The Problem With Shakespeare Movies

by Tom Ingram

I’ve seen most of the well-known Shakespeare adaptations–the Polanski Macbeth, the Zeffirelli Romeo and Juliet, Michael Hoffman’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado and, most recently, Hamlet. I’ve also seen some of the more infamous ones, like episode 1009 of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 and Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. Common to almost all of them is a feeling that something’s subtly wrong. They feel like Shakespeare adaptations, and not in a good way.

They’re not quite recognizable as anything we would call a movie. They don’t act the way other films do. They’re not just taped plays either. They feel more like recorded stage productions trying desperately and failing to be movies. The conventions of the genre are an unappetizing mishmash of film conventions, stage conventions, and a misguided desire to be faithful to the original.

What’s wrong?

The platform.

Branagh’s Hamlet is a good case study. One of the problems common to all kinds of Shakespeare adaptations pops up in the first minute or so. The filmmakers change details, which is their prerogative, but then they leave in the original lines that no longer make any sense in light of the changes. For instance, in Hamlet, the play opens on “the platform”, presumably the walls of the castle. In the movie, the guards are clearly in a courtyard, but they still talk about it as if it’s “the platform”, which makes them look somewhat unobservant.

One change that’s made in just about every adaptation is the removal of Paris’s death from Romeo and Juliet. I disagree with this change; I think it takes away a very important character moment for Romeo, but both movie versions that I’ve seen take it out. The problem is, they leave in the prince’s line at the end about having lost “a brace of kinsmen”. In other words, two relatives of his have died. But since Paris’s death was removed, this is no longer true. This is the kind of glaring mistake that would get people fired from any other kind of movie.

Often, however, the problems come from things the filmmakers didn’t change but should have. It’s well known that Shakespeare’s plays were light on props and scenery. Scenes are set in dialogue. This is the reason Macduff’s son says, “he has kill’d me, mother”. From far away, it might not be clear that the shag-haired villain has, in fact, kill’d him. This is all well and good in the context of a massive, open-roofed, smelly Elizabethan theatre, but once you get into the realm of big budget films, having Hamlet say “it is very cold” when we can clearly see his breath in the air makes Kenneth Branagh and his character both seem rather dim.

The reason these changes aren’t made is clear. They want to stay true to the original and not cut anything out if they don’t have to. This is an admirable goal, but the fact is that transitioning from stage to screen requires more than just the addition of a camera. You’re moving from one set of conventions to another. The conventions of film simply do not allow characters to set the scene by telling the audience what the temperature is.

Another clash of cinema and stage is the soliloquies. Shakespeare’s writing is wordy and, when you paraphrase the archaic language, much of it is repetitive and banal. I like his writing, but I admit that it works a lot better on paper than in person. It works even worse in film. In an effort to make the speeches interesting, characters in Shakespeare movies run around the set, throw things, swing their arms around, and otherwise chew the scenery.

Even that doesn’t work because the speeches still go on too long. The scene in Hamlet where Branagh delivers a soliloquy while chasing the ghost through a forest would be laughable even if it didn’t overstay its welcome. Immediately after, the ghost performs a long, whispered speech and the filmmakers try in vain to spruce it up with different camera angles, including one extended shot of Brian Blessed’s teeth. This is not entertaining to watch. Branagh’s tired panting and Blessed’s hoarse whisper* make it difficult even to listen.

Gaze into the mouth of Brian!

The absolute worst technique in the insidious toolbox of Shakespeare adapters, however, will always be the voiceover. Some bright directors decide that since a soliloquy is supposed to show a character thinking, the speech should be presented in a voiceover while the character stands with a slack-jawed expression. It looks like the actors just forgot to move their mouths while speaking. Branagh and Roman Polanski are both guilty of this. It’s unbelievably jarring, simply because this is not how you do voiceovers.

It’s both easy and fun to criticize, but is there anything constructive to say? Well, yes, actually. Shakespeare’s plays could make very good movies. We just have to set a few ground rules.

Da Rules

If you change anything, change all the textual references to it too.

This is a no-brainer. A basic rule of continuity that doesn’t need to be spelled out for anybody except Franco Zeffirelli and Kenneth Branagh, apparently. It is shoddy workmanship to plainly show one thing and then unintentionally tell another. It gives the impression that the entire scriptwriting process involved only four keys: CTRL, C, V, and Delete. In many cases, it probably did.

Separate, but related:

If you’re changing the setting, change the language.

