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.
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.
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. Read the rest of this entry »