Literary Darwinism: Melissa Leilani Larson and Adapting Characters Into a Dramatic Medium


Larson’s adaptation of Persuasion; Art by Liz Pulido

Melissa Leilani Larson is a literature fiend. Before she was roped into the world of theatre by taking playwriting courses from Elizabeth Hansen and Eric Samuelsen,[1] she was firmly entrenched in BYU’s English department. Before the playwriting bug bit her, I’m sure Larson originally had no comprehension that her delightfully bookish tastes would give her a chance to engage with her favorite books on a whole new level by translating them to the stage.  

Yet, now that she has succumbed to the delight and insanity that is drama, it’s been an interesting process to see her dig into the trove of her favorite novels and stories and re-work them into solid and beautiful adaptations for the stage.

A couple of years ago BYU produced Larson’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, which is one of my favorite novels, too. Mel and I have very similar literary tastes (very BBC), so she has this annoying habit of adapting some of my favorite stories (which I also had long planned to tackle) before I can get to them. I might have resented her for it, if she didn’t do such darn a good job with them.  I may still write some of them someday (especially Persuasion, as well as another of my all time favorite novels that I know she’s working on), once there’s been some distance between her excellent versions. In the meantime, I’ve resigned myself to asking her if I can produce some of them. Thus last summer Zion Theatre Company produced Larson’s Persuasion, which was one of the best selling shows that my company has ever done (the other, no surprise, was my adaptation of Sleepy Hollow).

BYU also had great success with their earlier production of Persuasion, so they decided to have Larson come back and adapt some more Austen for them. Larson’s version of Pride and Prejudice is now on deck for BYU’s next theatre season, and I think they were smart to tap back into that successful formula. I mean, if it ain’t broke, why fix it…right? Mel and I were discussing her adaptations the other day, and I’m very excited about what she has coming up. Between Little Women at the Covey, Pride and Prejudice at BYU, and another one which I’m not sure I’m supposed to name… she’s been a very busy bee.

Melissa Leilani Larson

Now some may question why a writer would even want to focus so much on adaptation. Why not write your own stuff? To be fair, Larson does that as well…her superb original plays, such as Little Happy Secrets and Standing Still Standing, prove that she does that sort of work equally as well.

But as someone who has also dabbled in adaptation,[2] not to mention someone who has written several historical plays (which is a similar process), I can definitely relate to Larson’s allure to re-working pre-existing stories. And Larson’s not the only great writer who has relied on older stories. For example, most of Shakespeare’s plays, even his signature “original” stories like King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, and Hamlet, relied heavily on already existing material.

Adaptation combines the passion of the reader with the creative output of the writer. It’s engaging with a text on a whole new level, taking one side of a dialogue (such as the works of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, or C.S. Lewis, which anglophiles like Larson and I enjoy), but then adding the benefit of being able to join in on the conversation.

Also everyone who has really enjoyed a book has had that desire to see that book come to life, to see those characters step that much closer to reality, as if you could see and touch them. You want them to become real. And mediums like film and theatre really can get close to fulfilling that desire. It’s one of the great benefits of being a dramatic writer…you see your imagination take on flesh and blood. You create something spiritually, and then see it created physically. It’s a beautiful, powerful experience to be able to take characters by the hand and feel their skin on yours.

ZTC’s production of Larson’s Persuasion

So writers like Larson do us a great favor when they take our favorite characters and make them “real.” They’re like the blue fairy in Pinocchio, possessing a transformative magical dust that creates an illusion so convincing that, at times, you feel like Elizabeth Bennett, Mr. Darcy, Dorothy Gale, Bilbo Baggins, Huck and Jim just entered the room and sat at your table.   

[1] Mahonri Stewart, Saints on Stage: An Anthology of Mormon Drama (Provo: Zarahemla Books, 2013), p. 541

[2] My play Legends of Sleepy Hollow; as well as two works I’m currently adapting, Sense and Sensibility and Our Mutual Friend.  

About Mahonri Stewart

Mahonri Stewart is a Kennedy Center award winning playwright and screenwriter who resides in Arizona with his wife Anne and their two children. Mahonri recently graduated with an MFA in Dramatic Writing from Arizona State University, and received his bachelors in Theatre Arts from Utah Valley University. Mahonri has had over a dozen of his plays produced by theatre venues and organizations such as Utah Valley University, the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland, Arizona State University, the FEATS Theatre Festival in Switzerland, Zion Theatre Company, the Echo Theatre, BYU Experimental Theatre Company, Art City Playhouse, the Little Brown Theatre, the Binary Theatre, and the Off Broadway Theatre in Salt Lake City. Mahonri also loves superheroes, literature, film, board games, lasagna (with cottage cheese, not ricotta!), and considers himself an amateur Church Historian. He is also a tireless advocate for Mormon Drama.
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13 Responses to Literary Darwinism: Melissa Leilani Larson and Adapting Characters Into a Dramatic Medium

  1. Andrew Hall says:

    I got to see Persuasion last year, and commented, “I thought it was utterly enchanting. The actresses who played the older Anne and Mary were outstanding, and nearly all the actors did very well. I was surprised how funny it was. The script and directing were full of clever, witty moments that never seemed out of place. The moment where older Anne danced with younger Wentworth was magical.”

    • I remember reading that, Andrew! It was a very well reviewed play, deservedly so on Mel’s part and the part of the director, cast and crew. I was very pleased with what they accomplished.

  2. Wm says:

    I don’t get the Literary Darwinism reference.

    • “Adaptation.” Kind of punny, I know.

      • Wm says:

        Ah! I totally missed that.

      • April says:

        I know this is an older post, but I came across it today in my search for resources for a paper I am writing. I was confused by the Literary Darwinism reference, but that is because I was looking for information regarding the literary theory, and this article appeared to have nothing to do with that. Punny perhaps, but also maybe misleading since there is an actual thing called “Literary Darwinism.” (see here)

  3. Th. says:


    I wonder if there’s something in particular about Persuasion? I too have an adaptation planned. But mine’s a science-fiction novel.

    • I think mainly it’s just a really authentic, vulnerable, beautifully wrought piece. I love, love, love Persuasion. It’s my #2 favorite novel (#1 being C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces, which I hope to adapt someday, when there’s been some “distance” between another’s adaptation; #3 being Our Mutual Friend by Dickens, which a friend and I are making into a musical).

    • And I’m very curious what a sci-fi version of Persuasion would look like. Consider my interest perked.

  4. Wm says:

    You’re all mutants!

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