Inside Story

Adaptation and adaptability

Cinema | To mine Shakespeare’s life and work successfully, filmmakers need to find something new

Brian McFarlane 20 June 2019 3525 words

Life and work: Kenneth Branagh as Shakespeare in All Is True.

When you consider the number of films (for screens large and small) derived from Shakespeare’s works, you can’t help thinking that if he’d had a decent, forward-looking agent going after film rights his descendants need never have worked again. According to IMDb he has 1420 “credits” to his name, mostly as “writer” or “co-writer” (just in case we wondered what his contribution might have been to, say, the latest film of Macbeth). Another thirty-odd films have been “announced” or are in pre- or post-production, so the list of credits is unlikely to run out soon.

While there is no likely end to this flow of adaptations of Shakespearean plays, a trickle of films has also developed about the Bard himself. Some of them, such as Michael Rubbo’s documentary Much Ado about Something (2001) or Roland Emmerich’s feature film Anonymous (2011), speculate on the perennial question of the authorship of the plays, while John Madden’s popular Shakespeare in Love (1998) concentrates on being a charming romantic comedy about the young playwright’s love life.

Of those three, only Shakespeare in Love has any real value as a film. One of its many pleasures is how its strands of meaning and structure parallel those of Romeo and Juliet, with subtle gestures towards Twelfth Night. Madden manages, without relinquishing either comedy or love story, to give a feel for a bustling, crowded life with the theatre as one of its highest expressions in its period, as one might argue that film is in its time. And you can’t not like a film in which Shakespeare slouches into a pub, demanding, “Give me to drink mandragora” and the barman replies, “Straight up, Will.”

Kenneth Branagh, director and star of All Is True, has recently added to the list of films about Shakespeare with his imaginary exploration of how old Will coped with his abrupt retirement in 1613, after the Globe Theatre, scene of his emergence as the greatest-ever playwright, burnt to the ground in June of that year.

All films come to us with baggage of one kind or other: here, it not only includes whatever experience we’ve each had of Shakespeare but also and perhaps more pertinently our knowledge that Will is being played and directed by an actor who has contributed greatly to keeping the Bard before cinemagoers’ eyes in recent decades. Branagh’s Henry V (1989) and Hamlet (1996) are just two major examples; in each, he fearlessly followed in Laurence Olivier’s actor-director footsteps while managing to establish his own take on the plays and their protagonists. Now, in All Is True, he has assumed the identity of the playwright himself, and in the process totally obscured those visual aspects of the Branagh persona we’ve been used to.

Branagh isn’t the film’s only cast member with Shakespearean form. Judi Dench was Mistress Quickly in Branagh’s Henry V and, bizarrely, Hecuba in his Hamlet, as well as the (real) Queen in Shakespeare in Love and dozens of other formidable types in her illustrious career. At eighty-four and still indefatigably busy (her Red Joan is also currently in the cinemas), she shows no sign of slowing down and seems to have become an institution in film. In All Is True, she plays Anne Hathaway, Will’s long-neglected wife.

In Ben Elton’s astute and often witty screenplay, Will Shakespeare has returned after a long period away to his home in Stratford-upon-Avon and to wife Anne Hathaway (Dench) and their two daughters — unmarried Judith (Kathryn Wilder), living at home, and Susannah (Lydia Wilson), married to a Puritan husband. But it is his son Hamnet (Sam Ellis), who died at eleven, and at whose funeral Shakespeare was not present, who haunts his mind these many years later. “You scarcely knew him,” says Anne. Accustomed to Will’s absence in London, she is by no means ecstatic at having him back home, and allocates to him the guest bedroom.

The best of Will’s life seems to have passed, and the film must make drama from his attempts to deal with this realisation. Not only is he haunted by memories of Hamnet and the uncertainty surrounding the cause of the boy’s death — was it the plague or did he drown? — but his daughter Judith is bitter about his obvious preference for her brother, and Susannah’s behaviour is giving rise to rumours of infidelity.

This Shakespeare may have conquered the world, but it is clear that he has been less spectacularly successful in his dealings with those closer to him — or those to whom he should have been closer. Judi Dench, without ever playing for easy sympathy as Anne, achieves a real poignancy as the illiterate wife who has kept the home fires burning, as does Kathryn Wilder in rendering Judith’s jealousy of Hamnet and her sense of the futility of her own life. “You lost a son; a daughter is nothing,” she says with bitterness. This is a world in which marriage and sons were required to ensure a woman’s status.

A third actor of comparable stature to Branagh and Dench, Ian McKellen, brings his experience to bear on the role of the Earl of Southampton. Was this man, for whom some of Shakespeare’s love poetry is said to have been written, really “the dark lady of the sonnets”? When he comes to visit Will at Stratford, he can say, “You must write again, Will. London needs you. I need you,” but when Will tells the visitor, “They were only meant for you, your grace,” the Earl puts him down by replying, “It’s not your place to love me.” This is a brief interlude in the film, but in McKellen’s rich, extravagantly bewigged cameo of aristocratic assurance a further tension in the poet’s life is evoked.

How much any of this is factually accurate I can’t say. Scholars — and others — are always coming up with facts (or are they?) about Shakespeare’s life. But the film establishes a rich texture of frustrated lives, vividly portrayed village life, and matters from the past that its protagonist needs to come to terms with. As Will, Branagh creates a convincing sense of the conflicts, even torments, he tries to resolve; and in Zac Nicholson’s cinematography the contrasts between the confinement of domestic scenes and the grandeur of rural vistas work as symbolic representations of the world Will “conquered” and the narrower spaces that are now his lot.

“If you want to be a writer… search within,” Will advises in one scene. “And if you’re honest with yourself, then whatever you write, all is true.” I don’t know how “true” much of this film is, but it makes for a richly enjoyable entertainment in the hands of people who know what they are doing.

Not a great deal is true, of course, in the screen adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays, but no one looks there for clues to the real history of England or Denmark or Italy. The pleasures lie elsewhere, and producers, directors and actors seem happy to mine them over and over for audiences that seem never to tire.

The fact that there are so many British films of the plays isn’t surprising; after all, Britain has all those distinguished stage-trained actors and directors used to playing Shakespeare in some of the world’s most prestigious theatres and no doubt eager for the financial rewards of filmmaking. But the United States has a long history of filming the plays, too, at least as far back in talkies as The Taming of the Shrew in 1929, A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1936 and — with its rather elderly young lovers (Leslie Howard, forty-three, and Norma Shearer, thirty-four) — Romeo and Juliet in 1936.

Versions of Cymbeline (2014) and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2016 and 2017), a Macbeth set in a stretch limousine (2106) and a Hamlet set in Utah (2015) have all appeared in recent years. Australia has its own screen Macbeth, of which more later, Russia has taken on Hamlet and Othello, the Japanese have tackled Lear, and recently I’ve read of a Latvian go at Macbeth. But mentioning these titles doesn’t begin to touch the sides of what’s been filmed in countries round the globe.

The countless silent screen versions included “scenes from” rather than whole plays, as in Macbeth (released in 1898, two years after the birth of cinema) with Johnston Forbes-Robertson in the lead role. Missing from those versions, of course, was that sense of hearing the words as if for the first time, growing out of a conversation that just happens to be in some of the most wonderful verse ever written. Perhaps the abiding challenge in filming Shakespeare is in reconciling the screen’s remorseless demand for a level of visual realism with the equally remorseless artifice of iambic pentameters.

My own feeling about adaptations of Shakespeare for the screen — and indeed any adaptation of a classic work — is that the filmmaker should confront me with something new. Orson Welles once advised a younger filmmaker who was about to adapt a Henry James novella in these words: if a filmmaker has nothing new to say about the novel he is adapting he should leave it alone. Welles was in a strong position to expound this view; just think of how he extracted that superb example of Shakespeare on screen, Chimes at Midnight (1965), from Henry IV, Pts I and II, and Henry V.

Several comparatively recent screen versions testify to the sheer adaptability of the Shakespearean texts. Take Julie Taymor’s 2010 version of The Tempest. Anyone recalling her 1999 version of Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare’s first published play, would not have been expecting any reverential treatment of what is reputedly his last. Taymor created the network of jealousies at work in the Roman Empire with a fine visual sweep that brought the saga of revenge-begetting-revenge to potent life. It was often breathtaking in its panoramic compositions or sudden close-ups, boldly juxtaposing ancient Rome with 1930s music or young punks drinking beer from cans. Flamboyant stuff certainly, but preferable to a stifling reverence before the idea of Shakespeare.

