Swans Commentary » swans.com November 21, 2005  



Cinematizing Shakespeare


by Charles Marowitz


Arts & Culture



[This a condensed, scaled-down version of a lecture the author gave at a recent session of the Association of Literary Scholars & Critics.]


(Swans - November 21, 2005)   It's been said that if William Shakespeare were alive today, he'd be writing for the movies. More likely, he'd be engaged in acrimonious credit battles with the Writers Guild to ward off his plagiarists. Being an astute businessman, I can visualize him trying to persuade someone like Arnold Schwarzenegger that he'd make a "terrific Coriolanus," or sweet-talking Leona Helmsely or Martha Stewart into playing Lady Macbeth. If he ever won an Oscar, his acceptance speech, thanking all the sources he himself had plagiarized, would probably make the show run disastrously overtime.

According to the official filmography, there are over five hundred videos and films of Shakespeare's plays. That doesn't include plot ripoffs like "Joe Macbeth," "Forbidden Planet," and "10 Things I Hate About You," scrounged from "Macbeth," "The Tempest," and "Taming of the Shrew," respectively. The first film treatment was of the rather uncinematic "King John," a silent film made by Sir Beerbohm Tree in 1899. What's memorable about that little item is not so much the work of William Shakespeare (which hangs like a dank mist over the picture) but the insight it gives us into the late 19th century acting style which, as we all know, was histrionic, overstated and, what we disdainfully dismiss today as "hammy" -- although Tree, like Forrest, Booth, Kean, and Kemble -- were considered consummate classical actors in their day and so there was obviously something compelling there, which we're unable to appreciate in our post-Stanislavskyan era.

I've never met a Shakespearean purist who has ever been satisfied with a film adaptation of any of his plays. The feeling persists that no matter how "cinematic" a motion picture might be, the fact that it's been clawed out of the root-and-branch of a theatrical work suggests one is always assessing some degree of molestation or rape. Given Shakespeare's proclivity to ravage literary sources for his own works, this is a fairly untenable position. If you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs, you certainly can't make an effective Shakespearean film without pillaging the play's basic ingredients.

One has only to look at those films which have tried to cleave loyally to the originals -- like Paul Czinner's "As You Like It," or the Leslie Howard-Norma Shearer "Romeo And Juliet," or the entire canon adapted into a white-bread television series by Jonathan Miller for the BBC, to recognize that stage transplants are biologically rejected by the metabolism that conditions movies. But we also have to recognize that taking liberties can be just as disastrous, and that a Peter Greeneway riff on "The Tempest" like "Prospero's Books" starring the voice, rather than the persona, of John Gielgud, can come across as a beautifully embossed platter of artificial fruit (no pun intended).

So the question arises: if one can't simply train a camera on a classic and make it work as a movie, and if inflating a work with dazzling cinematic imagery is just as hazardous, what is the middle ground? And is the middle ground where artists should be pitching their tents, since we know that real artists usually gravitate towards the margins rather than towards the center? There are some provisional answers to these questions, but in order for them to be persuasive we have to first examine some of these films.

Film directors continually talk about "opening up" Shakespeare for the big screen. To me, this always brings to mind Jack the Ripper "opening up" the innards of his East End victims in order to slice out their entrails. "Opening up" a story, so as to make full use of the cinematic medium, is a necessary tactic in all film adaptations, but as any surgeon will tell you, if you go too far in "opening up" a sentient being, you stand a good chance of closing down the patient altogether, illustrating the old gag in which "the operation was a success, but the patient died."

"Richard III" has proven to be an irresistible temptation for film makers. Over the years there have been six different versions, including Rowland Lee's horror flick "Tower of London" with Boris Karloff and Basil Rathbone. Olivier's snide, lip-smacking and camp "Richard" from 1955 certainly leads the pack and his characterization virtually established the template, which innumerable Richards have copied ever since. The most recent and most egregious "Richard" has probably been the version starring Ian McKellan directed by Richard Longcraine based on the 1990 National Theatre production of "Richard" by Richard Eyre -- a veritable infestation of Richards!