It’s fine to do R+J or Macbeth** with gangsters. But unless you intend to do an over-the-top silly movie, you can’t have the gangsters talking about drawing their swords. Nobody took Romeo + Juliet seriously.

If a movie is to be understood as a film version of one of Shakespeare’s plays, exactly as the man himself intended it, then we’ll understand if you use the original language. If it’s to be understood as the plot of a Shakespeare play transplanted somewhere else, then it’s no longer the same entity. Changes need to be made.

We tend to see history as a big blur, so it’s easier to get away with a nineteenth-century Midsummer Night’s Dream where the characters talk like Elizabethans. But we all know, or think we know, how businessmen, gangsters, politicians, and priests talk in modern times. You won’t slip one by us there. Don’t even try.

Chop out any artifacts from Elizabethan theatre.

Conventions of theatre at the time required a lot of repetition. Conventions of film today requires little to no repetition. While the inclusion of the infamous “he has kill’d me, mother” was a sign of Shakespeare’s respect for his audience–he didn’t want them to miss anything, even the groundlings–failing to cut it out of a movie script shows contempt for modern audiences.

This is all part of the old maxim “show, don’t tell”. Shakespeare told instead of showing because he didn’t have another option. We do. When Macbeth sees a dagger in a movie, we don’t need a soliloquy saying, “Oh, deary me, that’s a dagger.” A simple gasp and confused facial expression will do. It’s the actors, not the screenwriter, who should be doing the acting.

In general, if it doesn’t work, cut it or change it. Don’t be afraid.

I realize this is Shakespeare we’re talking about, and it’s prudent to tread lightly. Still, it’s the adapter’s job to make changes. You don’t show respect for the source material by not changing anything. You show respect by making the best adaptation you possibly can. In other words, by leaving Shakespeare’s wording intact, you might be actively pissing on the Bard’s grave.

Try to avoid pissing on the Bard’s grave whenever possible.

Yeah.

If the speech is too long, trim it. Yes, even the famous ones.

When your characters are talking, they’re not doing anything. Movies are about people doing things. Trying to make a soliloquy seem exciting by having the actors overact has been done. It doesn’t work. If Hamlet starts yacking in the middle of a chase scene, he’s still yacking.

When you make a decision about the emotional tone of a scene, stick to it and cut anything that doesn’t fit.

I’m looking at Polonius’s conversation with Ophelia in particular here. Branagh interpreted it as an angry father chewing out his daughter, which is just fine. Except that partway through, Polonius makes a pun on the word “tender”. On paper, this is all right because it changes your interpretation of the scene. If Polonius is making a lighthearted joke, he’s obviously not that angry. Maybe he’s just worried. But the film forces us into one interpretation, and the pun becomes a contradiction. The only logical conclusion is that the director ran his eyes over the script but didn’t understand any of the words.

If anyone on the crew suggests doing a voiceover, take them out back and shoot them.

If the characters need to think, they can think out loud. Obviously, there are times when it’s acceptable to do a voiceover. Rarely. If you’re having a character narrate a flashback, for instance. Or in a prologue. Put one pretty much anywhere else and you’re in trouble.

Forget it, just use modern language.

By paraphrasing Shakespeare into modern English, you make his work more accessible to everyone. You make it more obvious which bits are necessary, which were once necessary but aren’t anymore, and which are just word cruft that nobody will miss.

What I’m suggesting is that instead of just adapting the text we also localize it. When we read archaic language, unless we’re very careful it tends to form a layer of separation between us and the characters. It makes them seem more like archetypes than people. In The Lord of the Rings, it’s hard to empathize with Aragorn, Eowyn, and Faramir because they don’t instinctively feel like real people. The lofty speech is part of it. The hobbits, on the other hand, speak plainly, and Gollum’s idiosyncratic speech injects plenty of life into the character. They’re easy to get on with.

There will always be a niche market for original-text Shakespeare movies. But a cinematic, modern English paraphrase of Macbeth? In the right hands, that would be awesome.

The most successful transition from stage to screen is Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing***. Note that this is also one of Shakespeare’s least wordy plays, and easily the one most accessible to modern audiences. Very little had to change to make it work. This is not a coincidence.


* It’s nice to see Brian Blessed in a role where he doesn’t have to shout, but in that scene I could hardly hear him at all. [return]

** That production has Anthony Stewart Head, otherwise known as Rupert Giles, as Duncan. [return]

*** And say what you will, but I thought Keanu made a perfectly fine Don John. [return]

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