I have just seen an elaborate production of The King and I at Resortsworld. Even my daughter, who is barely five, remained alert and interested for most of the play, thanks to the beautiful sets, even though all she understood was that it was about a teacher and children in a palace.
This version differed a bit from the one I saw in my childhood. I must have been nine or ten, so I understood most of what was going on and didn't need brilliant stage design to keep me awake. The main difference I remember was that after the king threatens to beat Tuptim to death, the scene changes as soon as he throws down the whip and stalks off. Here there is a tirade from the prime minister, a report that the lover's body has been found and a cry from Tuptim that she will die too. As she runs towards the balcony at the end, the suggestion is that she kills herself.
Certainly the earlier version I watched was less melodramatic, but it did leave me with the question unanswered for many years as to what happened to Tuptim, who never reappeared in the play, after all. I never got to see the movie version in full, not sure why. I do remember seeing it on TV in my teens but the reception was bad, so maybe the TV broke down before I could get to that part or something like that. That might have been when we got our new TV (now the old TV that sits in my family room). Well, anyway, I did go to see Anna and the King wth Jodie Foster when it came out, and it answered my question by showing the two lovers being beheaded! Great.
Reading the biographical data in Wikipedia on Anna Leonowens, though, it seems it is likely the entire incident is a fabrication. The King of Siam's family defends him, saying as a devout Buddhist he would never have ordered an execution. He also adhered to many royal traditions, however. So what is the truth? It seems likely, given the history of Anna, that it was made up. Anna was apparently given to stretching the truth in many matters, such as her family background and age, and may very well have added romantic incidents to her book to make it more popular. Possibly she received an impression that the king would punish any unfaithful wife or concubine harshly, so she built up on bits of gossip to make up a story of star-crossed lovers in fear of the king. Maybe the threat of flogging was possible but then it may indeed have been only a threat. That's another angle to explore when staging the play.
It's intriguing how many ways there are of telling a story and using a set of characters. This brings to mind another adaptation, of the Japanese film Shall we Dance?
The reference to The King and I is very appropriate, I realize now. The movie shows a man and a woman drawn together in friendship by ballroom dancing classes. They are intrigued by each other and grow close but maintain a platonic relationship. I found this much more believable in the original Japanese movie. The American version was creditable, but the stars, Jennifer Lopez and Richard Gere, were just too sensual. It's hard to believe that they would really have been completely platonic. The American movie tries to show that dance can be just about bonding and releasing emotions in a healthy way without creating a romantic or sexual feeling. But that kind of goes against the social purpose of dancing in the first place, especially of ballroom dancing which was developed precisely as a socially acceptable way of developing such feelings in more inhibited times. It's shown in the Jane Austen books. The Japanese culture even in current times is still pretty inhibited, but not American culture, which is the utter decorum of the main characters with each other is barely believable.
This just goes to show you can't just transplant a plot. Change the setting and the story changes. That's what makes it such an interesting exercise to adapt stories.
Going back to The King and I, it would be nice to see a version that goes more intimately into the real characters of Anna and the King, not just what went on around them, but what they thought and felt. From what is known about their lives, they seem to have been very interesting people indeed. When drawing from a rich real life source, there is always more to tell, and many ways of telling it.