Manuel Puig’s Kiss of the Spider Woman is many novels in one. It’s a political critique of unlimited right-wing power; a psycho-emotional exploration of state terror and incarceration; an interior dreamscape; and a redemptive love story between two prisoners, the apolitical window dresser Molina and the committed leftist guerrillero Valentin.
Most of the novel is told in dialogue. These long, complex, emotionally fraught conversations read as if they are word-for-word transcripts of the prisoners’ secretly taped encounters. Some sequences feel like jazz, others play like hallucinations. There are dazzling, surreal, stream-of-consciousness internal monologues – extended fever dreams inspired by Faulkner and Joyce. There are also chilling police reports on the ruling junta’s efforts to spy on the newly released Molina. And there are scores of lengthy footnotes detailing Freud’s analysis of homosexuality and the elimination of repression (the association of sex and sin), as well as Herbert Marcuse’s championing of the “free flow of the libido”
Then, of course, there are the wonderful movies in the story, their plots recounted with loving bravado by Molina to help pass the time; “lullabies,” Valentin calls them. Movies, Puig felt, exist “to help you not go crazy”. Molina uses Hollywood plots to discuss emotional realities he is too frightened to voice in any other way. The films transport us out of the prison’s hellish claustrophobia, a place of torture and control, and into a world of breathless intrigue, femme fatales, magic, erotic longing and gorgeous visual poetry.
Puig adapted his novel into a play before it became, in 1985, a popular film starring William Hurt, Raúl Juliá and Sonia Braga, directed by Héctor Babenco. It has also been turned into a musical by John Kander and Fred Ebb. My own adaptation, with Allan Baker, opened this month in London.
I’ve written several book-to-film adaptations, including The Motorcycle Diaries, On the Road and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. The great Ansky play The Dybbuk became my play The Promise. Calderón de la Barca’s Life Is a Dream became my Sueño.
The first step in adapting is the hardest: I had to stop venerating these beloved works. I had to forget that everyone I knew seemed to have a passionate opinion about Che Guevara or Jack Kerouac or Junot Díaz or the Spanish golden age of theatre or Manuel Puig. I had to look at the works coldly, to be acutely aware of their flaws, to examine the many ways these works fail to speak to our time. For Kerouac, it meant dealing with the extreme and ugly sexism of 1950s America. For Che, it meant finding the beating heart beneath the famous pose and poster. For Puig, it meant stripping away and modernising some of the archaic views of what it meant to be a gay man in Latin America. It meant attempting to liberate Puig from his own time and place.
The next step in adapting is usually a rigorously faithful honouring of the original material. My first draft of Kiss of the Spider Woman was utterly faithful to Puig’s adaptation. Moment by moment, my play mimicked Puig’s tone, actions, character arcs, themes. What changed was the character of the dialogue, which I heightened and made more actable. When I re-read the novel, I was newly enthralled with Puig’s many literary forms and I tried to incorporate them all. The results were ambitious drafts that were far too long.
Finally, you have to remind yourself you’re not a stenographer, you’re a dramatist. Your job isn’t to recreate an existing aesthetic experience, but to craft an entirely new one. This is when you have to basically kill the original piece.
As I began to work with director Laurie Sansom, it became clear that we had to sacrifice many of the literary forms we loved in Puig’s novel. The first to die were the internal monologues. These speeches are hallucinogenic. They are mini-masterpieces. And they completely halt the forward momentum of the play. As beautiful as they are, they are not dramatic enough to merit remaining in a piece of theatre. We quickly learned this was also true of Puig’s brilliant footnotes and the wonderful (fictional) police report at the end of the novel.
Puig’s book gives us five movies. His stage play opts for one: the story of the panther woman. As I worked with Laurie, I settled on four films – the Panther Woman, a Nazi propaganda film, a zombie flick, and a Mexican love story – focusing on their most sensual moments and dispensing with the many convolutions of plot and subplot. What these four films have in common are an obsession with beauty, an appreciation for heroic women in impossible situations, a sympathy for fragile traitors, the pursuit of absolute love under the most impossible circumstances, redemption through suffering, and a joyful embrace of the macabre and uncanny. It’s my opinion that in the telling of these films Puig is most himself.
A gay man in the conformist, patriarchal, militarised, macho society of 1970s Argentina, Puig identified with the hidden, marginalised, voiceless men and women of his time. All his life, he rejected the labels “homosexual” and “heterosexual”. He saw no differences between men and women, except for the superficial differences of sex organs, and felt that men and women were trapped – by society and their internalisations of society’s tyrannical impulses – in these artificial roles. He was a crusader in the battle for social freedom. As Puig once mused: “The woman most desperately in need of liberation is the woman every man has locked up in the dungeons of his own psyche.”