“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women in it merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts…”
-Jacques from “As You Like It,” Act II, Scene VII
Perhaps the greatest Hollywood screenwriter to ever live, British playwright William Shakespeare died in 1616, several hundred years before the notion of cinema was even conceived. I often wonder what Shakespeare would have thought of cinema. Would he have been a screenwriter? Most assuredly. And not a star screenwriter like Shane Black or Aaron Sorkin, but a hack-grade writer of well-made genre entertainments. It should be remembered that Shakespeare’s most financially successful play was Titus Andronicus, a violent potboiler if ever there was one. His high tragedies were well-regarded at the time, and are praised by scholars and literary types today as shimmering examples of the pliability and beauty of English, as well as complex studies of humanity, but they weren’t big hits.
The Bard of Stratford has managed to inspire more stories, and indeed, write the dialogue for literally hundreds of feature films, so I think it may be time to examine the man as a movie star. This week at the Free Film School, deep in the bowels of CraveOnline, we’ll be having a brief chat about Will Shakespeare, and how his plays have been endlessly adapted to screen, how the cinema treats plays, and how ancient language can be expressed in a modern medium. According to the Internet Movie Database, Shakespeare had a hand in writing, or co-writing, nearly 900 films and TV shows, starting as early as 1898. This is easily more than any other author. In terms of a cinematic auteur, and a giant in the world of film, this guy is one of the more significant.
To state my qualifications on the matter (and, of course, to brag a bit), I declare that I have indeed both read and seen productions of all of Shakespeare’s plays. Yes, I’ve even read King John and the York tetrad. I’ve even read a few of the so-called apocryphal plays like Cardenio and King Edward III. I’m something of a Shakespeare nut. As such, I have seen many, many film productions of Shakespeare’s plays, including the BBC productions from the early 1980s, big-budget Hollywood feature films, silent shorts, obscure art flicks from other countries, a German(?) porno version of Hamlet, and a truly bizarre film called Othello: The Black Commando. Although I have still not seen Romeo & Juliet: Sealed with a Kiss, an animated retelling of the teen tragedy, seen through the eyes of anthropomorphic seals.
In a way, it’s very odd that Shakespeare should be so widely exploited in the world of film. This is not to say his words aren’t brilliant; they are. But anyone who has read or seen a Shakespeare play will mostly likely take from it the notion of how stagey and wordy it is. Shakespeare, after all, wrote for the stage. As such, most of the action is described in long, eloquent speeches, rather than depicted through visuals. Film is, as I described in last week’s lecture, a centrally visual medium. Most film professors will implore that their students work their hardest to show actions rather than tell them (hence, the in/famous film school lesson “Show, Don’t Tell”). Shakespeare, however, usually worked in stages with very minimal sets, few special effects, only a few costume changes to accommodate actors with several roles, and clearly didn’t have the resources to stage some of the huge bloody battles seen in some of the history plays. If you’ve ever seen a diagram of The Globe Theater where Shakespeare staged most of his plays, you’ll see that the stage wasn’t even very big. Shakespeare wasn’t about huge spectacle until King Henry VIII, later in his career. Maybe that’s why Titus Andronicus was so popular. It not only had Shakespeare’s awesome language, but also several mutilations, buckets of blood, a rape, and even cannibalism.
The point being: Shakespeare was most definitely more about “tell,” and less about “show.” There are many speeches in his plays, especially the histories, given by pages and reporters who describe the significant events of a battle. This flies in the face of cinema, as a film would, at least according to the well-known rule, be better off to show that. Indeed, Shakespeare’s speeches, written often in meter or verse, are intended to be grandly intoned by a loud actor standing in the middle of a stage. As I described in a Free Film School lecture on the nature of film acting, cinema cameras are better for setting up really close to an actor, and , hence, capturing more subtle performances. The speeches in Shakespeare can be made subtle by a skilled film actor, but were written to be, well, shouted in a crowded room, not whispered intimately into a recording device.
Despite these fundamental disconnects between the form of the playwright and the form of cinema, we tend to keep coming back to Shakespeare as inspiration for film. His language is too rich to resist, and his stories too timeless. His characters are too well-known, and his view into the soul of humanity is far too perceptive.