Taymor’s Tempest moves more or less inexorably to the play’s final wisdom: “The rarer action is/ In virtue than in vengeance.” The Tempest is a difficult play, pervaded by a sense of “lastness,” of moving almost painfully towards resolution of what may have seemed irreconcilable conflicts, as if its author shared with Miranda her view of a “brave new world/ That has such people in’t.” Hovering over its various fields of action is the figure of Prospero, as puppet-master and magician, standing metaphorically perhaps for the playwright, with his own command over his created drama, and appraising the values of the life he has lived — and the world he’s lived it in.

Taymor’s Prospero is Prospera and, in Helen Mirren’s performance, she is utterly dominant not merely when she is depicted, for example, on a rocky outcrop against the sky. The issue of gender has often been raised in relation to this play, which seems to insist on the absoluteness of patriarchy, but Taymor mines it provocatively, and Mirren is persuasive enough to ward off accusations of mere trendiness.

Another contemporary resonance lies in the film’s touching on matters of postcolonial critique. On an obvious level, Caliban has been relegated to inhospitable parts of the island, and African actor Djimon Hounsou projects the anger and poignancy of the subjugated “native.” At film’s end, he too is embraced in the new spirit of reconciliation, just as Ben Whishaw’s androgynous Ariel is given his freedom.

The Tempest has attracted other filmmakers of maverick leaning, too. A highly regarded piece of Hollywood science-fiction called Forbidden Planet (1956) placed the action on a planet called Altair IV, to which an expedition is sent to investigate the disappearance of two people twenty years earlier. More recently, Derek Jarman’s 1979 version, despite some bizarre trappings (Elisabeth Welch as a “goddess,” for example, leading a chorus of sailors in “Stormy Weather”), offered a surprisingly plain reading of the text — reminding me, in this respect, of Baz Luhrmann’s flamboyant Romeo + Juliet (1996), in which every word except one (“shriven” becomes “forgiven”) is Shakespeare’s.

Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books (1991) was more venturesome, and to eloquent effect, virtually setting the whole film in Prospero’s mind and stressing his manipulation of all the other characters, to the point of his speaking most of their lines. If you cast John Gielgud, one of the most famous exponents of the role — and his century’s most renowned verse-speaker — as Prospero, you’re entitled to feel your film was in safe hands.

Two other films from around that time draw, albeit without mention in the credits, on King Lear. They are the family melodrama House of Strangers (1949) and the western Broken Lance (1954). In the former, Gino Monetti (Edward G. Robinson), a first-generation American, has worked his way up to owning a bank. Three of his sons work in the bank, while the fourth, an attorney, has his office in the bank building. Gino keeps them under his thumb, with the promise of inheriting the bank encouraging them to toe the line. In Broken Lance, despotic cattle baron Matt Devereaux (Spencer Tracy) holds his three sons by his first wife on a tight rein while favouring his fourth (his Cordelia, perhaps) by his second wife. It was suggested at the time that it was a reworking of House of Strangers, but certainly both could trace some key narrative and thematic strands back to their famous precursor, as I recall some contemporary reviewers noted.

Australian cinema has shown little interest in adapting Shakespeare to the screen — or, with rare exceptions, non-Australian works of any kind. Surely it can’t be because filmmakers think he’s irrelevant to antipodean life? Back in 2006, however, director Geoffrey Wright placed Macbeth in Melbourne’s gangland wars. His film’s crucial boldness lies in combining the visual sheen of dark streets and clubs, and leafy suburban and hillside hideaways with the shock of the aural. It is realist in setting and ambience, but Wright also retains the original’s iambic pentameters (unlike the feeble British gangster version, Joe MacBeth, 1955), with a diversity of flat Australian vowels intelligently uttering verse most often associated with a theatrical delivery. What emerges is a strong sense that these actors, portraying criminals of various kinds and degrees of depravity, know what they are talking about.

As for generic relocation, we must add the 1953 musical Kiss Me Kate. It is, of course, derived from The Taming of the Shrew, which has been filmed, in one form or other, more than sixty times, probably most famously in 1967, with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor preserving the play’s dated attitudes to gender. In 1999 it was the basis for a teen romance called 10 Things I Hate about You, taking as its setting Padua High School, naming its characters Stratford and Verona, and making one of the heroines a shrew. As is the way with teen movies, this is hardly subtle but often funny, and one of Shakespeare’s least attractive plays adapts well to its unlikely location.

10 Things has a few songs, but this can’t compare with Kiss Me Kate, which has a wonderful score by Cole Porter, composed for the stage play. It’s too long since I saw the play on stage to be sure about how closely the film follows its structure, but the film offers a cunning parallel between the offstage sparring of two Broadway stars and the onstage dealings of Petruchio and Katherine. It opens with Porter (Australian actor Ron Randell) trying to persuade soprano Lilli Vanessi (Kathryn Grayson) to star opposite her ex-husband, the play’s producer, director and star, Fred Graham (Howard Keel) in a musical based on The Shrew.

