READ MORE: Portraying DOUBT: Casting The Film
READ MORE: Manifesting DOUBT: The Design/ Behind DOUBT: The Sisters of Charity Remember Life in 1964
READ MORE: The cast and the writer-director
ON THIS PAGE: About the production and adapting the play
John Patrick Shanley brings his play DOUBT to the screen, in a story about the quest for truth, the forces of change, and the devastating consequences of blind justice in an age defined by moral conviction.
It's 1964, St. Nicholas in the Bronx. A vibrant, charismatic priest, Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), is trying to upend the school's strict customs, which have long been fiercely guarded by Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep), the iron-gloved Principal who believes in the power of fear and discipline. The winds of political change are sweeping through the community, and, indeed, the school has just accepted its first black student, Donald Miller. But when Sister James (Amy Adams), a hopeful innocent, shares with Sister Aloysius her guilt-inducing suspicion that Father Flynn is paying too much personal attention to Donald, Sister Aloysius is galvanized to begin a crusade to both unearth the truth and expunge Flynn from the school. Now, without a shred of proof or evidence except her moral certainty, Sister Aloysius locks into a battle of wills with Father Flynn, a battle that threatens to tear apart the church and school with devastating consequences.
DOUBT was written for the screen and directed by John Patrick Shanley. .
About The Production
"What do you do when you're not sure?" Father Flynn
"To be in doubt is not comfortable, as anyone can attest who has ever awaited lab results, fretted over a test score or stood vigil over a silent telephone, awaiting a call. It's a psychological itch, and you want to scratch your way to certainty. But it is often the first step on a path to greater spiritual or moral wisdom, a deeper compassion, a breaking free from constricting dogma. The crisis that Sister Aloysius faces in the play's shattering final moment is one that everyone faces at one time or another: the discomfiting discovery that the world is not ordered as you thought it was." Charles Isherwood, The New York Times
From the opening moments of John Patrick Shanley's DOUBT to its powerful conclusion, uncertainty hangs in the air, drawing the audience into a provocative mystery in which two nuns, a priest, and the mother of a young boy - as well as the audience itself -- are forced to confront their core beliefs as they struggle with judgment and verdict, conviction and doubt. In the battle of wills that ensues, DOUBT raises probing questions about the challenges of navigating a world increasingly confronted by sweeping changes and moral dilemmas.
It was the very word "doubt" that first inspired Shanley to write what would become the most acclaimed play of the last decade, and now, to adapt the story into a screenplay that enlarges the play's world and uses the fluidity of cinema to plant new seeds of uncertainty.
At the time he began writing, Shanley recalls vast numbers of polarized political pundits literally shouting at each other on television. "I felt surrounded by a society that seemed very certain about a lot of things. Everyone had a very entrenched opinion, but there was no real exchange, and if someone were to say 'I don't know,' it was as if they would be put to death in the media coliseum. There was this mask of certainty in our society that I saw hardening to the point that it was developing a crack - and that crack was doubt," Shanley explains.
"So I decided to write a play that celebrated the fact that you can never know anything for certain. I wanted to explore the idea that doubt has an infinite nature, that it allows for growth and change, whereas certainty is a dead-end. Where there is certainty, the conversation is over, and I'm interested in the conversation, especially because another word for that conversation is 'life.' We've got to learn to live with a measure of uncertainty. That's the silence under the chatter of our time."
For Shanley, the overriding challenge was incorporating not just the theme but also the very mechanism of doubt into the fabric of his story, unraveling facts and truths the audience might think are clear at the outset, and leaving the audience finally to explore these loose ends in their own way. Throughout, Shanley's one incontrovertible dictum was to never lead the audience to any one individual conclusion. "What was always important to me," he explains, "is that the sense of doubt belongs to the audience. I'm not going to tell them what's right and wrong. I wanted to simply make them think and feel something, rather than tell them what to think and feel."
Once Shanley knew he wanted to write about doubt and the necessity of weathering the inevitable challenges to one's beliefs, he began to ponder the setting for such a tale. "I wanted to apply the way I see things to a situation that was very fraught and seemingly insoluble," he says, "and this led to a parish priest accused of taking advantage of a member of his flock. I wasn't interested in the church scandals themselves, but I was looking for a polarizing situation, one in which most people would brook no hesitation in condemning a person - and then throwing those assumptions back at the audience in a different light."
