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So, I know most books, stage plays/musicals, etc. get changed at least a little bit if/when they're adapted for the screen, but I was actually a bit surprised by just how different Milos Forman's movie adaptation of Hair (1979) was from the original musical (first performed in 1966). Most significantly, in the original musical, Claude and Sheila Franklin are already members of the main group of friends who make up the ensemble. But in the movie, the main group of friends is just Berger, Woof, Hud, and Jeannie (with peripheral extras) - Claude enters the picture as a kid from rural America who's already gotten his draft card (again, unlike the original musical, where this happens midway through), and is kinda adopted by the group during the couple days that he spends passing through New York City. And Sheila Franklin is just some random rich chick from New Jersey who Berger decides he has a crush on (or some such) after seeing a picture of her in a newspaper. And the ending of the movie is incredibly different from the stage musical, as well:

In the musical, Claude gets his draft card, is initially going to burn it, but gets cold feet, and ends up dying in Vietnam. In the movie, Claude never really even considers burning his draft card, and goes off to training, but in a semi-convoluted mini-plot towards the end, Berger disguises himself as Claude so that Claude can sneak off base and visit his friends one last time, only for Berger to end up being mistaken for Claude and shipped off to war instead of Claude. So in the movie, Berger dies in Vietnam.

So, does anybody have any idea why such big changes were made? I totally get that dialogue, song lyrics, etc. get altered and cut all the time to make a story more suitable for the big screen, but these changes just seemed unusually large - e.g. full-on messing with the plot and completely changing characters in many ways.

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  • "Current answers do not contain enough detail" was simply the closest out of the choices. I am simply looking for the right kinds of detail that will more accurately and directly answer the question.
    – ghostdog
    Commented Oct 24, 2016 at 14:34

3 Answers 3

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I think there are some hints in this interview with Forman.

First, I found this amusing:

O: What about Hair? Did something particular draw you to the play?

MF: Songs. I saw the very first public preview on Broadway of Hair, when I was here in 1967 for some sort of festival or something. I just loved every song. It's one of the three musicals in history in which every song is a gem.

But here he's talking about another film he directed, Taking Off. Notice what he says about hippies in their environment:

I considered a portrait of these young kids, called hippies in those times. But what I discovered... I spent a lot of time in the Lower East Side, seeing these crash pads, and I found them very, very boring. On the other hand, when I talked to the parents of runaway kids, I found them much more interesting, because they were in panic. They were doing things, they were trying to find their children, they were trying to understand their children. The children just spent their time lying in the crash pad, smoking pot and looking at the ceiling. It was very boring. That's why I turned the focus of Taking Off on the parents.

So now it's time to direct Hair; is it likely he's going to retell the story he saw on stage, when he thinks (overall) their lifestyle is boring?

I think instead he looked for ways to introduce conflict, and that started (with a classic man vs man) with Berger meeting Claude. And it's a good setup: a naive, law-abiding fish out of water - soon to be a soldier - meets a gregarious, law-breaking, anti-war rebel. Everything Claude, our protagonist, thought he knew is being challenged.

I agree with what you said about Claude's infatuation with Sheila, but some love interest was necessary in order to provide a reason for the trip to Claude's base. And also to provide the means to get Berger shipped off to war. After all, it was Berger being just a bit too clever and he lost this one.

The really big theme, for me, are the changes designed for the three main characters:

  • Claude goes from naive to having his eyes opened.
  • Sheila leaves the authoritarian high society and becomes free.
  • Berger has to follow rules for the first time in his life.

Despite Forman saying that he liked the music, I think he made the changes he felt he needed to make to keep the story interesting.

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I think we can find an answer in Forman's biography and filmography.

For me, Forman is about one thing (as we can see in Hair and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest), the conflict between an individual and society that claims adjusting and obedience. In Hair it's Claude against the U.S. Army, in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest it's Mac against the mental institution.

The musical was more about the love stories between the members, this hippie utopia and peace movement that goes with it.

But why Forman changed all of this ? Because the war was over when he directed the film, the hippie movement had some shocking events and the story that the musical was telling was about love and music. Which is clearly not what Forman wanted to tell.

