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Accepting Change: Angels in America from Broadway to HBO

bhealy's picture

In Tony Kushner’s groundbreaking two-part play Angels in America, a saga revolving around the trials of life, the complexity of loss, the meaning of relationships, and the confusion of spirituality, 1980s New York City serves as the backdrop for tumultuous change and heartbreaking realizations, echoing the pain that many Americans were feeling at the time. Kushner’s no holds barred look at both physical death and dying relationships stimulates a discussion on how uncertain change can be and how life moves on regardless. The two parts, Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, premiered separately on Broadway in 1993, in May and November respectively, and each earned the Tony award for Best Play in 1993 and 1994 respectively, as well as the Pulitzer Prize. In 2003 the two plays were combined to form the hugely successful HBO miniseries adaptation, premiering to intense acclaim and held up as the most watched made-for-TV movie of the year. This six-hour epic, filled to the brim with both veteran actors and relative newcomers, went on to win eleven Emmy awards, five Golden Globe awards, and a slew of other accomplishments. But the inevitable question is (as it is for all adaptations): how does the miniseries compare to the play? Instead of going scene-by-scene, comparing dialogue and scene order, I plan on highlighting the ways in which the miniseries can address certain things that a play cannot, and how the play veers in some new directions as a result of these characteristics that are unique to the film genre.

First, a breakdown: the play follows seven significant characters, all interconnected in various ways, and all struggling with their own internal demons. There’s Prior, a dramatic and openly gay man whose AIDS diagnosis changes everything around him; there’s Louis, his Jewish boyfriend who balks at Prior’s diagnosis and runs into the arms of Joe, a scared Mormon republican fighting to accept his homosexuality; there’s Harper, Joe’s drug addicted wife trying to stifle her mental illness, who is being cared for by her mother-in-law, Hannah, after Joe left her for Louis; there’s Roy, the real-life lawyer devoid of compassion and obsessed with power, who must accept his own AIDS diagnosis, despite his insistence to others that he is not homosexual; lastly there’s Belize, the knowledgeable and insightful nurse of Roy’s, who serves as a major source of comfort for Prior after being left by Louis. Add in the character of the seminal angel that Prior develops a relationship with and the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg who antagonistically stays by Roy’s side until he dies, and you have Angels in America.

What helps to make this miniseries so special is Tony Kushner, the writer of the original plays, who also serves as the screenwriter for the television production. By having the original writer at the helm, there is a sense of trust in where the miniseries chooses to head, what it leaves out, and the shifts in scenes, dialogue, etc, because Kushner is essentially revising his own work years later. However, due to it clocking in at 352 minutes, it should be noted that hardly any of the scenes are left out in their entirety, and the majority of the dialogue is left in its original state, even having been written almost twenty years earlier. Nonetheless, while this HBO miniseries is an unbelievably faithful adaptation, there are pieces missing to the story, decisions to cut things were made, and new scenes/dialogue were added in their place. While this is no doubt interesting and a breakdown would certainly be constructive, I find it more fascinating to look at how the film opens the story up to new ways of storytelling that a theatrical performance limits. By providing scenes that epitomize each point that I make, I hope that the medium of film for presenting plays can be analyzed and pondered. 

The very first thing that sets the miniseries apart from the theatrical performances and the play’s script is the role of the opening title sequence. While it may seem like a tiny part of a six-hour movie, to me the title sequence serves as a beautiful connection to the story that is about to be told. Set to acclaimed composer Thomas Newman’s theme for the film, images of cloudy, eerie American cities flash by, from an ethereal-looking San Francisco to a virtually cloudless, normal-looking New York City. This sequence is able to whet the appetite of the viewers by showing them this image of heaven as San Francisco that will be described later by multiple characters. And, in contrast, New York City as the opposite of San Francisco’s heaven - perhaps setting the stage for New York City as a form of hell? Lastly, the intro ends with the angel of Bethesda, and by having the statue move slightly, we are being teased for the arrival of the film’s significant angel in the second part, indicating that the story will indeed bring to mind the question of whether angels really do exist. I believe that this intro, a mere two minutes long, functions as an invaluable aspect of this production, a way to connect what is to come before the story actually begins. (See the following video):


One of the most noticeable additions to the story in the miniseries is the use of special effects, most notably in the scenes with Prior and his angel. By using these effects, which often cheapen a story so emotionally driven, the story is given even more of a fantastical spin, with these angel scenes serving as incredibly beautiful works of art. By using the effects that reveal the city streets through the major hole in the hospital wall while Prior and his angel are wrestling, we are also given a more relatable, realistic look at the scene as well. This is happening in the real world, in the real hustle and bustle of New York City and the special effects help remind us of that when the fantastic is just too breathtaking to look away from. (See 8:20 of the following video):


