This week’s Film Forum screening, Roman Polanski’s dark comedy Carnage, features a screenplay adapted from French playwright Yasmina Reza’s Le Dieu du Carnage, or The God of Carnage. Its English-language adaptation, translated by Christopher Hampton, whom you may recall as the screenwriter for A Dangerous Method, was originally Lay Waste to England for Me. Or, in other words, “carnage.” Interestingly, the setting for the film adaptation was moved to Brooklyn, but was actually shot in Paris because of Polanski’s fugitive status. The God of Carnage won a 2009 Olivier Award for Best New Play, and three 2009 Tonys (Best Play, Best Leading Actress, and Best Direction). It had also been nominated for a slew of other Tonys.
Theatergoers in the 1990s may recall Reza’s previous theatrical triumph, the 1994 play Art. (Art had also been translated into English by Christopher Hampton.) Art played on Broadway from February 12, 1998, until August 8, 1999, and won the Tony for Best Play. It would run for more than 600 performances.
Art has many things in common with Carnage, most notably the veneer of civility being quickly eroded and characters’ flaws making themselves manifest through cutting barbs. In Art, it’s slightly more absurd and almost Seinfeld-esque; Serge (played in the original cast by Victor Garber) buys a phenomenally expensive, completely white painting, perhaps the most emblematic example of “modern art.” His friend of 15 years Marc (originally played by Alan Alda) is aghast, and their friendship fractures because Marc can’t believe what his friend considers “art.” A third friend, Yvan (Alfred Molina), is stuck in the middle and doesn’t really want to take sides. But soon, the three of them are engaged in a bitter war of words that, when you get right down to it, is not really about the painting or art. Just like the escalating battle in Carnage is not really about two kids fighting in a park.
The juxtaposition of the kids at the beginning of Carnage with the subsequent behavior of their parents suggests that we never really grow up as much as we think we do, and that the playground is just a rehearsal for the so-called “real world.” And the twist ending of Carnage suggests, perhaps, that children are far wiser than their elders.