough by itself to carry you through. But, as proven by Fences, even when the material is that strong, a viewer may still find themselves wondering why they aren’t just watching the play itself instead.
Still, in some very rare cases, the inherent staginess of the material doesn’t have to be a detriment to any potential non-stage adaptations. Journey’s End, the classic World War I-set drama by R.C. Sherriff that turned 90 this year, comes pre-loaded with structural and thematic reasons to avoid misguided attempts at maximising or trying to make the play more cinematic. Trench warfare effectively turned WWI into a kind of purgatory for any soldier dragged into the senseless conflict. Days upon days upon weeks of almost nothing happening, waiting for attacks that everyone had no idea when they would happen but knew that, in all likelihood, they weren’t going to survive. It was a war lacking in any forward momentum, confined to the same rotting dugouts with declining rations, squalid fortifications, constant demoralisation, and claustrophobia brought upon by largely-accurate rifle-fire should one stick any appendage out of their dugout for even a second.
At the risk of trivialising the whole thing, it makes for fine drama and fits the stage perfectly. Screenwriter Simon Reade, therefore, doesn’t fundamentally alter the play in its latest journey to the big screen – there have been five feature-length adaptations of Journey’s End over the decades, although I must confess to this being my first experience with it. The vast majority of the film takes place in the Officer’s quarters of a Company on the French frontlines in the days leading up to Germany’s Spring Offensive. Characters enter and exit on precise queue, monologue extensively about their feelings and failures, and even the occasional bit of extremely on-the-nose dialogue that only sounds justifiable when performed on a stage with no other visual aids to help the viewer paint a picture slips through.
I consider none of these bad things, for the record. Journey’s End has lasted this long for a very good reason and that’s because, archetypal as the characters and narrative mechanics have become, it all still works gangbusters as a drama and it’s a structure that is interwoven with the subject matter. This is a War where C-Company – primarily consisting of broken-down alcoholic Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin), his loyal and slightly less-traumatised second in command Lieutenant Osbourne (Paul Bettany), jovial Second Lieutenant Trotter (Stephen Graham), shell-shocked Second Lieutenant Hibbert (Tom Sturridge), and fresh-faced Second Lieutenant Raleigh (Asa Butterfield) who specifically requested he be deployed to C-Company because Stanhope is an old school friend of his – are largely battling time. A real battle will surely kill all of them, a fact which weighs heavily on their minds, combined with the implied horrors that they’ve already seen prior to this specific deployment, slowly beating them down and twisting each man into versions of themselves which bring them great shame.
Reade occasionally brings us outside of C-Company’s trenches for brief visits to headquarters or an incoherently-staged battle sequence, to pay lip service to the chaos of the battlefield or demonstrate the blasé cowardliness of those higher up the military chain thoughtlessly sending their men to die without any visible remorse. But, predominately, we remain in the Officer’s Quarters, watching Stanhope further succumb to his trauma and alcoholism, Raleigh’s innocence and spirit slowly be broken, and even Trotter’s façade of hope and joy slip away. Cinematographer Laurie Rose does a fine job at communicating the cramped dark nature of those barracks, and she and director Saul Dibb find some haunting shots throughout. A suicidal Officer at gunpoint smiling in expectant relief, contrasting the wide-eyed excitement of a young Lieutenant buying a Corporal’s speech about becoming a hero with the dead-eyed cynicism of a Captain who has heard that bullshit too many times before, a Private muttering a prayer in the eerie silence prior to an attack.
Outside of those moments, though, the filmmaking leaves something to be desired. Again, Dibb embraces the staginess inherent in Journey’s End, which is the right call, but he doesn’t take advantage of the benefits of telling this story through film. By which I mean, for something supposedly on the verge of falling apart and having been left in total disrepair over the course of 4 years, these are some surprisingly decent-looking trenches, all things considered. Dibb minimises the squalor, the filth, the idea that these trenches have seen life and so much death, the kinds of things you can’t fully communicate on a theatrical stage but can in a film. Instead, everything looks a little too clean, a little too liveable outside of the cramped nature of it all, and the fact that he’ll call very brief attention to the mud or the existence of rats before forgetting them entirely only makes things even stagier in a bad, frustrating way. It can, at times, feel like watching a stage play with the budget to put four walls up.
Still, his direction is serviceable, and it doesn’t get in the way of the true reason to see this new Journey’s End: the performances. Pretty much everybody is great in their own ways, particularly Robert Glenister who makes his Colonel profoundly insensitive and dislikeable in such a short space of time without becoming a hiss-worthy villain, but this is largely a three-man show. Claflin gets the meatiest role of the lot and he does surprisingly subtle work with it in between the bouts of booze-induced yelling, his natural rogueish charm and charisma having been twisted into a traumatised bitterness with a deep pit of self-loathing and a stockpile of cutting remarks to lash out with. Butterfield makes a good foil for the dejected exhaustion around him, his performance initially aided by his naturally youthful face and built upon as the film goes along and Raleigh is continually worn down. But it’s Bettany who is the heart of the film and he casts a warm, encouraging presence that makes it all the more heartbreaking as the toll of having to be the self-professed “Uncle” to the entire Company makes itself known.
Journey’s End will provide no surprises, much less for those who have already experienced it in any one of its many prior forms, but that’s kind of the appeal by this point. If you’re still adapting a classic work of theatre for the medium of film almost a century on from its origin, then the execution of the adaptation is what’s important rather than if everyone involved has decided to try and fix what may not be broken. And whilst Dibb’s take can’t help but carry the whiff of a minor missed opportunity for something truly great as a result of not taking fuller advantage of the detail film can provide, it’s still absolutely worth seeing due to a uniformly strong set of performances and a screenplay that still carries genuine power regardless of the amount of years that have passed. After all, war changes but War never changes.
Journey’s End is available to buy now on DVD and Blu-Ray. Check out the trailer below: