Nine One-Person Plays That Became Feature Films

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The one-man or one-woman play has become a mainstay of the Los Angeles stage, thanks to the many struggling actors who write these pieces for themselves to perform because no one else will hire them. Once in a rare while, one of these solo shows gets turned into a movie, complete with a big cast and multiple locations. The results aren't always successful, but the task of adapting these works for the big screen is still kind of heroic.

  1. A Bronx Tale. Chazz Palmintieri's semi-autobiographical story about a young boy torn between his father and a local mobster named Sonny was an off-Broadway hit in late 1989. Although he was a nobody, Palmintieri refused to sell the film rights unless he could play Sonny. Hollywood eventually agreed to his demands, and Robert De Niro costarred and directed the 1993 adaptation. A Bronx Tale is currently being reworked as a Broadway musical, also to be directed by De Niro.
  2. My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Nia Vardalos launched her one-woman play in Los Angeles in the summer of 1997, where it drummed up serious buzz. Celebrities began attending the show, including fellow Greek Rita Wilson, who with her husband Tom Hanks snapped up the movie rights. The 2002 screen adaptation is a remarkable study in box office slow-burn: it made just $600,000 in its first weekend, yet ultimately raked in $241 million domestic after playing in theaters for a full year.
  3. Sleepwalk with Me. Comedian Mike Birbiglia's somnambulism inspired his off-Broadway show in 2008. Like Palmintieri and Vardalos, Birbiglia adapted his own script for the screen. Unlike Palmintieri and Vardalos, he also directed the 2012 film. A breakout at that year's Sundance, Sleepwalk with Me became a modest art house success.
  4. Shirley Valentine. British actress Pauline Collins starred in both the 1986 play and the 1989 film, about a bored Liverpool housewife who finds love while on holiday in Greece. But unlike the earlier entries on this list, she didn't write either the one-woman play or the multi-character film. That credit goes to one Willy Russell, who also wrote Educating Rita.
  5. Today's Special. Aasif Mandvi, best known as a Daily Show correspondent, co-wrote and starred in this 2009 indie about a chef at an Indian restaurant. It's loosely based on his solo show Sakina's Restaurant.
  6. Secret Honor. Here's a case in which a one-man play was turned into a one-man movie. Yet Secret Honor, imagining Richard Nixon tape-recording his bitter memories in the late '70s, is noteworthy for its high-profile director (Robert Altman) and its esteemed star (Philip Baker Hall). When the film came out in 1984, the 53-year-old Hall was still an unknown.
  7. Monsieur Lazhar. This 2011 French Canadian classroom drama nabbed an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. It was based on a one-character play called Bashir Lazhar, written in 2002 by 27-year-old Évelyne de la Chenelière. She had only a small role in the movie.
  8. Swimming to Cambodia. Filmed monologues probably shouldn't be on this list, since they're really documentaries, not adaptations. But it would be wrong to ignore the subgenre entirely. From Eric Bogosian's Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll to Julia Sweeney's God Said Ha! to Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, many one-person shows have been recorded for posterity. But Jonathan Demme's 1987 film of Spalding Grey's monologue stands out for its cinematic approach.
  9. Sling Blade. Billy Bob Thornton invented Sling Blade's protagonist, retarded killer Karl Childers, as a character in a one-man play. He then exported Karl's monologue into a 1994 short film called Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade (costarring a nearly mute Molly Ringwald), and after that he was able to expand the Childers saga into an Oscar-winning, Ringwald-less feature.