Adapting Beasts of the Southern Wild: From Stage to Screen for a Former Fringe Playwright

The film, Beasts of the Southern Wild has been a critical hit since its premiere at Sundance in January. Soon after, director Benh Zeitlin won the Camera D’or atCannes. Much of the film’s praise is for its loose, poetic feel and visual grandeur, despite a relatively low budget of two million dollars. And if you happened to have attended Montreal Fringe in 2004, you might have been lucky enough to witness the oeuvre’s germination.

Although Zeitlin directed Beasts, he co-adapted it to screen with playwright and childhood friend, Lucy Alibar, workshopping it as a collective called Court 13. The film was adapted from one of Alibar’s plays, a stage musical originally titled Juicy and Delicious. Another one of her play’s A Friend of Dorothy, appeared at Montreal Fringe in 2004 and was nominated in the Best Play category.

The film closely mirrors the story arc of Juicy: both are about a child struggling to contend with the illness of a parent. For its part, Beasts follows a community’s efforts to teach a young girl, Hushpuppy, to fight for herself and her community during a great flood – all the while her father is physically ailing.

From its heartfelt presentation of what it takes to preserve a community in difficult times, to the making of the film, Beasts embodies the phrase “labour of love.” For starters, the film’s adaptation was a collective process that occurred through series of workshops: first at the Screenwriters’ Lab of the Sundance Institute (sundance.org), then at the Directors’ Lab and Producers’ Lab.

The process resulted in several departures from Juicy. In the original play, for example, Hushpuppy – who the young actress Quvenzhané Wallis has gathered so much acclaim for playing – was a boy. For the film, Alibar and Benh Zeitlin chose to change the character to the point of view of a little girl – arguably bringing it back to a more personal place.

Alibar spoke to Hillary Weston for Blackbookmag.com, on the changes to the film that took place during the adaptation process: “I wrote the play about me and my dad, but I had to have some distance from it so I could actually write it. I wasn’t in therapy; I was kind of immature, I guess, but I just had to have some distance. This way I could write everything I was actually thinking.”

By workshopping and producing their piece in an intimate community, Alibar and Zeitlin present their piece, but also themselves, to the world. This blur of art and life is no clearer than in the experience of Dwight Henry, the bakery owner and first-time actor who plays Hushpuppy’s sick father, Wink.

Henry spoke at length to Scott Marks of the San Diego Reader on how Beasts imitates his life, and on why he thinks that imitation contributed to the film’s success. He says: “…I was in Hurricane Katrina in neck-high water. I have an inside understanding for what this movie is about. I brought a passion to the part that an outside actor who had never seen a storm or been in a flood or faced losing everything could have. Benh helped me so much to bring what I go through in real life into that part. He helped me with the transition. I was two-years-old when Hurricane Betsy hit New Orleans and my parents had to put me on the roof of the house. An outsider couldn’t have brought the passion to the role that I did.”

Henry’s love for the community he portrays is clear in the performance, and he, like the means through which the film was made, are a perfect match for the filmmakers’ proposition on community in Beasts of a Southern Wild.

Perhaps what makes the film so interesting is its approach to art: a blurring of fiction and reality that’s arguably similar to the way many Fringe contributors approach contemporary theatre.  Fringe playwrights and performers come from all sorts of backgrounds, and Fringe is the kind of festival that puts the fate of the art into the artists own hands – and into those of the audience. And in lucky circumstances, those playwrights’ dreams end up on the big screen.

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