Lilli and Fred have an acrimonious relationship involving the sort of competitive banter that characterises Shakespeare’s protagonists, and it makes itself felt when, during the onstage performance, she bites his hand and he smacks her bottom with a vigour beyond the demands of the script. Some of the songs are part of the offstage squabbles, as when the Bianca character berates her gambler boyfriend by singing “Why Can’t You Behave?” Others, like the love song “Wunderbar” are inserted into the on-stage action. The two gangsters (on stage and film) singing “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” key us into the film’s playful dealings with the original, and with Shakespeare at large.

Finally, I want to briefly mention two remaining direct descendants. These are the 2011 British film of Coriolanus and the 2012 American version of Much Ado about Nothing. Each relocates Shakespeare in time, place and genre, but each is also concerned to preserve the language and structure of the original. They are not, however, any less daring or imaginative for it, and both testify to the sheer adaptability of the plays.

Coriolanus may be one of the most difficult Shakespearean plays to come to terms with, its central character one of his most unlikeable protagonists whose relationship to “the people” sets a new low for politicians — even by modern-day standards. What exactly he stands for, apart from unbridled egoism and personal ambition, is hard to discern, but, though one doesn’t warm to him, he is utterly compelling.

As a drama of political opportunism, with treachery always waiting quietly by to seize its moment, it is compelling stuff. Essentially, it is the study of Caius Marcius (Ralph Fiennes), a Roman general given the name of Coriolanus when he captures the town of Corioli in a war against its Volscian rulers. Rome makes a fuss of him, but his distaste for the people (“rabble,” to him) leads to his banishment, during which he makes up to Aufidius (Gerard Butler), Volscian leader, turns against Rome, and so on.

Director Fiennes and screenwriter John Logan have fashioned an enthralling drama from this uncompromising material. Set in a twenty-first-century city bearing the name of Rome, it was actually filmed in the Serbian capital, Belgrade. This is a city that echoes with the decades-long conflict in the Balkans, and in some miraculous way the use of modern war machines and media reporting serves to heighten and not at all to distract from the hard political core of the drama. The use of TV coverage of the political and military scene works on levels of contemporary accessibility, never merely as gimmick.

This is an object lesson in how a film adaptation of a famous literary work can be venturesome while, to use that most tiresome word in this respect, remaining “faithful” to its source. Even more dazzling was the US Much Ado, a strong contender for the best Shakespeare-derived film ever. If, like me, you hadn’t watched any of the 145 episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997–2003), you may have been unfamiliar with the name of Joss Whedon, its director, but I, for one, can never think of Whedon with anything but gratitude. Without sacrificing the words of the original, he has made a film that seems like a descendant of those hugely popular 1930s screwball comedies, reminding me of Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant striking sparks from each other, as if the final clinch weren’t inevitable, in the great Philadelphia Story.

This Much Ado is a brilliant example of Shakespearean adaptability to Hollywood genre. Whedon clearly sees it as a sparkling romantic comedy, recalling those spirited heroines who were not about to succumb easily to male blandishments and dedicated themselves to winning the day on their own terms. Maybe the choice of luminous monochrome was dictated by financial constraints, but it also seems to insist on locating the film in the time and place of some of the smartest filmmaking ever.

What is most wonderful is the apparently seamless wedding of the Shakespearean verse drama with the conventions of film. Shakespeare’s language is preserved with immaculate precision and conversational ease, the cast members persuading us they are thinking about the matter of their dialogue as they speak, as if making the words up as they go along, but without any diminution of the original’s wit and rhythms. We seem to be hearing conversations that just happen to be sharper and more literate than we’re used to. The broader comedy, for me sometimes the least effective part of the play on the stage, is very funny indeed as the “palace guards” have now become an incompetent security unit, muddling away with CCTV and an insecure grasp of grammar and vocabulary.

But at the core is the “merry war” between Beatrice and Benedick. This is the reason we love the play. It is they who create the emotional trajectory of what may be the greatest romantic comedy in the language, and it is joyously re-enacted here. In this, and in the best of the other films I’ve mentioned, the Shakespearean vision has transcended the constraints of time, place and genre and impelled filmmakers to mine the fluency of cinema. Long may this continue. •