Monday, June 27, 2011

IS IT LIVE OR IS IT MEMOREX?: REFLECTIONS ON WHAT MAKES A FILM “SHAKESPEAREIAN”

The following is an article/paper I wrote in 2006 for an Florida International University “Shakespeare In Film” undergraduate course. It is mildly controversial and comments and criticisms are welcomed:



William Shakespeare’s works have been studied and performed for the past four centuries. At the time of their creation, the only medium available for performance was the stage. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the world of cinema broadened the scope and vision of presentation of his plays and stretched the boundaries of creativity for many film auteurs. These various takes on Shakespeare’s original work makes one wonder how far re-imagination and re-interpretation can go before the adapted play ceases to be “Shakespearian”. The purpose of this paper is to explore the key elements of what makes a film adaptation “Shakespearian” by reviewing and comparing Kenneth Branagh’s William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing and Michael Hoffman’s William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, showing that the former is so and the latter is not.

Practical Considerations: Realities of Hollywood Movie Making

The translation of any work from text, to stage, to screen will on some level necessitate alteration. Any printed play or script is subject to revision as it makes it transition to the big screen. Any play can be performed unexpurgated, allowing for intermissions. Film, however, has an average running time of two hours. Any films that run over that mean, unless justified by good storytelling or performances, is subject to criticism, as recent reviews of King Kong, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, and Superman Returns can attest. Time constrictions must alter the length of the play to be adapted, as most of the plays run over the desired two hour length. In fact, “[a]iming for the “ideal running time of less than two hours, most Shakespeare films have used no more than 25 – 30 percent of the original text…”[i] With this condition in mind, it is inevitable that the play presented on film will differ dramatically from a full stage production. While Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet was produced with unexpurgated text, it is to be considered an exception; especially considering that a small percentage of movie going audiences would sit through the film’s four hour running time. Thus, fealty to the text is sacrificed to ensure the expediency of filmmaking. Consider that “[i]n writing for the mainstream cinema, it is axiomatic to keep dialogue to a minimum”.[ii] This situation is not limited to Shakespeare’s works. “It has been said that for a director there are three films: the film that you imagine and script, the one you shoot, and the one you edit.”[iii] Yet, it is fortunate that the texts themselves are so rich in language that they can allow for such a change: “Elizabethan dramatic texts invite more latitude, and adapters are more likely not only to abbreviate dialogue, but to use it outside the framework provided by the original”.[iv] Thus, what cannot be expressed in words through dialogue can be replaced and conveyed through body language and/or cinematography.

Such considerations, however, are not limited to Elizabethan texts. Many recent popular works of fiction have been re-written for a film. For example, in the film adaptation of Michael Chricton’s Rising Sun, the murderer revealed in the film is not the one from the novel, a fight scene which did not exist in the novel is gratuitously inserted as the climax of the film, and the main character’s race was changed from Caucasian to Negro (a change that enhanced the symbolic schism between the cultures represented in the film, but still a major deviation from the source material). In Hannibal, the ending of the novel was completely re-written for the film as it was felt that mainstream audiences would not be able to stomach or understand Clarice Starling’s mental conversion and love affair with Hannibal Lecter.[v]

On the surface, the majority these changes seem gratuitously arbitrary. Yet more often than not these changes are instituted for the “Holy Grail” of Hollywood: The box office. No matter how artistic the endeavor may be, the fact remains that a film is a product to be produced and marketed for financial gains: “American production money is the hidden engine that drives Britain’s Shakespeare films.”[vi] Thus, any measures that can be taken to ensure bigger box office receipts, from changing the text to considerations of casting parts, will be most likely undertaken.

Much Ado About Making Dough

Despite its alterations to suit the “Hollywood machine”, Kenneth Branagh’s William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing can lay claim to being a Shakespearean play. It has been noted that Kenneth Branagh’s successful film Henry V inaugurated a celluloid renaissance for Shakespearean films.[vii] More notable is the fact that Branagh “infuse[d] the filming of Shakespeare with a marketer’s sense of popular culture.”[viii] In order to ensure box office success, he followed in director Franco Ziffirelli’s footsteps: “[P]romoting…global commerciality through a mixture of…a cast made up of ‘British actors’ and ‘American stars’.” [ix] American movie stars are such because they are bankable, i.e. ensure box office receipts. As Wesley Snipe’s star was on the rise at the time, he was cast for the role of “Lt. Web Smith” in the film Rising Sun despite the fact that his race differed from the character he portrayed. He was paired up with one of the most bankable stars of this age, quintessential “James Bond” Sean Connery as “Captain John Connor”. Similarly to Snipes, Denzel Washington was cast as “Don Pedro” while heartthrob-in-the-making Keanu Reeves was given the part of “Don John”. Michael Keaton, riding high on the success of the Batman films and Clean and Sober, was cast with the latter infusing a “Beetlejuice-ian” flavor to the role of “Dogberry”. They were joined by such British stock as Emma Thompson, Brian Blessed, and Branagh himself.