In Eyre's 1930s Mosleyite rendering of the play, "Richard" was swamped in imagery redolent of the Third Reich with Shakespeare's scheming Machiavel turned into a charismatic tyrant who bore a striking resemblance to Adolf Hitler (with not a little of the absurdity that Charlie Chaplin brought to the same character in "The Great Dictator"). The parallel between Richard's ascent to the throne and the imaginary rise of a scheming fascist in a context of the British aristocracy was a banality of the kind that makes people desperately search for extenuating circumstances on the part of the perpetrators, but none could be found. McKellan and his director Longcraine then took the seed of that misguided production and placed it in the womb of an even more far-fetched United Artists film.

It was cast, as is usual in such cases, with some of the finest British talent available but neither the classy casting nor the lurid cinematic choices were to any avail, since the film was entombed in the fallacy that British fascism and the calamities of World War II could in some way mirror the sectarian rivalries and intrigues that generated the Wars of the Roses. Before long the Blackshirts, the Yorks and Lancasters, and the Nazi symbology all merge -- not into the idealized timelessness intended by the filmmakers -- but into a time warp that is neither Now or Then -- neither relevant historicity nor multifaceted modernity -- just typical British fudge and fustian.

As a result of this modernizing, popularizing, and vulgarizing approach, most of Shakespeare's language had to be jettisoned and once you remove that from "Richard III," you are left only with the bare bones of Raphael Holinshed. Lines from the play wafted through the air like fugitive snatches of melody from a piece of music one vaguely recognizes but to which one cannot put a name. Trapped in a stalled jeep from which he cannot accelerate, Richard calls for "A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse," which, given the mechanization of the forces surrounding him, would be worse than useless. Surely, "A jack, a jack, my kingdom for a jack" would have made more sense.

Characters from the 15th century are forcibly folded together with personalities from the 1930s but without a score card, it's impossible to recognize them. Unless you know that Elizabeth equals Wally Simpson; Rivers, the Duke of Windsor; and Richard, Sir Oswald Mosley, you are only vaguely conscious of interlocking identities. But even when you discern the intended counterparts, your sense of history tells you they simply don't jell -- that you're not really being offered credible parallels but loose and makeshift resemblances that work only in the film maker's febrile imagination. It's at this juncture that the whole point of the interpretation begins to crumble and we begin to pine for the rich, open-ended, Marlovian smash 'n grab of Shakespeare's original play. Promised contemporary amplitude, one has been fobbed off with a kind of flash reductionism.

At the root of the film's intellectual confusion is McKellan's desire to popularize Shakespeare. "If you put the characters in the sort of clothes we might still wear today," he is quoted as saying, "it's one way of showing an audience that Shakespeare is not old-fashioned." But if you put a fifteenth century warrior-king who believes in the Chain of Being into a modern political context charged with territorial expansionism and notions of ethnic cleansing, you are mixing history in such a way as to falsify the past and hopelessly fudge the present. Parallels that are inherent don't need visual aids to point them up; we, the audience, draw those parallels from period narratives without the aid of pedantic actors and ostentatious directors brandishing updated Cliff Notes. And does McKellan really believe that any person of sense considers the author of "Hamlet," "Othello," "Caesar," "Coriolanus," and "Lear" "old fashioned"?

Compared to the McKellan-Loncraine "Richard," Olivier's picture-book version seems the more audacious and unquestionably the more compelling. Where the play itself opens up, as in the battle scenes, Olivier legitimately opens up the film, but before one ever reaches Bosworth Field, he has already sketched in the political intrigue, which drives both Richard's ambition and the film's narrative. In Olivier's snide and smarmy characterization (patterned on the stage director Jed Harris, whom Olivier felt was the most detestable man he had ever met), the actor wins us over with the kind of hype, spin, and PR deceit which we normally associate with modern politicians. (Is there really all that much difference between Richard aloft, flanked by two clergymen to convey his piety, and George W. Bush jetting onto the carrier Abraham Lincoln in a combat suit and flanked by US marines advertising his military prowess?) In Olivier's performance, we get little glimpses of amiable demagogues as different as Huey Long and Joseph Stalin. As with Iago, who also takes us cozily into his confidence, we are sympathetically sucked in by an antipathetic character -- "a man we love to hate." The underlying understanding of how political chicanery operates to achieve its evil goals nourishes Olivier's version of "Richard" and, as a result, we get Shakespeare-plus, not Shakespeare-minus.

