Good Neighbors: Comparing Fences on Screen and Stage

A new video sets the interpretations side-by-side.

In directing Fences, Denzel Washington took on a daunting challenge: explode a family drama conceived for the intimacy of the stage into the light-of-day, wide world of cinema. This might not sound like such a huge challenge, and to some it might even sound easier than rendering a story from a novel or other non-dramatic source, but the theater and the movie house are different places, and the stories told inside each of them benefit and suffer in ways because of these distinctions. For example, theater thrives off the immediacy of the performance and the presence of a live audience, as such making it more dramatic with large, bold performances, while cinema, removed from the audience and one-shot scenes, can focus more on the intricacies of character and narrative.

In the case of Fences, Washington managed to coax the best out of both worlds: the bombastic nature of the stage and the measured introspection of the screen. As offered proof, consider the following video edited by Ollie Paxton that places a pivotal scene from the 2016 film side-by-side with the same scene from a 2010 performance of the play, also starring Washington. It’s a scene of great emotion performed deftly on both occasions, but the distinctions between the two make for a fascinating exploration of the advantages and disadvantages of our various narrative media.