From stage to screen
Irish Independent Film Critic Paul Whitington looks at the highs and lows of William Shakespeare in Tinseltown
Published 21/11/2007 | 00:00
ONE wonders what Shakespeare would have made of the fact that he has inspired more motion pictures than any other writer. Of course he'd be surprised that there were motion pictures in the first place, but once he'd gotten over that he'd most likely be flattered that his work has proved so compatible with the new art form.
Over 420 feature films of Shakespeare's work have been produced, in a continuous line stretching right back to the silent era. Watching Hamlet with subtitles must have been hard work, but audiences did, and the bard has proved a potent crowd-pleaser ever since. Wartime Britons packed out the cinemas in 1944 to have their morales boosted by Laurence Olivier's stirring adaptation of Henry V.
In 1998, Shakespeare in Love, a film about the dramatist's life peppered with references to his work, proved a huge hit and won a raft of Oscars. And two years before that, Australian director Baz Luhrmann achieved something even more remarkable by turning a Shakespeare play into a hit teen film.
The tradition is that teenage students are supposed to be hostile to plays by the Bard they're forced to study at gunpoint. But with William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet, Luhrmann proved that the writer's rich language need be no obstacle to any generation.
While many adaptations of Shakespeare plays have transferred the conventions of stage productions to the screen, Luhrmann realised that this approach usually results in tedious and lifeless cinema. So he decided to relocate the story of the Montagues and the Cupulets to late 20th-century America, and a fictionalised verson of Verona Beach in Florida.
The warring Renaissance families became rival urban gangs who drove flashy cars and sported the bling and jailhouse tattoos of American street culture. Romeo and Juliet, the boy and girl from rival families who fatally fall in love, were for once played by actors young enough to play them, and Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes made a charming and believable teenage couple.
Luhrmann's film attracted controversy because it seemed to revel excessively in violence, with numerous slow-motion gun battles and graphic depictions of teenage suicides. But what critics of these tactics failed to realise was that Luhrmann's approach was entirely in keeping with Shakespeare's original intentions, for as with all his tragedies, Romeo and Juliet is littered with enough blood and guts to rival most modern films. And in fact Luhrmann lost none of the original play's power or pathos in imaginately translating it to the urban present, and thus making it accessible to a whole new generation.
In many ways Luhrmann's film was the start of a wave of new adaptations of his work aimed at modern teen audiences, and some departed even more radically from Shakespeare's template than the Australian had. Films like O and Ten Things I Hate About You dispensed with Shakespeare's language entirely, retelling Othello and The Taming of the Shrew in modern English and modern circumstances.
Released in 2001, O cleverly transplanted the story of the Venetian Moor whose love for his loyal wife Desdemona is destroyed by his jealousy to a modern American high school. Mekhi Phifer played 'O', the school's only black student and the star of the basketball team. His girlfriend is the beautiful Desi (short for Desdemona, which means unfortunate in Greek, so you know things aren't going to go well), played by Julia Stiles, who also happens to be the Dean's daughter, which bodes well for O's future.
But Hugo (Josh Hartnett), the basketball coach's son, whom O thinks is his friend, nurses a grudge against him because he took his place on the team, and starts to poison his mind against Desi, with tragic consequences. The plot Shakespeare would have instantly recognised, but the language would have bewildered him.
Julia Stiles was again involved as The Taming of the Shrew was given the high school treatment in the 1999 comedy Ten Things I Hate About You. She plays Kat, the beautiful but disagreeable student who hates all boys, and whom Heath Ledger's Patrick Verona must attempt to tame. 'How Do I Loathe Thee? Let me count the ways', went the tagline, but again the film had precious little to do with Elizabethan English.
Geoffrey Wright's 2006 take on one of Shakespeare's most filmed plays, Macbeth, tried to trade on Baz Luhrmann's formula of Elizabethan dialogue in a modern setting, transplanting the violent tale from 11th century Scotland to modern day Melbourne. The three witches are delinquent schoolgirls, and Macbeth is the ambitious leader of a street gang, who's egged on by his wife. But the film was not nearly as clever as it imagined, and ended up falling ridiculously between two stools.
More in tune with Luhrmann's potent mix of innovation and faithfulness to Shakespeare's intentions was the 1995 British film Richard III, directed by Richard Loncraine. Though it stuck faithfully to the original text and starred theatrical heavyweights like Ian McKellen, Jim Broadbent and Maggie Smith, the film daringly reset the historical action in the 1930s, and made the scheming king a brylcreemed proto-fascist, surrounded by cocktail dresses, martini glasses and ivory cigarette holders. And the update suited Richard's twisted character perfrectly.
All of this frantic adaptation has at times threatened to get out of hand. The movng of Ethan Hawke's Hamlet from Elsinore to corporate Manhattan in a 2000 film was a bit of a reach in the end. Verging on the disrespectful, Scotland PA shifted the tragedy of Macbeth to a suburban American hamburger stand. And Macbeth 2003: This Time It's Personal, turned the Scottish play into a bizarre spy thriller.
