A couple of months ago, my friend and I decided to watch Quentin Tarantino’s 8th film, the western mystery-thriller aptly titled “The Hateful Eight”. We’re both long-time fans of Tarantino’s directorial work, and I consider him to be a filmmaking role model with an infectious passion for cinema, despite being less than a likeable person. “Inglorious Basterds”, his self-proclaimed masterpiece, is easily my favourite movie, unchallenged and unshakeable so-far. The more you see of a directors work, the better you understand it. Therefore, I was extremely intrigued to see what new facets of Tarantino’s creative mind “The Hateful Eight” would explore.
To my surprise, however, by the time the credits rolled, I found myself breathing in a sigh of relief that it was finally over. What had gone wrong? The film had no tension, characters lacked motivation, and even Tarantinos famously sharp scriptwriting felt blunted and lame. My friend and I were so confused and exhausted that we found more enjoyment in counting all the unprompted and jarring uses of the N-word (we settled on 63). Even looking past this, something was fundamentally off about “The Hateful Eight” in its entirety, from its first shot to its last.
Filmmaking is a medium with unique benefits and opportunities, and the best movies are those that use the medium to achieve what only it can. However, when you look at “The Hateful Eight” as a whole, it comes off as if being made as a film was only an afterthought. For a long time I couldn’t figure out why that was, but a week or so later I stumbled upon an interview in which Tarantino said something that made it all click:
“My feeling was this: with this material and these actors, this is just a really solid piece. I could do it on the London stage, I could do it on the New York stage, I could do it at a 99-seat theatre off of Santa Monica Boulevard, I could shoot it on 16mm — and all those versions would be good, would be solid, and would work.”– Quentin Tarantino, SlashFilm (08/01/2016) (https://www.slashfilm.com/the-hateful-eight-stage-play/)
It all made sense now; the one-room setting, the theatrical staging, the Shakespearean monologues and every other unique aspect of the film were derived from a far more fitting medium: the stage. Perhaps what the film needed most was to not be a film, but a full-on theatrical production, with a built-in set, an orchestra, and live actors among a live audience. Unfortunately, these aforementioned plans only came to light in 2016 and were casual at best.
Three years on and nothing has been said about such an official stage-play will ever be made. It’s a shame to see a great piece of source material for what could be an extremely intriguing production go to waste. That’s what drilled itself into my mind the most: the potential. What could a “Hateful Eight” stage production look like? Can it work in any medium? In fact, could it even be better? We’ll look specifically at the two techniques that both mediums share and that are heavily utilised in “The Hateful Eight”: setting and staging.
Let’s start with the most unique aspect of the film: it’s setting. Though about the first 30-45 minutes of the film takes place in the picturesque 1870’s Wyoming mountains, the rest is set in a single room: Minnie’s Haberdashery. This set is objectively gorgeous, filled with antique decor plucked straight from the period that gives the impression that this place could’ve truly existed a century or so ago. There’s some fantastic production design work on display here, the only problem is that it’s barely explored. We never get the sense that the Haberdashery is trapping its characters in, closing in on them. It barely even feels like a single room, where everyone can see everyone at all times.
Other one-room-set films pull this off in a much more effective way: “Twelve Angry Men”, “The Breakfast Club”, and even, partially, Tarantino’s own “Reservoir Dogs”. By the time these films have ended, the audience knows every wall and every floorboard like their own home. I’d partially mark this down to the way the camera moves within the space. The aforementioned one-room films are designed in a way in which a wide-angle lens could potentially capture everything in the room at once; where the geography of the room is so clear-cut that you know exactly where every character and object is no matter where the camera is positioned.
These films also make great use of the “180 Degrees Rule”, so that cutting between alternating perspectives is never jarring or confusing. There is no camera in existence that can capture the entirety of Minnie’s Haberdashery in one single shot. We never get a sense of the complete geography of the room, a layout map for us to follow. As a result, by the end of the film, the one-room set that should feel like a second home to us feels more like a motel, a place we were only visiting and never truly understood the ins and outs of.
So, how could we adapt this setting to the stage? Single-setting stories are perfect for stage productions simply because having one extravagant set that never has to move and can be built into the theatre makes for not only a more immersive, investing experience for the audience, but also makes sure that everything that is going on can be seen all at once at all times. On the stage, the geography of the set isn’t as much of an issue. The entire fourth wall is the camera, and we are sitting right behind it. We could easily take out the fireplace wall of Minnies Haberdashery and open up the set to give the viewer a dollhouse perspective of the entire story.
When it comes to the outside scenes, however, this would be a little trickier to adapt. Perhaps an old-school painted curtain could be used to separate the Haberdashery set in the background and the cold winter mountains downstage. Once the shift from outdoors to indoors takes place, the curtain would lift to reveal the beautiful Haberdashery set behind it. The characters would come through a door upstage to retain the hilarious entering and exiting scenes, complete with the re-boarding each time. Perhaps it’s a recipe for disaster, but it could work. But what’s even more important than the setting is how the characters move within it; the staging.
