What is Doubt about? Fundamentally, it’s not about anything particularly Catholic, or any mundane detail of the mortal world for that matter. That would be the “parable” side of the play’s original title, Doubt: A Parable. Both the play and the movie are about a much more universal dilemma that plagues any system of beliefs: that certainty, or “faith,” is an emotion — a particularly strong one at that — that fundamentally concerns itself with factual matters. Rather than be a roadblock to certainty, doubt is actually what provides faith’s engine. A stronger, absolute conviction better allows you to avoid the pain of uncertainty, which, on a mortal level, is the pain of being alive.
That struggle is tested is tested in a variety of ways by every character in Doubt (except for the gloriously ignorant children) as the possibility of a priest molestation case is raised. There’s no evidence for or against it, but the faith behind either point of view is absolute, irrefutable, and entirely a product of the circumstances. The fact that John Patrick Shanley could reduce that crisis of faith to characters — without making those characters archetypes — is what makes Doubt one of this generation’s greatest dramas. With everyone in both the theater and cinematic world worried about adapting the play to film, we should thank our lucky stars that, no matter what problems in adaptation take place, that core struggle is not lost in translation.
One of the inevitabilities of adapting the play to film is that the specific setting of Doubt, the “parable” side of the story, will inevitably grow more dominant. That same problem turned the adaptation of Wit, another intellectually astute Pulitzer Prize-winning play, into a film that would better be named Cancer. Here, John Patrick Shanley, who directs his own screenplay adaptation, turns Doubt into something of a post-Vatican II period piece. Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) is a hard-ass stereotypical Catholic school principal nun, and Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is the hotshot, progressive young priest who smokes, takes three lumps of sugar with his tea, and most egregiously, writes with a ballpoint pen. To a modern day audience, the general politics will immediately endear the audience to Father Flynn.