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The Art of Adaptation, part one: The Book of Ruth

By: Lauren E. Nichols, artistic director and playwright for The Redemption of Ruth

Years ago, when I was a very green playwright, a veteran writer and actress confronted me abruptly with the question, “What’s your philosophy of adaptation?” Under different circumstances, I would have loved to ponder that question, and construct a truthful, accurate answer. Being totally cowed by this woman, a larger than life figure to me, I stammered something stupid and was undoubtedly dismissed by her as careless at best.

But I found, in thinking about the question later, that I did in fact have such a philosophy. It has become clarified over time, as I have both written and directed other adaptations, and guided some playwrights who were adapting their stories from other sources.

The playwright (or screenwriter, for that matter) has a responsibility to the spirit of the original story. If one is going to claim that the story is “adapted from” another specific source, one is inviting a comparison to that material. In many cases–such as movies or plays based on children’s books or literary classics–one may even be hoping to create an interest in the original work. But if the adaptation contains material which is completely different from its source, the viewer who wants to compare may well be confused or put off by the differences.

My goal as a playwright is to be faithful to the original, in spirit and in fact, to the best of my ability. That being said, my fidelity is also based on how much I respect the original material. Having a profound reverence for the Christian and Jewish Scriptures, I handle a story from either Testament with much greater care than I would any other source material. And as a director, when a playwright references the Bible I will make sure that this is done accurately.

[A little aside, as an illustration: Crime and Punishment, a play adapted from a novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky, contains a memorable scene in which one character reads the acccount of the raising of Lazarus from John’s gospel. It’s an important scene, and the playwrights chose to include it. However, in condensing it (it is a long passage, and even Dosteosky didn’t quote it in full), they edited out one of the major characters in the story. Feeling that this took away from the story’s integrity, I re-abridged the passage so that it was still faithful to the original text, making the scene just slightly longer in the process.]

In approaching the book of Ruth from the Jewish scriptures, I wanted to make the story understandable although it would appear with no context to many audiences. (However, as a matter of fact, we have presented the story several times over the years as part of a sermon series on Ruth, providing a living illustration of the story.) I tried to describe the action in plain terms, including the legal and cultural setting and plot details. I employed poetic language because Ruth was included in the Poetic books by Jewish tradition (along with Song of Solomon and Psalms).

My most significant “departure” from the original was to put words in Boaz’ mouth which are quotations from David the psalmist. Since David is actually his great-grandson, this is a deliberate anachronism. Boaz, as the Kinsman-Redeemer, is a “type” (foreshadowing) of Christ. He and David are also in the direct line of Jesus the Christ. Therefore I chose to have Boaz speak for himself and his descendant, in a way which is often prophetic.

Stephen Baldwin’s adaptation of Ruth’s story, in his play, My Name is Ruth, is a modern retelling which he’s chosen to set immediately after the second world war. This setting serves several useful functions: it provides a reason for Naomi to have lost her husband (in WWI) and both sons (in WWII); it provides a context in which a young woman is having a difficult time finding a job which will support herself and her mother-in-law. In the aftermath of the war, the flood of returning servicemen took the available jobs and women were expected to return to their primary roles as housewives and mothers. Ruth is neither, and as such is a foreigner in the culture, as well as having been displaced from her home state of Minnesota.

The Jewish law which is the background for the biblical story is a bit obscure. The idea of redeeming a family member’s property isn’t explicitly stated outside of the book of Ruth (although Deuteronomy 25 stipulates that a man should marry his brother’s childless widow and father a son for him, so that his line will not die out). So an adaptation in modern times has very little to go on, and must create a situation which is understandable for us today, without doing violence to the original story. The idea of a lienholder who needs to be satisfied is easy to grasp. The more obscure statute about marrying the widow is given a somewhat tongue-in-cheek treatment… we all have heard of old statutes still on the books which are not followed any more.

Audiences seeing an adaptation can rightly ask themselves: What is the main idea in this version? What is the theme? What does the playwright want me to take away from this? It’s entirely possible for different versions of the story to result in very different answers to these questions. One hopes that each version adds insights to make a richer story, rather than telling a story which is contrary to the intent of the original.

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About godsbooklover

I'm a Christ-follower, a writer, a voracious reader, and a piano teacher. I'm married to my best friend and we have two grown sons and a gorgeous granddaughter. I am the Artistic Director of a theatre ministry. And in my "spare" time, I blog.

2 comments on “The Art of Adaptation, part one: The Book of Ruth

  1. I loved hearing Boaz speak the words David would write later. All of the poetry of the first half was beautiful. And, the second half was so light and airy, a wonderful contrast.

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed it, Shirley! It was a delight to produce these pieces. I hope we can do something similar in a future season.

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