Having decided on setting the story's battleground issues of principle and compassion in a religious school, Shanley's play took on a rich personal depth, transporting him back to his own childhood growing up in a strict Catholic school in a predominantly Irish Catholic working-class Bronx neighborhood. "I knew those people," he says. "Sister Aloysius is certainly based on nuns I experienced firsthand, and she is also someone I relate to - there is a certain sadness I share with her about things that are gone now from the world, like silence and ball point pens and students reading Plato."
Drawing further on his resonant memories, Shanley set the clash between Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn against the volatile atmosphere of 1964, just after the Kennedy assassination and on the cusp of the civil rights movement of the late 60s. "That was a pivotal time of going from complete faith in establishments and hierarchies, to questioning those establishments and hierarchies -- like the military, and organized religion," he says.
It was also a time of sweeping changes for the Catholic Church. The establishment of Vatican II by Pope John XXIII in 1962 ushered in a series of considerable reforms designed to make the church more modern, more diverse and more accessible to a changing laity. By the mid-'60s, the face of the church would be quite different, with nuns no longer required to wear the habit and with much less formality between priests and their parishioners.
"I wanted to capture something about that lost moment," says Shanley. "Walking around the Bronx in 1964, you'd see nuns in their bonnets and habits, but you didn't realize that within just a few years, they wouldn't be wearing them anymore and that time would be gone forever. I also think that Father Flynn is very much a product of the early '60s in the way he is questioning institutions as they stand, while still working within the system. He wants to make the church that he loves viable in a changing world."
Race, too, was woven into the story through the character of Donald Miller, the black child whose unusually close relationship with Father Flynn spurs Sister Aloysius' crusade. Shanley has vivid memories of attending a school with just a single black student in the early, tension-filled days of school integration. "When you have only one black student in school, you really start to notice that person and think, what does it feel like to be that guy? It made me see myself and my social context in a more complex way and made me start to question those things on a deeper level," he comments.
Throughout, Shanley avoided taking sides with any of his characters - and he admits that he relates to elements of both Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius. "I have a tendency to agree with every one of my characters while they are talking," he confesses. "But that's my experience of life. Human beings are contradictory and paradoxical and mysterious, and they remain that way."
All of this builds to the story's crucible moment, when Sister Aloysius finally admits she herself has - for the first time - doubts. Her certainty has been eroded by her growing compassion and even empathy for Donald Miller, his mother, the other students, and Sister James. She finds community in doubt, and thus is humanized and changed. The audience is left to reconcile what they just experienced in terms of their own beliefs and emotions. This was essential to Shanley's vision for Doubt. He says: "For more than a hundred years, filmmakers have tended to ask a question and at the end of the movie, they answer it. With Doubt, I wanted to leave the audience at the end not with an answer, but saying rather: 'What a beautiful question.' In that way, it becomes the audience's story."
Shanley's play, given its world premiere off-Broadway in the fall of 2004, was swept onto Broadway via an avalanche of rave reviews. It opened at the Walter Kerr Theater in 2005 and remained there for a total of 25 previews and 525 performances, which then led to a lengthy national tour and numerous international productions.
In the wake of the play's international success, Shanley came to believe that Doubt, with its ability to provoke and move audiences around the world, could inevitably do the same for movie audiences. Shanley had been writing screenplays for two decades, and had won an Oscar® for penning the romantic comedy "Moonstruck." Adapting Doubt, he says, would be the most difficult screenwriting experience of all. The challenge at hand was to completely re-envision his play and allow it to become a different creature on the screen: more visceral, more dynamic, more open to the vibrant, burgeoning working class neighborhoods of 1960s New York.
"This story started with memories of growing up in the Bronx and then those memories became a play, and I used the stage and all the materials it had to offer to tell the story that way; and now, as a film, it has a profoundly different character," Shanley says. "The kind of specificity you get in filmmaking -- from the real air, the real buildings, the real things all around you -- brings a verité to the story that the actors use to find a different level of performance. Theatre is very organized and real life is disorganized, so part of the process was shattering the story back into pieces and making it more like those original memories."