This popularisation has long been frowned upon by highbrow Shakespeare lovers, who would much rather the Bard's words remained the preserve of the highbrow elite, yet in ways Shakespeare himself would surely love it. He was no elitist: his plays were aimed as much at the raucous peasants who crammed into the Globe Theatre as the nobles who were forced to rub shoulders with them. And while his langauge might seem heightened to us now, it was the common parlance for an audience who may not always have been able to read but who commanded a spoken vocabulary many times larger than our own. He always made sure to pepper his work with sex, violence and enough low jokes to keep the punters happy, so would probably have got on famously in Hollywood.
The popularisation of Shakespeare on screen stretches back to Laurence Olivier, who defied theatrical conventions with his first adaptations of the plays in the 1940s. He had made his name as a classical actor in the 1930s before becoming a Hollywood star. And while it was considered ok at that time for respectable stage actors to make a few bob in movies, Shakespeare was definitely not for filming.
He changed all that with Henry V, in 1944, which managed to be both a great film and a stirring addition to the wartime propaganda effort. More adaptations followed -- a very fine Hamlet (1948), and a definitive Richard III (1955). And what Olivier's films did was open Shakespeare's work to people who would never have gone to see them in a theatre.
At the same time as Olivier was bringing Shakespeare to the screen, another iconoclastic filmmaker was tilting his lance at the Bard. Orson Welles had also started in the theatre (at Dublin's Gate Theatre, to be precise), but his Shakespeare films were wildly visually interpretative, as he brought his imagination to bear on the stories of Othello (1952) and Macbeth (1948). If those two films adheredly fairly closely to the original plays, his last Shakespearean project was a typically bold move.
In Chimes at Midnight (1965), the ever-confident Welles took the blue pen to the bard, condensing bits of Henry IV, Henry V, Richard II and The Merry Wives of Windsor into a narrative about the larger-than- life Falstaff (whom Welles memorably played) and his relationship with the future king, Prince Hal.
Arrogance indeed, but Shakespeare, who robbed most of his stories from history books and legends, would surely not have minded Welles' editing.
The other great filmer of Shakespeare's works is Belfast-born actor Kenneth Branagh, who since delivering his own take on Henry V in 1989 has made a series of fine screen adaptations, focussing mainly on the comedies but including an underrated Hamlet (1996). He was strongly influenced by the model of Olivier, but also perhaps by Welles, and no doubt Branagh himself will encourage other filmmakers to tackle the works of a writer who never seems to go out of fashion.
The Bard and the Godfather
Al Pacino has had a long love affair with the Bard's works, mainly on the Broadway stage. He appeared in Richard III and Julius Caesar. In 1996 he made an intriguing film called Looking for Richard about the character of Richard III.
As well as performing extracts from the play, Pacino talked to actors like Vanessa Redgrave, Derek Jacobi and the late John Gielgud.
Pacino is best known for his Shylock in a 2004 film of The Merchant of Venice. His performance won lavish praise for a subtle and sympathetic interpretation of the Jewish money-lender.
'Everything matches the times we live in'
Being confronted by the mysteries of Elizabethan blank verse must have been something of a culture shock for young Hollywood actors Leondaro DiCaprio and Claire Danes. Danes was just 16 when she appeared in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo & Juliet, and DiCaprio was 21.
DiCaprio remembered being worried. “At first,” he said, “I thought I would have to put on an English accent and try a sort of affected Shakespeare thing. Then I saw Keanu Reeves in Much Ado About Nothing, and I thought, if he can do it, I can do it too.”
Luhrmann’s imaginary postmodern world also helped him cope, as it “heightened everything, which made it more dangerous, more interesting and more liberating."
And once he got comforable with Shakespearean dialogue, he found the writer’s themes surprisingly relevant.
“Two young people raised in an atmosphere of hate, who find love in the midst of it. I wasn't sure at first that it would relate, but when I got more involved I realized how everything matched the times we're living in.”
Luhrmann’s equation of the Montague-Capulet feud to modern urban gangs made sense to DiCaprio. “In this society (American cities), you have to realize that you can be picked off at any time. So, Romeo is a kind of rebel – he rebels against his family, because he resents being raised in an atmosphere of hate, and he rebels against his peers, because their only response to hate is more hate, more violence. It's all very relevant.”
DiCaprio’s co-star, Claire Danes, could also see parallels with modern America. “Shakespeare had a powerful grasp on human nature. The story is about young love and it's about a society that is so corrupt, and so chaotic, and so violent that you have a lost generation.
“Everyone is always saying that our society is degenerating and Shakespeare paints a picture of a society that's grappling with all of that hundreds of years ago.”
She found Shakepeare “a little daunting at first.” But the fact that Luhrmann “wanted to make the story accessible” helped Danes, who also found it “wonderful to play being in love.”