Some filmmakers have elected to dispense with Shakespeare’s language altogether, and adapt the stories rather than the actual dialogue. This can work well, as Shakespeare’s stories, though often harkening back to older sources (look up Commedia dell’arte sometime), are still universal and recognizable even to modern audiences. One of Akira Kurosawa’s most celebrated films is his 1985 adaptation of King Lear called Ran. The story follows an aging monarch who elects to distribute his kingdom amongst his three sons (originally daughters in the play). His sons, however, eagerly exploit the old man, and, thanks to courtly conniving and everyday human greed, eventually begin warring over the kingdom. The old monarch eventually sinks into despair and madness, unable to see the violence that won him his kingdom to begin with, and seeing the legacy play out despite his best intentions. While the play is a great tragedy, Kurosawa, by staying away from the specifics of Shakespeare’s language, recast the events of the play to reflect the politics of feudal Japan. The tale is familiar, but the political, social, and even sexual messages change through the sensitive adaptation. Ran, it should be said, is the Japanese word for chaos. Kurosawa also made a film called Throne of Blood which does something similar for the scary and violent Macbeth.
Shakespeare’s comedies are typically broad, bawdy, and can be pretty hilarious, provided the adapter knows how to handle the comedic material. And while the broad and dated jokes can play to a modern audience, several films have mined romance and comedy from the situations rather than the jokes themselves. In 1999, a film called 10 Things I Hate About You was released, an adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew. Shakespeare’s play has been seen as problematic for modern feminist audiences, as the story is essentially about a hired man who breaks the will of a spirited woman, forcing her to be a dutiful wife. 10 Things took all the petty insults of the play, and slightly rejiggered the story, so that they would all be coming from American teenagers in an average high school. The catty behavior, when spoken with modern American slang, makes the slightly unpalatable elements of the play easy to digest, and, indeed, rather funny. It’s a pretty good film, and featured standout performances from the likes of Julia Stiles, Heath Ledger, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
A small note: Watch the cult 1983 comedy Strange Brew sometime. It’s Hamlet, you know.
Straddling the line a bit is Gus Van Sant’s 1991 film My Own Private Idaho, a stylized and daring film about street hustlers. The setup is pretty far from Shakespeare: Sexuality, business, and friendship are all explored on the streets of Portland, all seen through the eyes of male prostitutes. The film, though, takes many lines of dialogue and several of its characters pretty directly from King Henry IV and its immediate sequel. Keanu Reeves plays the Henry role, and William Richart plays the Falstaff role. This was a curious and kind of abstract approach to The Bard. Van Sant chose to live half-in-and-half-out, making his own original world and characters, while often reflecting the ambivalent relationship between the seemingly irresponsible Hal and the notorious drunkard Falstaff.
Shakespeare’s language is so familiar to us, though, that it can be put into any context. While the bulk of Shakespeare adaptations are pretty straightforward (they take place in the past, and the language is typically only cut for length), some update the settings and costumes, keeping the story in the modern world, but maintaining the heightened poetry. Most famous for people my age was a hyperkinetic version of Romeo & Juliet released in 1996, and directed by Baz Luhrmann. That film took place in a world that looked like Venice, CA, but was more of a fantasy world of ultra-violence and gang warfare. The love story between the two title teens was presented as a cartoonishly melodramatic affair of kisses and secret trysts. I’m not very fond of it, myself, but many responded to the energy and noise presented in the film. Plus guns.
I’m much more fond of Julie Taymor’s 1999 film version of Titus Andronicus called simply Titus. Taymor took a similar tack in that she invented a sort of imaginary time and place for the events of the play, so that the characters could speak about living in ancient Rome, but still play arcade games and drive around in cars. While Luhrmann’s bizarre timeline served to lend a youthful energy to the proceedings, Taymor’s approach was more geared to creating a world wherein the ultraviolence of Titus Andronicus (mutilations, rapes, and cannibalism, remember?) could seem like a palpable thing. Titus is actually one of my favorite Shakespeare adaptations for this very reason. It’s grand and fantastical, and really makes the original play, often considered to be a lesser play, crackle with life, and have serious dramatic impact beyond its Grand Guignol shocks. The ultimate message is, however, quite bleak: When we put our minds to it, we can be really, really horrible to our fellow man.
Another notable example of modern setting with Shakespearean language was Ralph Fiennes’ 2011 adaptation of Coriolanus. The story of the play follows a super-efficient soldier who is, as tradition dictated, lured against his will into the world of politics. When he proved to be an alienating presence who wouldn’t fold to political pressures, he leaves his country, and joins the opposition. Fiennes’ film set the action in a war-torn modern third-world country, complete with machine guns, tanks, and a very symbolically heavy reference to the likes of Kosovo and other similar conflict areas. The speeches about blood, war, and strife, in this case, feel perfectly in tune.