The problem inherent with “stunt casting” arises when the actor is unsuitable for, or unequal to the task of, the character he or she is to portray. An supposition can be inferred that the reason Don John’s “rejoicing in the gallows hallway” scene (which does not exist in the play) was filmed in order to make up for the actor’s lack of subtlety in the preceding wedding scene. This subtlety could have been easily rectified with a quick camera cut to the actor’s face showing a slight smirk right on cue; a subtlety that may have been beyond the actor in question’s abilities. Another detrimental factor is the association Reeve and his infamous “Bill and Ted” speak, which may have contributed to this assertion by Boose and Burt in their book Shakespeare on Film and Shakespeare the Movie: Popularizing the Plays on Film, TV, and Video: “Don John’s line about Hero…was cut for fear that Keanu Reeves would appear to be reverting to American slang rather than reciting Shakespeare.”[x]

Regardless of casting, the film makes use of its cinematography to good effect, using
Tuscany

as a lush, beautiful backdrop for the proceedings. By the same token, the film adds a stage-setting prologue meant as homage to the film The Magnificent Seven, coupled with scenes of bouncing, heaving bosoms and teasing images of nakedness. Perhaps these artifices of prologue can be construed as pandering, but by using a recognizable and iconic film image and images of robust, fertile sexuality, Branagh bridges a cultural gap between Britain and America by making the themes in Much Ado relatable and accessible, if not recognizable, to the American film going public.

As denoted above, lines in this film have been excised for the sake of expediency (running time) and other considerations (connotations). Also, this film is a celluloid Rubik’s Cube as certain scenes have a) been moved about, such as the order of Dogberry’s scenes; or b) removed altogether, as in the case of the ladies’ scene in Hero’s bedchamber at the beginning of Act III. However, is it just to call this adaptation William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing? The answer would be an unequivocal “yes” because the spirit of the play and its characterizations remain true to the text. While Branagh does take cinematic liberties for a myriad of counted and uncounted reasons, ultimately there is little to differentiate the story as reflected in the film to that of the text. The characters themselves remain relatively intact as do their motivations, arcs, and resolutions; they all hold true. While the film gives a fresh re-interpretation of the story, it does so without besmirching the source material or compromising the integrity of the characters.

Full of Sound, Not Enough Fury, Signifying Nothing

Conversely, Michael Hoffman’s William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream is the perfect example of when a work ceases being “Shakespeare”. Shakespeare’s texts have survived for four centuries. As previously asserted in class discussion and on the message board, it is acknowledged that Shakespeare himself re-wrote most of his plays, at times in the middle of a production. As the plays were of his creation[xi], he had the right to perform re-writes. This also implies that even “The Bard” did not have a slavish adherence to his own work. So then, why should any artist who brings his works to the screen? In reiteration, the plays and sonnets have not only survived him, they have been studied, analyzed, deconstructed, recited, and performed for over four hundred years. There is a richness to the texts that still inspire debate and re-interpretation on their own merits. Therefore, other than the cinematic considerations listed above, is it justifiable to re-write the actual play to the point where its original intent or flavor is sublimated or excised altogether?

Consider Michael Hoffman’s William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream. This play, like Much Ado before it, engages in its own bit of “stunt casting”. At the apex of her career, Michelle Pfeiffer was cast as “Titania”, while character actor extraordinaire Kevin Kline was cast as “Bottom”. Rising stars Stanley Tucci, Rupert Everett, Calista Flockhart, and Christian Bale were cast as “Puck”, “Oberon”, “Helena”, and “Demetrius”, respectively. Similarly, this film also makes use of lush city and naturescapes and indulges in a creative repositioning of scenes. Yet here is where the similarities end.

In Much Ado, there is a “battle of the sexes” motif that is prevalent throughout both the text and the film, as epitomized by Beatriz and Benedick. In Midsummer, it exists as subtext in the actual written play but is glaringly absent in the film. Without going into the tongue-in-cheek nature of Oberon’s casting,[xii] the men in this film are all but castrated. This is most especially evident in the rivalry between Oberon and Titania. As previously documented, an argument exists that Oberon seeks to regain his lost power of manhood via the Indian boy.[xiii] Regardless, there is a battle of wills between male dominance and feminine indifference. Oberon meets Titania under the moon at night, a realm associated with the feminine. Thus, he resorts to utilize feminine techniques to achieve his aims. However, Oberon in the film does not display any of the fire or passion that would be associated with a man of his stature as king of the fairies; or any of Shakespeare’s kings for that matter. Given the performances, there is nothing that differentiates the king and queen other than their secondary sexual characteristics. They are so similar in nature, the drama and tension of the conflict is lost. Further crippling to this dynamic in this film is the boy; or rather, his absence thereof. The boy is mentioned in the play as the cause of Oberon and Titania’s strife and is re-mentioned again at its resolution. The film neither shows nor mentions the boy in what would be Act IV in the play; a glaring and fatal omission, for without the boy there is no true resolution to the strife and no concrete reason for Oberon’s releasing her of the enchantment. The entire affair is rendered pointless. As a counter-argument, some may postulate that in this film Oberon “learns” that the softer, more yielding forms of problem resolution were more effective and desirable than the harder, “thuggish” forms.[xiv] This postulate would be valid if there were an applicable representation of such behavior for the purposes of comparison; yet none is in evidence.

