"I find people confusing," says Christopher in his narration of Mark Haddon's 2003 novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Christopher has reason to be confused: People are walking contradictions who say things they don't mean, which is especially troubling to Christopher. He has a condition the book never diagnoses, but which has been analyzed by critics as Asperger's syndrome or another form of high-functioning autism.
With Christopher as the narrator, Curious Incident retains a unique, deceptively complex style: Although Christopher clearly relates the events of the plot, which involve his absent mother and the murder of a neighbor's dog, the simplistic language underlines his difficulty processing emotions and making sense of the world around him.
If the novel is a quiet reflection on how a boy like Christopher perceives, the theatrical adaptation of Curious Incident, now playing at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York, is a loud, thrilling look at what it's like to live inside Christopher's sensory overloaded head. The play, which first premiered in London in 2012, is an ambitious and, at times, overwhelming production — sights and sounds assault the audience in the same way that they do Christopher, played by the phenomenal Alexander Sharp. The stage moves and shifts, displaying an endless onslaught of flashing lights and booming voices, all designed to capture the chaos within Christopher's mind. It's a different approach from the book but it's perhaps one of the most gripping depictions of one part of the autism spectrum, a stunning achievement that can only happen in live theater.
Adapting literature to the stage is nothing new: Many of the most iconic Broadway musicals of all time, including Les Misérables, The Phantom of the Opera, and Wicked, began as novels. But these were fairly straightforward adaptations that condensed and streamlined the plots of their source material and largely simplified the narrative. That's not a mark against them — the best of these shows succeed in their own right — but as far as adaptation goes, it's a relatively simple process. Ditch the extraneous characters, highlight the most important themes, and sing the exposition.
What's fascinating about the theatrical iteration of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is that playwright Simon Stephens has taken an intricate novel and adapted it into something equally complex and challenging. Much like the book, Curious Incident on stage is a joy to take in — but it's not an easy journey for the audience. This is a play that asks you to see through Christopher's eyes, witnessing both the good and the bad and offering an experience that's incredibly moving and, at times, almost too much to endure.
That's not to downplay the simpler pleasures of Curious Incident, which is often warm, funny, and even downright joyous. But special attention must be paid to an adaptation that manages to be so thoroughly original — even for those familiar with Haddon's novel, the play offers something entirely new. The mystery of who killed Wellington the poodle is secondary to the inner workings of Christopher's mind, which — as he explains with the use of a lively multimedia presentation — takes in everything all at once.
It would be naïve to say that simply seeing the show allows the audience to understand what it's like to live with a form of autism, but the play does provide valuable, experiential insight. The world that Christopher lives in is bright and terrifying, which makes his failures all the more devastating — and his achievements that much more thrilling.
But Curious Incident isn't the only admirable theatrical adaptation of a complicated novel currently on stage. Off-Broadway, Jonathan Lethem's novel The Fortress of Solitude has gotten the musical theater treatment in a production that opened Oct. 22 at New York's Public Theater after debuting in Dallas earlier this year. Like Curious Incident, Fortress does the hard work of translating a rich and multifaceted novel into a cohesive stage production. What's most impressive is how well it succeeds.
On the surface, the 2003 novel is fairly simple: It documents the friendship between Dylan Ebdus and Mingus Rude, a white boy and a black boy growing up in pre-gentrification Brooklyn. But in addition to a major dose of magical realism — the friends discover a magic ring that gives them the power of flight — Fortress is a dense text with heavy themes of racial disparity, drug abuse, and cultural assimilation.
The musical tackles all of these elements head-on, embracing the fantasy of two superhero-loving teenagers learning to fly without shying away from the harsh realities that keep Fortress of Solitude grounded. The book by Itamar Moses condenses aspects of Lethem's novel by necessity, but it doesn't lose any of its weight. And Michael Friedman's music and lyrics, heavily influenced by the contemporary music of the '70s, '80s, and '90s, reflect the significant societal changes that serve as a background to the relationship between Dylan and Mingus.
But perhaps what's most innovative about Fortress is the way it repeatedly subverts audience expectations. Like the novel on which it's based, the musical veers far from a traditional narrative. Lethem's book begins in third-person and transitions to first-person toward the end. The musical similarly shifts its focus from the world at large to the world inside Dylan's head. It's a risky move, creating a second act that's, in many ways, a huge departure from the first. But it pays off, anchored by the exceptional score and strong performances from Adam Chanler-Berat as Dylan and Kyle Beltran as Mingus.
Because of its somewhat unconventional format, there's a chance Fortress may not appeal to everyone, but that's the risk of creating anything original. Hopefully in this case such innovation pays off. Shows like Fortress of Solitude — while less flashy than Curious Incident — are deserving of our attention. Both are great, but it's the smaller, off-Broadway production that has the more arduous task of drawing in audiences.
For established fans of these novels, nothing will ever capture the experience of reading — nor should any production try. These adaptations succeed because they bring something new to the table, but also because they fully understand the books they're based on. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and The Fortress of Solitude are innovative, immersive theatrical experiences that don't replicate the experience of getting lost in a good book, and that's fine — they feel transformative all the same.