The most common form of Shakespearean film, though, are the ones that set the action of the play at about the time when Shakespeare intended, or at least set the action during a vague time in the past. What’s the film we all saw in school? Why, Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 version of Romeo & Juliet of course. Everyone I have talked to has seen this film. All the boys I know had a crush on Olivia Hussey. I don’t need to describe this film because you know it. In many ways, this is film is the baseline reading of all Shakespeare films for several generations.
Sir Laurence Olivier, often considered one of the best actors ever, rather famously adapted several of Shakespeare’s plays to film, including his 1948 version of Hamlet, which the Academy Award for Best Picture that year. Olivier’s approach was often as straightforward as one can imagine. The 1948 Hamlet is a dark and brooding film, which focuses on the dramatic hothouse the title character finds himself in, letting the actions rest with the speeches and the darkened interiors of Castle Elsinore. The same could be said for his Richard III, wherein Olivier gives himself a platform to express unmitigated villainy, and show the true despotism of the title king.
Olivier’s most notable Shakespeare film, though, was probably his 1944 version of Henry V, which cleverly started the action as part of a staging at The Globe complete with actors changing costume backstage, and groundlings jeering the play. Gradually, though, the play begins to disappear, and the action is eventually on bigger battlefields, and the Battle of Agincourt is displayed in its larger glory. Olivier, clever man that he was, had his cake and ate it too. He put Shakespeare into two simultaneous contexts.
I must also mention Kenneth Branagh, as he has, at least in recent years, become notable for his work on several rather excellent Shakespeare films. In 1989, he burst onto the scene with his own version of Henry V, which took a similar tack to Olivier’s version by including a modern-dress narrator (played by the excellent Derek Jacobi) co-existing with the period characters. Branagh himself played the king, and was boyish and intense. Henry V was a huge indie hit. Branagh also directed a 1993 version of Much Ado About Nothing, which is, in my eye, the perfect version of that play. The romance is set in a world where everyone is joyful, and everything works out. It was notorious for the casting of Keanu Reeves – kind of a surfer dude in the public eye – as the villain, but the film is hilarious, and allows Shakespeare’s words to really sparkle and shine. So many Shakespeare films and productions tend to see the story as something to be endured. It’s rare that a director can make a film with so much life.
Branagh is also responsible for the most ambitious Shakespeare film to date, and, in my opinion, probably one of the best. With his 1996 version of Hamlet, Branagh elected to include the entire text of the play, remaining stringently faithful to the Folio edition. The result was a true film epic that captured the rhythms, the actions, the dramas, and all the subtle nuances of the most celebrated English language play. Hamlet is, as in Olivier’s version, often boxed into a psycho-drama wherein Hamlet himself hems and haws about how he feels about his mother, and how much he hates his uncle. In Branagh’s version, the text can breathe, allowing for the political, moral, and dramatic beats to play out naturally. It runs over 4 hours, and has an intermission. See it as soon as you can.
Oh, and I could go on, dear students. I will try to bring this lecture to a close with the following question: What is the best way to film a 400-year-old play? Shakespeare has proven, over the centuries, to be the most adaptable of animals. The Internet Movie Database proves that several more Shakespeare films are in the works, including a film with Al Pacino as King Lear, a modern update of As You Like It called Rosaline, and a modern-dress version of Much Ado About Nothing adapted by cult fave Joss Whedon.
Is there a best way? And, perhaps importantly, how much of Shakespeare’s original language and staging should be included in a modern film? Like any adaptation, ask yourself if it’s better to be stringently faithful to the source, or if it’s okay to stray a bit. In the case of Shakespeare, I would say that it’s all good. But these are pertinent questions to ask if you should decide to make your own Shakespeare film. And, even more importantly, how would you try to bridge that essential disconnect between the inherent theatricality of Shakespeare’s language, and the visual immediacy of cinema? All the world’s a screen.
Homework for the Week:
Watch any Shakespeare film, even if you’ve seen it before. How was the source material treated? How would you have done it? What is your favorite Shakespeare play? If you were to put it on film, how would you film it? Just the story? Modern dress? Classically? Read any William Shakespeare play. When you read it, do you see a film in your head, or a play? How would you edit a long speech recited in pentameter? Would you edit a lot? Would you show the actor speaking, or place them off screen? Would you film them in close-up? Why have the Henry VI plays only been filmed once? And why hasn’t there been a sci-fi version of Pericles, Prince of Tyre yet? I need to get cracking on that screenplay.