With a limited setting, you have the unique opportunity to utilise staging to your utmost advantage. It’s an extremely important element of “The Hateful Eight”s suspensefulness because certain scenes require that the audience knows exactly where each character is placed at any given time. In fact, in parts of the script, Tarantino makes notes of what each characters individual reactions to an event are. However, this attention to detail doesn’t exactly translate onto film.
Take, for instance, the coffee poisoning sequence. Without spoiling the “whodunnit”, the audience must mentally cross out each individual as information is revealed that proves them innocent. A big factor in this deduction process is staging: where each character was and what they were doing at the time. In the film, this is played out rather lazily; a narrator simply tells you where each character was when it happened, but interestingly, leaves out a couple of players. This exclusion spoils the entire mystery early because if the audience thinks back hard enough, they can tell that whoever was missing from the low-down was the obvious culprit. Tarantino loves to use narration in his films, especially in unnecessary and jarring places, and here it’s done the same.
Of course, Tarantino is also a master of impactful and iconic staging; the “Reservoir Dogs” Mexican standoff, the “Inglorious Basterds” farmhouse scene, or the characters of “Pulp Fiction” intersecting with one another in increasingly bizarre ways. However, nothing too interesting or special is done here, save for placing characters under the floorboards (another nod to “Inglorious Basterds”). For a film filled with drama and suspense, there’s not much elevating this in the realm of staging beyond the textbook approach, or at least nothing so iconic and impactful as its predecessors. Staging should be artful; as a director places their actors in a shot, the painter places their figures onto their canvas. If utilised right, you can create some incredible, breathtaking images that go down in cinema history.
Staging is one of the most important elements of theatrical language. So, how could we use a theatre stage to elevate the literal staging of the film? For starters, on a theatre stage, once again, the audience can see every character all at once. If we took the coffee poisoning scene, we could ditch the narration and instead have it take place completely in the background as the foreground characters go about their business. If done just right – not too obvious and not too subtle – the audience will catch the suspicious behaviour, an observation that would pay off later in satisfaction and pride.
Background character movements in full view of the audience would also help to keep them alert and on their toes during what could be quite a tedious and droning watch. This is only providing that actors aren’t walking on and off stage every now-and-then. We’d likely want the set to be as contained as possible; nobody leaves and nobody enters, at least not until intermission. This would not only elevate the sense of claustrophobia and tension in the room but would allow for some very visually impactful, however difficult to pull off staging tricks.
For example, there are buckets of blood-loss and deaths upon deaths across the film’s runtime. What if the production went full-on Shakespearean, having fountains of blood splatter out at a rain-coat clad front-row audience, to elevate the immersion and sense of morbid terror? And what if we were to take things a step even further: as each character is picked off, one by one, their bodies don’t just magically disappear or fade into obscurity, but stay in place for the rest of the play? The blood-pools and bodies could, very literally, pile up around the Haberdashery, never leaving the audience – and the characters – sights. Until, finally, only the last men standing remain, surrounded by carnage. As for some deaths, they might be a little harder to pull off (you can’t leave someone hanging by their neck for 2 hours), but the visual impact would be stunning.
For a final staging suggestion, when characters are shown underneath the floorboards of the Haberdashery, they could perhaps stand right under the feet of the characters above, among the orchestra on the ground. Just a thought. It just goes to show the limitless possibilities a stage-play could bring in the aspect of staging.
We’ve covered the two main attractions of the theatrical adaptation of “The Hateful Eight”: setting and staging. Surprisingly though, there’s even more buried potential in such a medium-shift. A more diverse range of lighting techniques could be utilised to give the film even more dramatic impact, as opposed to solely natural window light and firelight. For instance, a literal spotlight could be used during Daisys song to separate her further from her counterparts, only to be suddenly snuffed out by the intervention of Ruth. Speaking of that guitar scene, imagine it playing out live on stage! Though, the prop department might have a nauseating time ploughing through so many replicas (they’ll have learnt their lesson not to borrow anything from museums). Additionally, “The Hateful Eight” utilises Tarantinos first original score, composed by Ennio Morricone. It’s a grand musical accompaniment, and I would imagine it would sound even grander when played by a live orchestra right below the actors’ feet.
Needless to say, there is so much untapped potential in a stage adaptation of “The Hateful Eight”. While the quality of the story itself is subjective and shifting mediums wouldn’t change that, the allure and grandeur of the theatre would equally heighten the film’s sense of gravity, mystery, and gruesome insanity. Someday, it may come to be, though more likely it will not. Either way, “The Hateful Eight” may not make the most of its cinematic medium, but perhaps it could if it were to step out of the screen and onto the stage, coming alive in all its bloody glory.