Another important aspect of the special effects is the use of color in the way the scenes are presented. For example, while the majority of the film is show in color, there is one specific scene that benefits from being cast in a different light. The scene is when Prior is visiting heaven to meet with the angels of the different continents, where he pleads for his life. Shown in black and white, but with his robe a bright red, this scene shows Prior wandering the streets of heaven and sticking out – showing how Prior doesn’t quite belong in this heaven just yet. These two scenes give the audience a new way to look at what is occurring by changing the lighting, and add to the beauty of the production as well. This scene also adds a fantastical element to an already fantasy-filled play, by showing such a vision of heaven that is so unique and playing with the black and white to give it an old, storied feeling to it. (See the beginning of the following video):


            Another aspect of the miniseries that stands out is the use of still pictures inserted into the scenes, almost like a documentary. Used as a form of reinforcement for historical memories in the first scene of the film, pictures of the immigrants arriving at Ellis Island are paired with the rabbi’s eulogy for Louis’ grandmother. It is an interesting way to start the film, or the play for that matter, having a eulogy for a character we didn’t know. However, by opening the door for a major discussion on death and spirituality, it seems to work. The Holocaust-era images only reinforce this, highlighting the role of history in our lives and in the life of New York City in general, one of the most prominent characters in the miniseries. Additional scenes utilize this splicing of alternative images/video as well, showing images of space to express how each character seems to be grappling with the world, sped up progression of germs mutating when Roy’s doctor is giving him his diagnosis, and a painting that Harper and Joe refer to. This unique way of mixing genres makes the audience feel more a part of what’s going on, and gives them more of a chance to connect what they are watching to these other forms of media and history. (See 3:57-5:50 of the following video):


            One of the greatest advantages of having this story played out on screen is the ability of the audience to witness all the little details that make up such a complicated, interconnected play. To me, this includes the characters’ facial features, which I believe are incredibly important to their performances. While theatrical actors are able to enact different methods to showing their emotions, there is nothing like seeing a character’s face change as a result of new information or a new realization or in response to another character. The value of seeing the emotions change on their faces is apparent in the fight scene, where Harper and Joe are fighting about his inner demons and Louis is telling a hospitalized Prior that he’s leaving him. The two scenes cut back and forth from each other, and the emotional impact of what is said between the characters is expressed so beautifully by the actors involved. (See the following video):


            While the medium of theatrical shows is certainly valuable, and is able to tell a story in a very unique way that directly involves the audience, I argue that this play in particular benefits from being filmed as a movie, and is able to be taken in a slightly more fantastical direction due to the title sequence, the special effects, the color changes, the inserted images and video, as well as the small details that bring the storylines all together. Kushner himself addresses his view of a “pared-down style of presentation, with minimal scenery and scene shifts done rapidly (no blackouts!), employing the cast as well as the stagehands – which makes for an actor driven event, as this must be,” but obviously he must have realized in the ten years between publishing the play and re-working it for the screen that the play can benefit from the beauty of film (Kushner, 11). By bringing this play out into the real world, by filming in real New York City and by utilizing the effects that can help produce breathtakingly beautiful scenery and moments of fantasy, Angels in America takes on a grander, more meaningful role in portraying the contrast between the beauty of life and the downright hideousness of life.

            While it is clear that the story has been given room to evolve in this new setting, the story itself often addresses the key question that has been plaguing (no pun intended) us this semester: Do people really evolve, and if so, what are the ways in which we evolve? Angels in America offers us multiple explanations for how people change, and how life moves on, forcing us to evolve often against our control. One quote in particular, said in a conversation between Harper and the imaginary mannequin figure of Mormon Mother at the Mormon Visitors Center, addresses how people change:

Mormon Mother: Well it has something to do with God so it’s not very nice. God splits the skin with a jagged thumbnail from throat to belly and then plunges a huge filthy hand in, he grabs hold of your bloody tubes and they slip to evade his grasp but he squeezes hard, he insists, he pulls and pulls till all your innards are yanked out and the pain! We can’t even talk about that. And then he stuffs them back, dirty, tangled and torn. It’s up to you to do the stitching.

Harper: And then get up. And walk around.

Mormon Mother: Just mangled guts pretending.

