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.

  • "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
    Oct 24 '16 at 14:34

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.


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.).

  • 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
    Oct 20 '16 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
    Oct 20 '16 at 14:34

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