There were a few changes that were made to make a smooth transition from stage to film, but there were many things that stayed the same. The plot of both versions was basically the same. The play and film centers on Father Flynn, Sister James, and Sister Aloysius. Sister Aloysius is convinced that Father Flynn has acted inappropriately around the male students at the school, and Sister James is the naive young teacher that wants to see the best in everyone and tries her hardest to believe that the allegations are not true.
The plot of both stories shows how Sister Aloysius tries to find out whether or not Father Flynn has been inappropriate with one boy in particular, Donald Muller, who also happens to be the only black student at the school. The play begins with Father Flynn delivering a sermon to his congregation. The topic of his sermon is doubt. He makes a compelling argument that not only does everyone go through periods of doubt about different things, but it is doubt that holds everyone and everything together. His exact words were: “Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty.
When you are lost, you are not alone” (Shanley 6). There are many different topics that Father Flynn could have been talking about, and many people that he could have been speaking to directly. He could have been speaking to himself, about whether or not he is doing the right thing with Donald; he could have been speaking to Donald, about feelings of uncertainty or confusion that he may be having; or, he could have simply been preaching a sermon that he had done many times before, and it just so happened to fit in perfectly with the topic of the play and what Sister Aloysius was struggling with herself.
The movie version, however, begins the film at the school, and we see Father Flynn in his element with all of the students. There could have been any number of reasons why the film started this way. It could have begun that way to show Father Flynn in a more approachable manner, making him more of a normal teacher than the leader of the church. It also could have begun that way to immediately show the connection (however inappropriate or creepy) that he has with his students right away. He is seen alone with a male student, and he gives this student a toy to keep for himself.
This could have been done to show that there are going to be scenes in the film that will make the viewer question just how close this teacher and leader of the church really is to the male students. He is never seen being affectionate or even friendly to any female students, and I’m sure there was a reason for that, also. Another major difference that stuck out to me in the plots of both versions was the scene in the film in which Sister James sees Father Flynn placing Donald’s shirt in his locker.
This seems to me that the film director is trying his best to keep adding questionable scenes, in which one would be crazy not to automatically jump to an inappropriate conclusion. This scene was not in the original version. In the original play, it leaves a lot left to the imagination about what really happened between Father Flynn and Donald. In the film version, however, it seems that there are more than enough instances in which a normal person might assume that something is going on behind closed doors.
When scenes are added like the one above, it looks as though it is only there to make the viewer question his or her stance even more. The last major difference that I saw was how Father Flynn exited the story. In the play, the last image we have of him is speaking on the phone and requesting to speak to a bishop. We then learn from Sister Aloysius that she has “got him out,” (Shanley 57) and he has been transferred to another school. In the film, however, we see that Father Flynn is giving his last sermon at the church, and then he is allowed to say goodbye to his congregation.
The two different endings seem to suggest two different outcomes to me. In the play, is seems as though he has hurriedly left because he is guilty of the crime. He doesn’t have time to say anything to anyone, and he leaves as quickly as he can. When he is giving his goodbyes in the film, it seems as if he is being defiant in his departure. He wants to make sure that he leaves on a positive note, and he wants everyone to know that he has done nothing to be ashamed of, and maybe he hasn’t. To me, the quick exit is more of an acknowledgement of shame and guilt.
Some of the actions and motivations of the characters in the film version seemed slightly different from what I felt and observed when I read the play. For example, in the play, Father Flynn seems very self-assured and confident of his innocence and how he acts with his students. There are not any outward signs of affection for anyone, especially Donald, in the play. All of the allegations of their friendship gone awry are made because of what has happened in private. In the film, however, it was very surprising to see the added scene between Father Flynn and Donald in the hallway of the school.
Some of the male students were picking on Donald and being mean to him, and they knocked his books out of his hands. Sister James is then seen watching Father Flynn embrace Donald in the hallway in front of everyone, and then he helped him pick up his things. I could understand this scene happening for two reasons. On the one hand, maybe everything is innocent and Father Flynn is simply trying to help a student that has obviously been targeted for harassment just because he is different.
Father Flynn has already made it known that he has become friendly with the boy, only trying to help him navigate his way through the painful differences. He did not care how the hug looked; he was just trying to console the poor student. On the flip side, he could have hugged him because they have some kind of other relationship that is going on, and he cannot stop himself from being beside Donald and comforting him when he needs it the most.
I think that either way is meant to make the viewer try to form his or her opinion about what is really going on, but I was surprised that that particular scene was added. Another large difference between character actions and motivations involves the change from stage to screen of Sister James. In the play, Sister James is clearly a little naive and ignorant about what really goes on in the world. She is seen as quiet, reserved, and thrown off by constructive criticism. When Sister Aloysius speaks to her about the way that she is teaching, she seems to be at a loss for what to say, and even begins to cry.
I can understand that a new teacher is sensitive to how he or she is being perceived, but Sister James seems to be overly dramatic and delicate when it comes to criticism of any kind. It seems clear that her position in the play is one of wanting desperately to be on Father Flynn’s side. She wants Sister Aloysius to like her and respect her, but she is unable to conceive the thought that Father Flynn, a man of the cloth, would ever do anything as horrible as what Sister Aloysius is accusing him of.
Knowing all of these traits about her, it was odd to me that the scene was added to the film showing her reaction to Father Flynn placing the shirt in Donald’s locker. When Father Flynn sees that she has observed what he has done, she smiles at him in her normal, innocent, sweet smile. However, a few seconds later, we see her go to the locker, open it, and take the shirt out, with a deceptive look on her face. This completely goes against the actions that her character in the play would have taken. In the play, she would have simply willed herself to believe that she didn’t really see what she saw.
In the film, though, she boldly and brazenly walks over to the locker and does what she wants, with no hint of fear that Father Flynn or anyone else will see her do it. To me, this was completely out of character for her. In the play, she is much too cautious and timid to act out a bold move like that. The reactions to Father Flynn, however, were a little confusing and greatly differed. Donald Muller and several other boys in the gym class all reacted positively to him. They laughed at all of his jokes, and all seemed to want to be around him and cut up with him.
There were a couple of boys, however, that seemed to have disdain towards him. In the beginning of the film, there was one male student that had a severe reaction when Father Flynn grabbed his arm. He immediately pulled back and had a disgusted look on his face. Unfortunately for Father Flynn, Sister Aloysius saw this and later used it as ammunition towards him. At the end of the film, after it was revealed that Father Flynn was leaving the church, one male student is seen smiling smugly, hinting that there may be some reason as to why he is so pleased to see him leave.
These reactions that some male students had towards Father Flynn was enough to make me lean more to the fact that he probably did what he was accused of doing. This was a question that I had when watching the film, and the constant visual of the long fingernails seemed to me to be pointing to a larger acknowledgement. Overall, I think that any changes that were made to the play were important to the film, and there were practical reasons for making the changes. The film stayed true to the themes that it represented, and I think that it stayed true to the bigger meaning behind it.