Also glaring is the lack of reference that Hippolyta was ever conquered; an obfuscation that is aided and abetted by the performances of Sophie Marceau as “Hippolyta” and David Strathairn as “Theseus”, for they are too genteel to each other in demeanor and manner to have ever implied they were once bitter enemies. Arguably, one who is unfamiliar with Shakespeare’s linguistic legerdemain would miss the initial animosity between the two.

If these changes are so problematic, why were they made in the first place? The answer lies in this observation: “In May, 1999, Fox Searchlight, the distributors of Hoffman’s A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, were reported to be targeting ‘mature females’ in its initial US theatrical release, hoping that their own ‘romantic comedy’ would benefit from that audience’s lack of interest in the much-hyped Star Wars ‘prequel’.”[xv] Could this be another way of stating that this play is skewed towards a more feminist viewpoint? If so, then this makes the case for the excision of the boy at the conclusion of the Oberon/Titania storyline, because in the text Titania is enticed to deliver the boy while clearly “under the influence”. In modern times, this situation is parallels a man carnally taking a woman who is under the influence of a “roofie”. If included, the film would then seem to be advocating “date rape”,[xvi] a message at odds with the female empowerment themes that color the rest of the film and thus unpalatable to its target audience. This film’s skewed, demographically-based vision works too well, as all the male performers lacked “bite”, i.e. their “animus”; so much so that the only real altercation of note took place between Helena and Hermia in a bodice ripping, mud wrestling match.[xvii] The feminist agenda this film supposedly propagates robs the text of its core conflicts; so much so that it seems to become a pointless exercise. How can any lessons be learned if there are no conflicts to overcome?

This is not the only egregiousness to be found in this film. Many of the characters’ essences and motivations are tweaked, but none as radical as the character of Bottom. As played by Kevin Kline, Bottom is a charming rogue: Likeable, charming, flamboyant, always looking for the spotlight, and impeccably well-dressed. Kline also gives a brilliantly subtle and sublime performance that shows that beneath the bluster lies a sad, insecure man full of broken dreams and unfulfilled passions who is seemingly trapped in a loveless marriage. Kline imbues his character with a pathos and sincerity that works extremely well; that is, if his character were anyone but Bottom. Bottom, in the text, is played as a fool because he is a fool. Bottom is the epitome of the ass that he is to be transformed into in the middle of the play; substance made form. In the play, this transformation broadens the comedy of the royal, yet “under the influence”, Titania cavorting with and romancing “the ass”. With the film’s drastic change of Bottom’s character, this dynamic undergoes a complete transformation. Instead of laughing at the ludicrousness of the situation, the audience is moved to tragic sympathy. The relatively minimal make up applied to Kevin Kline fails to obscure the actor’s features, which dilutes the transformative effect even further.[xviii] Absurdity is instead replaced with poignancy, wherein the audience is moved by Bottom’s contentment at the dream he has found himself immersed in.

The entire raison d’etre for the exercise in these scenes is lost, and all sense of comedic lunacy follows suit. There is no sense of Titania being put in a humiliating position as there is enough humanity, both in feature and personality, evident in Bottom to preclude that possibility. Bottom’s marital status is never fully addressed in the text, but the implication is that he is single. Having him wedded in this film serves no purpose other than to a) enhance the newfound pathos of Bottom; and b) serve as foil to the “happily” matched couples found at film’s end. Yet had the Theseus-Hippolyta/Oberon-Titania conflicts existed in the film as they do in the play, the “need” for Bottom’s wife would have been obviated. In this case, Bottom truly has no “Bottom”, for the true Bottom is nowhere in evidence in this film.

With the conflicts removed and the motivations skewed, the narrative becomes a whole different story; one other than A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream. It almost seems as if the placement of the author’s name on the title is to validate the production as “Shakespeare”, knowing all the while that it is not. Instead, this only works as an obfuscation as this production resembles “The Bard’s” work in superficiality only. There may be beautiful artistry in the form, but the substance is virtually non-existent.