Harper: That’s how people change. (Kushner, 211)



In a later scene, the character of Prior expands on this notion that change is often completely out of our control, and that it is scary and therefore not to be desired. Instead, Prior’s own grappling with death is pushing him towards a realization that regardless of who or what is pushing us towards change, perhaps it’s for a good reason. Perhaps we ultimately benefit from being thrust into a new life of sorts.

Prior: It’s just…It just…We can’t just stop. We’re not rocks – progress, migration, motion is…modernity. It’s animate, it’s what living things do. We desire. Even if all we desire is stillness, it’s still desire for. Even if we go faster than we should. We can’t wait. And wait for what? God… (Kushner, 263-264)

            The story itself revolves around so many characters in states of confusion and unwillingness to move forward into the new world, the new and scary world that seems so far out of their control, and practically every storyline offers a new contribution to our discussion on the aspects of change. It can be scary, we can feel powerless, it can be messy, like guts spilling out of us, but in the end perhaps it truly does move us forward in a world that is constantly moving. Without these impetuses for change, we would just disappear into the horizon, left behind by the rest of the world. Angels in America provides me with that new understanding, a story that maintains our agency because it is still up to us to consent to moving along with the tide, to be willing to let the world take us where we need to go. But like many of our theories, there is also the component of chance, of the complexities of change, and of our inabilities to stop our worlds around us from evolving. Angels in America has managed to evolve over the years into a fiercely relatable, heartbreaking, and beautiful miniseries, one that benefits greatly from its stage predecessor but still ends up being a unique adaptation of this story all about the changes of life and the roles we play in them. With all of these claims in mind, the story has adapted seamlessly into the 2000s, proving that change is good, and that some change doesn’t have to turn your own life story upside down – by being open to it, a little change can go a long way.


Works Cited: 

Angels in America. Dir. Mike Nichols. By Tony Kushner. HBO Films, 2003. DVD.

Kushner, Tony. Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2003. Print.


Brace's picture


yeah I think it's a very shallow reading with little understanding of the mediums involved - theatre and television. I hope no one looking for any sort of helpful analysis for an essay or because they have watched it comes to this because they will be disappointed

Anne Dalke's picture

"proving that change is good"

I want to start by quoting myself; this is part of my comment on AnnaP's paper:

Interestingly and appropriately, the NYTimes just reviewed today a new book on what makes literature literature, by Harvard literary scholar Margerie Garber.... her reviewer terms [hers] "a narrow, naïve insistence that the most 'literary' questions are 'questions about the way something means, rather than what it means, or even why.' To begin with, it assumes an easy distinction between how and what that rarely exists in practice.... After documenting the protean history of the term, she ends by wanting 'literature' to mean only one thing." What I've been learning, and re-learning, during our work together this semester is the infinitely expansive nature of the "literary," as well as the mistake of confining it to known forms (not to mention the mistake of confining the study of it to its forms!).

Which is to say that, having read your exhaustive comparison of the play and miniseries
(wonderfully illustrated!--thanks so much for inserting all these video "quotes" in illustration of your points), I am realizing that what interests me most about Angels in America is what it has to say about change, and how it happens: that is, the questions you turn to @ the very end of your paper. The very careful comparison that you develop through most of this project, exploring the way in which the play was adapted into a miniseries--how "the miniseries compares to the play," how it "can address certain things that a play cannot," how it "opens the story up to new ways of storytelling" (and yet how it functions as an "unbelievably faithful" adaptation?) -- all that seems mere prelude (and so given a disproportionate amount of space) to what you name @ the very end as "the key question that has been plaguing us this semester: Do people really evolve, and if so, what are the ways in which we evolve?"

When the miniseries was first reviewed, in the 2/12/04 New York Review of Books, we were offering an earlier version of this course, and I found the language of the review quite relevant to our explorations:

"The ability of human beings to evolve and change in time stands in stark contrast to ... God, [who was] bored by the sempiternal stasis that was life in Heaven, and 'bewitched' by man's ever-evolving ingenuity, curiosity, and forward-moving aspiration....The angels want to turn back the clock, to reverse the 'virus of TIME'.... what [they want is]...'STASIS!' Kushner, in other words, has created a cosmic model of the conflict between beautiful abstract systems and the unruly, illogical energies of lived life."

One of the students in the course @ the time elaborated on these themes @ some length. Would you like to go on exploring in this direction? Content rather than form? Or attending (as Garber's reviewer says we must) to the intersection between them? The play "has managed to evolve," you say, "proving that change is good." Do you really think you have "proven" this claim? Could you? How?