Another Side Of DOUBT: The Screen Adaptation
When the play first moved to Broadway, Shanley noticed that the greater number of people who saw "Doubt," the more intense the reaction. "There was a dissonant thing that seemed to happen where all the different responses people were having simultaneously every night in the theater created a kind of common power," Shanley says. "It seemed a lot of people felt passionately that the subject of certainty and its consequences was something they needed to talk about. And that's when I realized I'd like to do this as a film."
As he began the adaptation, he saw that translating the story to the screen would allow him to explore many elements that simply couldn't be addressed in the play: the live of the nuns, the children at the school, the whole outside world of a Bronx neighborhood on the cusp of major changes. Shanley states, "I wanted to convey a real sense of community - because I knew that if we spent time with these families and their kids, we would begin to track how the actions inside the church take a toll on the world outside of it. By the end, I believe the consequences of Flynn and Aloysius' conflict strike a more profound emotional resonance since we see and know who is paying the price of their battle. The film allowed me to detail this aspect of the story which I was unable to in the play - but had always longed to do."
It was also vital to Shanley to capture visually a sense of the spiritual devotion of the nuns, whose lives were so mysterious and often misunderstood to those outside their world. "With the film, I had the chance to really communicate the realm that the nuns lived in - the tradition and beauty in their world. I really wanted to use the silence of their lives as a part of the film's structure. It's a reminder in our noisy world that there can be great meaning in quiet and stillness."
He continues, "And those silences also serve the story dramatically, allowing the audience time to consider what has been said, and to really focus on the deliberate choice of words by our characters. Flynn, for example, knows full well the impact of his words - he gives sermons to his congregation every week, and uses these moments to promote change and growth and openness in the community. His spare, precise words and his measured delivery during these sermons are freighted with meaning. As these parishioners sit in silence, listening, I was able to show the audience how his words affect other characters, as well as provide space to reflect on what is going on in their own hearts and minds."
There was one overarching concern with the adaptation: conveying a sense of energy and urgency, and bringing the story's deeply embedded issues to the surface. "Flynn and Aloysius are dynamic, shrewd and verbal people, and they are not afraid to use words as weapons. So much of the drama of this story is in the dialogue - especially in the confrontation between Flynn and Aloysius. I needed to figure out a way to make that work cinematically," Shanley says. "In the beginning I wrote half a draft and threw it away because I felt I was failing at translating the story - and for a while I was miserable."
Then, came a creative breakthrough. It happened while Shanley was writing the scene in which Father Flynn gives his "pillow sermon," about a woman instructed by her priest to gather pillow feathers scattered from a rooftop. "Instead of simply having Father Flynn speak, I shifted to images of the story he was telling, so you would actually see the feathers floating, and I found that very freeing," Shanley explains. "I started writing the rest of the screenplay with that kind of spaciousness in mind. It helped me to get the past the characters' words and focus on the physical reality they inhabit. In a movie you can really explore the relationship between humanity and the natural world, the environments we move through. So things like a light bulb going out, or the blinds being adjusted, or a napkin blowing in the breeze began to take on great significance for me and the characters in the screen adaptation. Once I made that shift, I had hope again."
"The other big revelation for me," continues Shanley, "in not only writing the script but also in directing the film, was that I was able to utilize the conventions of a genre - in this case a mystery - to provide a propulsive energy to the narrative. The film begins with a simple question: did he or didn't he? And while I never lost sight of this question, I was resolute from the moment I started writing the script that I would never answer that question at the end - which, obviously betrays the convention of the genre. So, while it was incredibly challenging to structure the film with an emphasis on mystery and suspense, I also benefited from this unexpected liberation of not being obligated to provide a conclusive ending. The audience would decide for themselves what their ending is. This yielded tremendous satisfaction for me as a filmmaker."
Shanley wrote very much with the camera in mind, adding many visual flourishes to the screenplay. "One of things I wanted to do in the movie was to build a big visual entrance for Sister Aloysius so that the battle is immediately joined by the audience --- you see the two opponents in juxtaposition from the earliest moments and you see immediately her impression of herself as the priest's peer," he comments.