So, as an answer, Forman took the background but applied on it his beliefs and he made a film about an individual against the society. Why did he put it in Hair ? Because it gave him the opportunity to mock the American puritanism (family values, conservatism etc.).

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  • Sorry I haven't gotten to this - I've been meaning to add a comment about why I haven't picked this as an answer. While this is definitely an interesting take on Forman's work, I do not see how this would incentivize him to change Hair in the way that he did. It would certainly explain his attraction to the story, but not why he would change it. Especially as the original script for the stage musical does an excellent job of doing/addressing most - if not all - of the things you've listed here. Plus, while the show has romantic subplots, they are not its main focus...
    – ghostdog
    Commented Oct 20, 2016 at 14:33
  • ...Indeed, the stage musical is, as you say, very much about the individual (Claude, Berger, etc) against society (represented a bit more abstractly by Claude's parents, the "audience member" who sings "My Convictions" and her husband, etc). And it is also about the interactions of a group of outcasts - both with each other and with the outside world - which seems very much in keeping with Forman's themes.
    – ghostdog
    Commented Oct 20, 2016 at 14:34
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I like the original play and the movie. I think a lot of it was also that Forman had the benefit of hindsight and saw things had not turned out too well for the hippies what with Altamont and Charles Manson,and the Vietnam war did not end until a few years after hippies had gone out of vogue. The Claude in the play was a compelling character, a film student and deep thinker and would have been interesting in the film but the Claude in the film was also a good character. I wish they'd included the character of Chrissy. There is a singer who performs "Frank Mills" on the soundtrack album though. I think the character was cut because they thought they had too many characters. I guess Hud's fiance is the black female Dionne character in the movie. The Sheila in the play was a radical feminist student activist and would have been probably a little more compelling than the preppy princess in the movie but the idea of a princess and a farm boy is still a compelling tale.

Gerome Ragni and James Rado didn't like the movie and called it H because they felt Forman had taken all the air out of HAIR,but I think the movie is pretty good,even though it isn't their play,although I would love to see a film of their play. I don't understand why Ragni thought the movie's Berger was "closer to a madcap village idiot than anything resembling a hippie." Treat Williams doesn't do anything Ragni wouldn't have done. In fact, Gerome Ragni might even have wrecked the dining room instead of just dancing on the table! The movie's Berger interacts with his parents the way the play's Claude interacted with his.

One thing I miss not only from this movie but from the Broadway version is the love scene between Claude and Sheila in the original Off Broadway version. If I ever wrote a screenplay for HAIR I would include that love scene before Claude goes into the army with the songs "Exanaplanetoosh" and "The Climax."

The former reappeared in a Broadway version I saw a few years ago in act two substituted for the "Manchester" reprise, thankfully Galt MacDermot got "Dead End" back into the show for the black kids to sing, but unfortunately "The Climax" appears to be gone for good.

I would also like to know which bar of music Milos Foreman dubbed in this movie.

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    Hi, welcome to Movies & TV. For future reference, if you want to insert a paragraph break you need to leave a blank line. You seem to have a lot of personal opinion in here, do you have any evidence that part of Foreman's reason was that the hippies didn't achieve much? The commentary on the differences is a bit extraneous and your answer would be stronger if you concentrated more on the question.
    – DavidW
    Commented Jun 20, 2023 at 4:18
  • I thought I did concentrate on the question,but you probably answered it as well as anyone could. I don't know if Forman thought things didn't end well with hippies but there was a lot of disillusionment after all the month & the Manson thing & they didn't stop the war until a few years later, so things didn't quite turn out as they expected,and I do know from books about HAIR that Gerome Ragni and James Rado didn't care for the movie. Commented Jun 21, 2023 at 6:03
  • Ragni and Rado turned down and offer from Columbia pictures for HAIR because they wanted Milos Forman to direct it since he'd come to see them backstage at the original Off Broadway version, but their psychic had said the time was not right yet.I liked Forman's movie, but I would love to have seen what Columbia Pictures and probably Robert Stigwood would have done with HAIR. Commented Jun 21, 2023 at 6:05

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