Driving Miss Daisy: From Stage to Screen and Back Again

From The Hunger Games to The Great Gatsby, everyone has heard someone say, “The book was so much better!” Favorite books and plays have been adapted to the silver screen for as long as there has been cinema. Yet purists always claim that there is something missing, something left to be desired; the movie never quite meets the greatness of the original. Alfred Uhry adapted his award-winning 1987 play, Driving Miss Daisy, into an award-winning movie in 1989. The film adaptation earned nine Academy Award nominations, and won four: Best Actress (for Jessica Tandy as Daisy Werthan), Best Make-up, Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay for Uhry himself. These are the major awards that are saved until the end of the ceremony, building anticipation and prestige. Despite these triumphs, Uhry says, “The work [on movies] is never as satisfying as working on the stage because you can’t really control it. I don’t ever feel like it’s mine.”*

The model of the Ford’s Theatre production set. Scenic Design by Tony Cisek for Driving Miss Daisy at Ford’s Theatre. Photo by Gary Erskine.

Plays activate the audience’s imagination in a way movies do not. In Uhry’s original script, his notes on the set are: The scenery is meant to be simple and evocative. This minimalism requires the playwright to convey the details of the scene through the characters’ dialogue. It also challenges the audience to suspend its disbelief and to accompany the playwright through the story. We imagine the complete 1948 Oldsmobile, with its chrome-finished detailing. We have no trouble riding in the car with Hoke and Daisy to the Piggly Wiggly, even though the actors aren’t physically going anywhere.

Theatre is a live experience. The actors perform the show eight times a week, and the performance is never quite the same twice. The differences are subtle, but each actor reacts to the worlds around him or her—both the world of the play and the physical world of the theatre and audience. Uhry described the vitality of live theatre in a 1997 interview with the actor Paul Rudd for Bomb Magazine: “One of the things that gets us doing theater is immediacy. It’s so different from the movies… You get to hear the audience respond. That is so thrilling. It’s really hanging out over the edge.”* The audience is a creative collaborator in a play, laughing at different lines each night, furnishing each scene with details supplied from its collective imagination.

So why bother making the movie? Movies offer other, different opportunities to explore and illuminate a story. Through cinematography we can see close-ups of characters’ faces; the director can focus our attention on a person or object. Movies show more and tell less. In the film adaptation, we see Daisy and Hoke working in a vegetable garden (only suggested in the play); there is no dialogue, the scene is less than one minute long. It shows us how Daisy and Hoke have become better friends, how they’ve developed a symbiotic relationship and work together. Uhry says, “I look at the movies as a wonderful gift that’s been thrown in my lap, because they support me, I meet wonderful people, I go to good places.”* The audience gets this wonderful gift, too. We go to Atlanta and drive along the streets in each of Daisy’s beautiful, mid-century, luxury cars. Uhry uses the film to explore the characters and relationships beyond the principal three in the play. In the film we meet Florine (her daughter-in-law) and Idella (her African American maid), characters referred to but unseen on stage. We see them interact directly with the main characters. We see that Daisy doesn’t restrain the sharpness of her tongue in Florine’s presence. We discover Idella’s wry sense of humor. And because we now know her, we grieve Idella’s death, rather than merely feeling sympathy for Hoke and Daisy’s loss. We get a complete sense of the household, the neighborhood, the town.

Craig Wallace as Hoke and Nancy Robinette as Daisy for "Driving Miss Daisy" at Ford's Theatre. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Plays offer immediacy; movies offer impact. Driving Miss Daisy is about more than just Hoke and Daisy’s friendship; it is an examination of the cultural fabric of the American South, of religion and faith, of the tremendous social change that swept the nation in the middle of the 20th century—of humanity. Millions of people saw the movie, as opposed to the several thousand who saw the original play. And because of the movie, millions of people were touched by this story, were made to think about their own lives, relationships and social priorities. In the case of this story, the two art forms complement one another.

For teachers attending the Ford’s Theatre production of Driving Miss Daisy, we encourage you to watch the film after you see the play with your students, as a way of starting a classroom conversation about creating narratives through different art forms. For those of you joining us with your friends and family, what do you think is gained or lost when the written word is adapted to the screen? Or when a novel is adapted into a play or musical? Does it depend on the piece?

We expect that, even if you’ve already seen Driving Miss Daisy on the screen, or on another stage, you will come away with something new from this production. Both stage and screen allow the playwright to engage audiences’ imaginations and emotions. Both enable all of us to get swept up in the act of storytelling. “I wouldn’t like to choose between writing plays and writing movies,” says Uhry. “I like having both.”*

*Uhry, A. (1997, Summer) Alfred Uhry by Paul Rudd. Bomb Magazine, 60, http://bombmagazine.org/article/2088/alfred-uhry

Alexandria Wood is the Education Programs Coordinator at Ford’s Theatre. Prior to joining the Education Department, she worked as a stage manager, event manager and child wrangler at Ford’s and other D.C.- area theatres. She holds a B.S. in Theatre from Skidmore College.