On Sunday, HBO will premiere Ryan Murphy‘s adaptation of Larry Kramer‘s Tony award-winning play The Normal Heart that tells the story of writer Ned Weeks and his fight to bring attention to the AIDS crisis in the early 1980s. It’s the first time Kramer’s play has been adapted into a movie after being performed on and off-Broadway as well as in London over the last 30 years.
Here’s what you need to know about HBO’s The Normal Heart and the struggle to bring Kramer’s story to the screen.
1. It Explores the Early Days of the AIDS Crisis
At the height of the sexual revolution, gay men in large cities like San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles started dying of a mysterious disease. In the play, Weeks organizes a coalition to raise awareness of the dangerous illness threatening the gay community in New York City.
Kramer spoke at the Brooklyn Museum in 2012 about the amount of death happening in the city due to the disease at the time.
You could not walk down a street in Manhattan without not only seeing people who were sick but learning about people who had died literally in the last week. It was and still is a plague.
Wheelchair-bound Dr. Emma Brookner, a survivor of polio, has the greatest background on the strange outbreak and tries to obtain funding for further research on the subject. The government, press and public largely ignore Weeks and Brookner’s calls for action against the rising epidemic.
Ned feels that the only way there going to get help is to agitate the masses and only by doing that will people start to care for them enough to help or start to fight this disease.
2. Kramer Wrote the Play After Visiting Dachau Concentration Camp
In 1984, Kramer traveled to the Dachau concentration camp in Germany. He learned the camp opened in March 1933, years before the second world war started, but no one knew about it. He wanted the message of the growing AIDS epidemic to not remain a secret as Dachau had, he told Parade.
“I’ve always felt that our government has allowed [AIDS victims] to die, literally, and here at Dachau was where the [Nazi] government was doing just that … [with] Jews and gays and gypsies, a lot earlier than anyone knew.”
The Normal Heart is largely autobiographical, based on Kramer’s own work in recognizing the killer disease picking off his friends and co-founding the Gay Men’s Health Crisis organization.
3. Ryan Murphy Directs the Movie
The man behind Glee and American Horror Story woke up one day in 2009 and said to his producing partner, “What ever happened to the movie of The Normal Heart? It’s ridiculous that this has not been made. Why?”
Murphy bought the play and worked with Kramer for three years to adapt the play for the screen. The director wasn’t the first person to go after the project. Most famously, Barbra Streisand held an option on The Normal Heart for 10 years but was unsuccessful in assembling a film version.
She tells The Hollywood Reporter the hurdles she faced in adapting Kramer’s story.
I tried very hard to get it made, but when it became clear that we couldn’t raise the money to do it as a film due to the controversial nature of the material, I thought, “All right, we’ll do it on TV.” At least it would reach a wide audience. But HBO would only pay Larry $250,000 for the rights, and he would not let it go forward for anything less than $1,000,000, and no company was willing to move on it.
4. Julia Roberts Turned Down the Role of Dr. Brookner 3 Times
Julia Roberts received an offer for the Dr. Emma Brookner role three times before accepting the part in Murphy’s film. “I just didn’t connect to the character I was being asked to play,” she says in the HBO interview above. Roberts changed her mind on the role after seeing a documentary on polio, which Brookner suffers from in the movie.
Roberts and Ruffalo are joined by Matt Bomer, who plays Weeks’ lover Felix Turner, and Taylor Kitsch, who plays Bruce Niles. Jim Parson reprises his role as Tommy Boatwright from the 2011 Broadway revival of the play. Joe Mantello, who starred as Ned Weeks in the revival, plays Mickey Marcus in the film version.
5. ‘The Normal Heart’ Premieres on Sunday
Almost 30 years after the play debuted on Broadway, Murphy’s HBO film premieres on Sunday, May 25 at 9 p.m. Brad Pitt‘s Plan B production company helped produce the project.
The movie allowed Murphy and Kramer to expand the arcs of the characters and scenes, like the one of Fire Island. They did have to pick and choose which of the play’s monologues stayed in the screenplay, Murphy tells Gold Derby.