One of the many new scenes Shanley added to the film comes after the story's climax, and features a third, departing sermon from Father Flynn. "In a movie, you want that defining moment that brings you full circle to where it all started. So once again, you're in the Cathedral with Father Flynn giving his sermon -this time a farewell -- and you see how much the landscape has shifted for everyone," he explains, "and you are left to draw your own conclusions as to what actually happened to each of the players in the story."
By the time he finished the screenplay, Shanley was excitedly anticipating returning to his childhood stomping ground to shoot -- and to having the nuns and neighbors he grew up with participate in the production. "We didn't just go back to places," says Shanley, "we went back to people. Kids I knew growing up are now playing congregation parents in the movie, and it was all very resonant."
Shanley had originally dedicated the play to the Sisters of Charity, the order of nuns who ran St. Anthony's, the Bronx school he attended and on which St. Nicholas is modeled - and he also wanted them to be a significant part of the motion picture production. In direct contradiction of the stereotypical portrait of the rebellious Catholic schoolboy who lives in sheer terror of nuns, Shanley still holds great affection and deep admiration for the teachers of his youth. "I've actually had enormously formative experiences with the nuns I've known, "he says, "and I wanted to communicate my respect for them and for their selfless devotion to people who need their help, most especially children."
One nun who was especially integral to the production was Sister Mary Margaret McEntee -- also known as Sister Peggy -- who taught Shanley at St. Anthony's when he was a feisty first grader and she a fresh-faced 21 year-old on her first teaching assignment. Sister Peggy made such an indelible impression on the young Shanley that she would later inspire the creation of Sister James, and he was very pleased to bring her on as a consultant. "She's enormously knowledgeable and she's also a vibrant force who brought something completely unique to the production," says Shanley. "She helped out with everything from showing Meryl how to wear her rosary beads, to the proper way to put on a bonnet. The Sisters of Charity were enormously supportive. They're a rare and beautiful group of people."
Sister Peggy worked closely with Streep, Adams and Hoffman, answering questions on attire, ritual and tradition and, more importantly, lending her spirit and memories to the players and crew as inspiration. She generously shared her own experiences teaching at St. Anthony's with the filmmakers. "I thoroughly enjoyed teaching there," she says. "Everything was very uniform and very rigid - but it was very peaceful."
Her recollections of the church's sudden changes in the early 1960s further helped everyone to understand the tinderbox atmosphere at the fictional St. Nicholas - the two generations battling over how best to reach children in a manner that might instill values, and faith, in a time of great social and religious upheaval.
"I always felt John XXIII had a beautiful vision," Sister Peggy says. "He wanted to open the windows and let in fresh air. Of course, once opened, it was very difficult to close them. Many people had mixed emotions about it. Some loved the changes and some were rather staid in their ways and they didn't want changes. And by changes, I guess some of the most noticeable would be liturgical changes, how we worshipped. The priest would no longer have his back to the people; he turned and faced us. The altar was brought down. And there was more involvement of laity. I thought the message from Vatican II was a beautiful invitation to be more inclusive. And sometimes we forget that."
Sister Peggy also had memories of young priests emerging with a new point of view in the 1960s. "I saw many young priests who were moved by the changes of the times and were becoming friendlier, more open, very much like Father Flynn," she comments.
As for the difference in approach between the fearsome, absolutist Sister Aloysius and kind-hearted, open-minded Sister James, Sister Peggy is reluctant to take sides, despite how close she might be to the latter character. "I think each is really being true to who she is, to how she was trained and to what life offered her," she observes. "Sister James' formation was at a time when Vatican II was first happening, when the church was more sensitive to people and wasn't so authoritarian. Sister Aloysius' formation happened many years before that, when the church was stricter and very definite in its rules and regulations. Personally, I like Sister Aloysius, I guess because of my real life experience as the real Sister James. She is very firm but she is also deeply kind. She feels it's her most basic and absolute duty to be very protective of her students and to be very alert to any threat that might be happening."
Finally, Sister Peggy admits to taking pride in all that John Patrick Shanley has accomplished. "I taught him how to read and write," she comments, "so I'm very happy to know that a student of mine has done so well with words."
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