Conclusion

Saying that a film is “Shakespearean” does not necessarily make it so if it fails to capture the spirit of the text or the integrity of the plot and characters. Branagh’s William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing captures the essence of the story while still allowing his creativity to run free. It is a fresh reinterpretation that manages to work within the confines of the text itself. Hoffman’s William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream fails to capture that essence because it nullifies the conflicts that fuel the story and re-writes characterizations and situations to fuel a feminist agenda. To call this film “Shakespeare” is a misnomer. If a work of film is to be based upon Shakespeare, then it should be acknowledged it as such without calling it such. In other words, to quote John Vernon from the film The Outlaw Josey Wales, “don’t piss on my back and tell me its raining!” The film Clueless was a re-imagining of Jane Austin’s work Emma. Ten Things I Hate About You was a re-imagining of The Taming of The Shrew, as was Kiss Me Kate. Billy Morrissette’s Scotland, P.A., is an entertaining reimagining of Macbeth that is far removed from the Denmark of yore. Arguably the most famous extrapolation of the work of Shakespeare is the musical West Side Story, for which Romeo and Juliet was its template. In these productions, the text was re-imagined to the point that they deviated from the source material, and thus became their own entity to be judged on their own merits. That they were based on the works of Shakespeare, there is no question. While many of these productions carry the caveat that they were based on his works, they do not for a moment imply that they are “Shakespeare”.

The moment one calls a production “Shakespeareian”, it invites expectations based on the original work and comparisons thereof. For those who are familiar with the texts, disappointment must surely follow if the film is completely unfaithful to the source material. Those unfamiliar with the text may find such a film to be entertaining, but it is unfair to present something that is not truly “Shakespeare” as “Shakespeare”, for if they chance to read the original work they will find themselves victims of “false advertising”.



To re-write characters and situations to fulfill an agenda at odds with the essence of the work robs it of its heart, its soul; the very attributes that have kept these plays in the academic, literary, and popular culture for so many centuries. Bottom line: If a film production can retain these attributes, even if it must adhere to the confining dictates of the Hollywood money machine, it can still call itself “Shakespeare

To re-write characters and situations to fulfill an agenda at odds with the essence of the work robs it of its heart, its soul; the very attributes that have kept these plays in the academic, literary, and popular culture for so many centuries. Bottom line: If a film production can retain these attributes, even if it must adhere to the confining dictates of the Hollywood money machine, it can still call itself “Shakespeare".


[i] Jackson, Russell.  “From Play-Script to Screenplay”, The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare on Film.  Cambridge University Press, 2000.  P. 17.
[ii] Ibid. P. 16.
[iii] Ibid. P. 30.
[iv] Ibid.  P. 19.
[v] Guffey, Scott C.  Hannibal: An Insult to Movie-Goers and Literate Enthusiasts”.  http://scottguffey117.tripod.com/Hannibal.htm.  There were three reasons the movie ending differed from the book.  The ending in the movie will allow the production of endless sequels whereas the book did not.  The ending to the book may have been too difficult to have been filmed accurately.  And finally, the ending to the book may have been considered too cerebral for the viewers of a movie to understand.”
[vi] Boose, Lynda E. and Burt, Richard. “Totally Clueless”, Shakespeare on Film and Shakespeare the Movie: Popularizing the Plays on Film, TV, and Video.  Routeledge, 1997,  p. 16.
[vii] As denoted in Russell Jackson’s The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare on Film and Shakespeare the Movie: Popularizing the Plays on Film, TV, and Video, edited by Lynda E. Boose and Richard Burt.
[viii], Boose, Lynda E. and Burt, Richard. “Totally Clueless”, Shakespeare on Film and Shakespeare the Movie: Popularizing the Plays on Film, TV, and Video.  Routeledge, 1997, p. 14.
[ix] Ibid.
[x] Ibid.
[xi] In the last several years, many historians and authors have disputed the veracity of Shakespeare’s authorship of his attributed works.  For the purposes of this paper, the assumption will be taken as absolute that the authorship is his.
[xii] Actor Rupert Everett is openly gay.
[xiii] As asserted in the paper “Oberon’s Plight” as presented in the 2005 Shakespeare’s Comedies course.
[xiv] As Luis Lopez did in the message board sub-category “Dream – Addition and Subtraction”.
[xv] Jackson, p. 4-5.
[xvi] This is an extreme supposition to be sure.  However, one cannot discount the similarity between the intoxicating effects of the purple flowers and the infamous date rape drugs, a problem that was wide-spread in the late 90s and continues to this day.
[xvii] This catfight was most likely an attempt to keep the male viewers interested in the proceedings.
[xviii] Had this been played “straight”, then this make up issue would be apt given that Bottom is an ass in either form.  Kline’s performance undermines this conceit, creating a character dissimilar to the one he is playing.

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