John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, as seen on the stage, was a somber, headlong rush into the realm of an idea. Using the skeleton of an oft-told tale of “did he or didn’t he”, as well as the familiar plot points and characters from at least a dozen investigations of scandal inside the Catholic church, the play concerned itself not with guilt or innocence, but rather the very nature of faith itself. There is a religious school, a charming, dedicated priest, and even a rigid, humorless nun, but these archetypes are not meant to push a story forward in any conventional manner, except of course to challenge the audience’s expectations regarding their essence. Given the flood of detail that has emerged from parishes all across the country regarding sexual abuse and children, there isn’t a single human being who doesn’t hold an opinion on the matter, and the church itself, while maintaining millions of adherents, has suffered a public relations disaster so widespread that even the mere sight of a collar is bound to arouse suspicion. Shanley takes these assumptions, exploits them for full effect, and damns us for playing along. He knew what we’d think from the very start, dared us to think otherwise, and ran away with the truth while we were still obsessing over minutiae.
A stereotypical nun, nasty but presumed loveable (the movies have taught us that crust always hides a layer of sweetness), accuses a popular priest of being too friendly with a young boy. That the child is awkward and black only makes the case more obvious. The priest exploited the boy’s weakness, flattered him with comfort and solace, and molested him as a matter of course. These things not only happen, but happen often, and it’s damn near impossible to think otherwise. Where there are priests, there are young boys, and when they connect, sodomy ensues as the night follows day. It’s axiomatic. Undeniable. Inescapably obvious. The rub, of course, is that the priest’s chief accuser, the maniacal nun in question, has no evidence. Not a shred, in fact. She’s operating on gut instinct, naked assumption, and has but a single thrust that defines her — certainty. H.L. Mencken once said that, “It is the dull man who is always sure, and the sure man who is always dull,” but for people like Sister Aloysius Beauvier, such dullness is the price one pays for dictatorial control over an otherwise unfathomable universe. As such, certainty is, above all, faith in secular clothing; a dressing down, perhaps, but a state of mind teeming with the same fanatical adherence to the unprovable. No proof, you ask, regarding Father Flynn? When a woman — any woman — folds her hands, drops to her knees, and asks the unseen to comply with her wishes, it is but a short, easy step to conviction without trial.
And while Shanley’s play never force-feeds his warning, it is delightfully evident in the nooks and crannies of the dialogue; showing just enough of itself to provoke a conversation, but retreating in time to allow a real give and take. The Catholic church is far too easy a target these days, and any story involving pedophilia is so trite as to be routine, but an attack on faith? It’s not as easy as it sounds. Attacking a sect, be it Mormon or Baptist, or even one of the major planks of dogma, takes a certain degree of courage, but little by way of imagination. We mock ritual, hypocrisy, garish costumes, and assorted quirks that provoke derision and laughter, even among those who believe. And yet, too often the essential underpinnings are left untouched. And while fools debate the silliness of Biblical literalism, or whether or not Jesus walked the earth, the real discussion is to be found in the all-too-human impulse that continually sacrifices reason on the altar of belief. Doubt brings this discussion to the fore, and leaves it in tatters. For it is faith — and the blind certainty therein — that is responsible for every single occurrence of misery in the whole of human history. Conversely, doubt has clean hands and a clear conscience. No one has ever died because of it, no violence has ever been initiated in its name, and not a single instance of cruelty has ever been inflicted in defense of its tenets. Bloodshed begins, after all, when the questions cease.
And so goes the play. As an allegory, it is a necessary antidote to our own cocksure era, but just as suitable for any civilization across time. Despite its trappings, such themes will never suffer the spoilage of a dated curiosity. The movie, however, is an abomination; a knife to the back of everything the play spoke for and alluded to. In order to conform to the demands of cinema and admittedly mainstream tastes, a wrongheaded “fleshing out” occurred that stripped away mystery, discussion, and yes, doubt itself. The play, wisely, never showed any of the school children. What’s more, we never saw so much as an eyelid of young Donald Muller, the “victim” in question. The play understood that the moment we see the faces of youth, our emotions take over and we side with their cause. We glance at the priest, then back at the child, and without thinking, believe the worst about the adult. We’ve seen too many broken lives to consider anything else. And as soon as the movie begins, we observe detail previously left to the imagination on stage. The early scenes, therefore, play much like Nunsense, or any overworked study of Catholic school life where rulers smack tiny hands and rosaries jingle in the cold halls. Nuns are towering absurdities, unapologetically mean, and they whack the backs of heads whenever they see fit. The kiddies are so fresh-faced and innocent by contrast that the authority figures become oversimplified objects of scorn. Instead of interpreting Sister Aloysius’ words for ourselves (and what they represent), we witness overt behavior that takes away audience agency. It’s the lazy, unconscionable way out.
It’s also important not to see the kids because, well, “whodunit” doesn’t mean a damn thing this time around. Did Father Flynn ply the young man with wine and take off his shirt? If you care about the answer, you’ve already lost the battle. The play didn’t care, but the film seems to, even though the playwright is on board as both screenwriter and director. Is it possible that he gutted his own work for a bit of Hollywood coin? I can’t bear to know the answer, but how else to explain the character of the little blond boy, William (barely alluded to in the play), who eyes Father Flynn suspiciously throughout and picks on poor Donald, as if to emphasize that he’s pissed about being replaced? Hell, during Flynn’s resignation sermon, the camera holds embarrassingly on William as the hint of a smile comes to his face. What other purpose could this serve but to plant the seed that he is happy Flynn is being dismissed from the school? Why would William be happy unless he resented Flynn for his disloyalty and/or anal rape? And because Donald has a face and a body and real feelings on display this time, his pathetic figure forces us to choose sides, more so after his own mother sacrifices him to the will of the doomed Flynn. Mrs. Muller doesn’t want to know if her son’s been abused, but as we are made to assume the affirmative, we don’t quite understand her stance. Fight for your boy, damn you! As presented in the movie, it’s all one big distraction that bogs us down in the particulars of a rote procedural.
And maybe it’s me, but casting Philip Seymour Hoffman as a potential child-toucher is like asking us to question Mickey Rourke in the role of an alcoholic. Oh yeah, this fucker is guilty all right, by dint of flushed cheeks, heavy breathing, and a sweaty upper lip alone. And as good as he is, he hasn’t an ounce of charisma, which just might be necessary if you’re going to fool bright youngsters into thinking it’s best to keep quiet about the ass-pounding in the rectory. But there I go, debating the “what if” of the plot, as if it had any relevance whatsoever. But I blame the movie’s construction and execution for such indulgences, when the verbal warfare should have had me riveted throughout. Perhaps it’s unfair to compare the stage to screen, but when alterations are made to a flawless work, it can only suffer in the aftermath. We are here to watch the ramifications of a worldview where objective data and facts are seen as impediments to a higher truth, not hunt for semen stains on an ass clown’s pant leg. The only answer is that the work never should have been adapted at all. But here it is, and the star power alone (Meryl Streep!) will garner Oscar buzz, but it pains me to think that for all her strutting and fretting upon the stage, few will see a bit of themselves in the good sister, and will instead cast her with the other devils of grand fiction, easily dismissed with a flick of self-righteous pity. She may conclude with doubts, but the rest of us will march on, ever-confident in the armor of belief.