THE HATEFUL EIGHT: Great On Film, Even Better On Stage?

Originally published in the Once Upon A Time In Hollywood special issue of Birth.Movies.Death magazine in 2019.

Quentin Tarantino is a fine visual filmmaker, and his ability to synthesise cinematic history and language into incisive commentary is famous. But as a storyteller, Tarantino’s greatest strengths are as a writer of dialogue and a director of actors. It comes as little surprise, then, that he was involved in theatre in his early life – or that he would end up releasing The Hateful Eight, a film that would be just as at-home on stage as on screen. As a professional theatre practitioner myself, I can’t help but speculate about its potential.

On its most basic level, The Hateful Eight is a drama for eight actors (plus a few more), where all the characters are trapped by a blizzard in a smallish, single-roomed building. That room has many discrete areas, and scenes often play out in one area while background action takes place elsewhere. It’s almost tailor-made for the stage, which as a medium doesn’t exclusively limit itself to static sets, but certainly favours them.

But it’s not just the setting that makes The Hateful Eight perfect for theatre. The tightly-wound suspense of the story – plus its collection of at-odds characters with incendiary backstories brought together by circumstance – calls to mind Agatha Christie murder mysteries, which are endlessly popular on stage. With the additional intimacy of a live performance, that suspense would be all the more palpable; the physical and emotional violence all the more painful.

For actors, The Hateful Eight would be a treat fittingly akin to the similarly-titled Twelve Angry Men, itself successfully adapted into a stageplay. It’d be an opportunity for everyone on stage to flex their acting muscles, inhabiting their characters in realtime for the entire duration of the play. The script is, like all Tarantino work, dialogue-heavy, with plenty of delectable bons mots to chew on and a complex array of character motivations to work with. The characters’ various monologues and exchanges would make for an ensemble drama par excellence.

Structurally, The Hateful Eight’s stage adaptation is easy to imagine. For one thing, its 70mm “roadshow” version had an intermission in the middle, placed at a point of heightened suspense and conflict just as it would be in a theatrical setting, allowing the audience to speculate about the trajectory of the story. The stagecoach prologue could be performed on a small-scale bit of set onstage, with the curtain pulling back, set walls moving apart, or lights coming up, to reveal Minnie’s Haberdashery and its residents once the principals arrive there. 

Even the Haberdashery itself has all the trappings of a stage set. Though there’s obviously a fourth wall in the film – the one with the door in it, or the one with the fireplace in it, depending on your preference – nearly all the action takes place beyond it. You could essentially transplant the film’s set onto a stage, with minimal changes, and it’d just work. Not all plays dictate their set layout, but this one feels like it certainly could.

A significant element of a theatrical set designer’s job is to incite the audience’s curiosity as to how the various elements on set will be used. The concept of “Chekhov’s gun” – that once an item has been introduced in a story, it must be used at some point – originates in reference to theatrical set dressing, specifically a gun being hung on the wall, and The Hateful Eight follows this pattern religiously. Minnie’s is littered with interesting and curious items, and almost nothing goes unused, either referenced in backstory or interacted with in realtime. The set is full of implications about what happens next, and expectations are frequently subverted – a delight in any storytelling medium. There’s even a trap door, the use of which is a theatrical convention at least as old as Shakespeare.

Perhaps the most amusing stage tradition in The Hateful Eight is one that doesn’t even make itself clear on screen. Kurt Russell’s character is killed midway through the film, and while most productions – and most actors – would have the corpse played by a dummy for the rest of the shoot, Russell elected to play his own corpse, dutifully lying “dead” onset every time a shot called for it. That’s exactly what would happen in a stage production, where there’s no option to cut away and replace the body – the actors simply have to lie still until the final curtain.

There would, naturally, be challenges in staging The Hateful Eight. Many of the visual storytelling choices – basically anything involving specific camera shots – would need to be reconceived through stage blocking or lighting changes. Effects like squibs and snow would be messy for stage managers to deal with, but a fun and visually impressive set of tricks to achieve onstage. Creative choices would need to be employed in the adaptation to either remove the nonlinear flashbacks, or build them into the action somehow – possibly by having those scenes play out over a frozen tableau of the main actors. But these are challenges that theatre professionals relish.

Luckily for fans of both Tarantino and theatre, there’s some chance an official Hateful Eight stageplay could emerge. It actually kind of started its public life as a live performance: after the script leaked online, Tarantino staged a live reading of it in Los Angeles. Kurt Russell, Samuel L. Jackson, Walton Goggins, Bruce Dern, Tim Roth, Zoë Bell, James Parks, Dana Gourrier, and Michael Madsen played their roles from the film, while Amber Tamblyn played Daisy Domergue, James Remar played Jody, and Inglourious Basterds’ Denis Ménochet played a French equivalent of Señor Bob. They only read the first draft, and the ending was different to the final film’s, but it’s telling that the script’s potential could be illustrated in something as undynamic and unrehearsed as a script reading.

After The Hateful Eight’s release, many noticed how theatrical it was, and Tarantino was frequently asked if he was planning a stage version. There had even, it turned out, been discussions about producing it as a play before making the movie, though Tarantino preferred to shoot it on film first. As of the film’s publicity tour, Tarantino was eager to adapt the script for theatre, but just needed to find the time. There hasn’t been much public talk about it since, but that’s no reason to assume the project’s dead in the water.

Tarantino said often during that tour that he thought the script and the cast would make The Hateful Eight just as entertaining in “a 99-seat theatre off of Santa Monica Boulevard” as they did on 70mm film, and he’s right. It might even work better on stage, with the audience physically inhabiting the same claustrophobic space as the actors, feeling the tension, smelling the poisoned coffee. Maybe we’ll get to see that someday. After all, Tarantino only said he’d quit filmmaking after ten films. There’s every chance he could turn to the stage – where his scriptwriting would soar just as high.