Then there are the cinematic oddities like Al Pacino's "Looking For Richard," which is a kind of "Shakespeare For Dummies," with actors shouting "Eureka" as they stumble on to every cliché and banality thrown up in over four centuries of remorseless "Richardizing." They're all there: from Derek Jacoby's chestnut that all American actors are intimidated by Shakespeare, to Peter Brook's homily that the canon was really made for the screen where actors have no need to project their voices in order to deliver the verse, to Pacino's own interpretative gem that Richard is simply "a man who cannot find love," based on Gloucester's self-pitying lament in Act Five that "there is no creature loves me/And if I die, no soul shall pity me"; a maudlin and hackneyed reading derived from the deep-rooted American fallacy that all evil people are in some way victims of bad parenting who had been denied breast feeding and if only they were hugged more as children, they would have turned out wholesome upright citizens.

The other bogus assumption behind "Looking For Richard" is that there is a verifiable, cunningly concealed, artistically-authentic Shakespearean character hidden away in the entrails of Shakespeare's text, rather than realizing that actors and directors in creative collaboration can divine any number of "Richard's" -- all of whom may be equally valid. But perhaps the greatest sin in "Looking for Richard" is the total denial of the rich American tradition in Shakespearean acting that dates back some two hundred years and is exemplified by artists such as Edwin Forrest, Edwin Booth, Julia Marlowe, Eva le Gallienne, John Barrymore, Maurice Evans, the companies at Stratford Connecticut, and Joe Papp's Shakespeare Festival. Watching Pacino discover the secrets of iambic pentameter and the meaning of "Richard III" is a barfmaking exercise in artistic naiveté, and it makes distinguished film actors such as Kevin Spacey, Kevin Kline, Alec Baldwin, and Pacino himself, look like gormless tyros who have just signed up for Shakespeare 101.


Shakespearean films have to come to terms with the originals on which they are based. In "Henry V," Olivier's first Shakespeare film in 1945, the theatricality of the original is beautifully preserved by placing the play in the context of a performance within the Globe itself. We get a somewhat stagy version of "Henry" but it is justified because the director has clearly established the theatrical milieu and makes no bones about the fact that he is segueing from one medium to the other. Because the language is forcefully played by veteran stage actors, the drama works on the screen as it did on stage. And of course, Olivier's "Henry" was greatly aided by the time in which it was made; used consciously as a propaganda exercise to strengthen the resolve of the British public in the dark days of World War II -- a rare occasion where the inclinations of the material and the deepest impulses of the public dramatically coincide.

Kenneth Branagh's version in 1989, being the first Shakespearean outing of a very young actor, had a similar advantage, making this "coming of age" interpretation perfectly plausible. Branagh and Henry were coming of age simultaneously and when art is reinforced by actuality in that way, it often produces a sharp, organic result. Despite cribs from Orson Welles's "Chimes at Midnight" in the muddy battle scenes, and fairly conventional interpretations all round, Branagh's "Henry V" earned its screen time and complemented Olivier's film without in any way overshadowing it. But by 1996, when Branagh had already produced his full-length "Hamlet" as well as "Much Ado" and "Love's Labor's Lost," the poverty of his classical imagination became too apparent to ignore.

There is a certain archival satisfaction in having every word of Shakespeare's "Hamlet" down on celluloid and played by a highly competent group of English actors who perform it with clarity and understanding. Having said that, one has to add that it convincingly makes the case for compression. Excess verbiage, as we know, has always been one of Shakespeare's pitfalls; that, and a kind of tendency to run-off-at-the-mouth, which blurs the spectator's immediate perception, remains good reason for streamlining much of the canon. It's because what is essential in Shakespeare is the centrifugal imagery and the sweep of character that the words need not be treated as if they were the Elgin marbles. And one of the inescapable duties of all filmed Shakespeare is that directors are obliged to make sizeable cuts in the text to determine precisely what is essential and what is expendable. By announcing that he would be filming the entire play, of course, Branagh was justifiably able to sidestep this duty.

Realizing a four-hour, full-length "Hamlet" was clearly a non-commercial proposition and wanting, therefore, to bolster its chances at the box office, Branagh brought together a cluster of recognizable stars in cameo roles. This served only to further wrench the play out of its graven reality and into a Hollywood context. Although Charlton Heston was quietly effective as the player King and Julie Christie attractively unobtrusive as Gertrude, Jack Lemmon was gormless and icky as Marcellus -- nervously looking about as if waiting to be rescued by the arrival of Walter Matthau, Billy Crystal gauchely improbable as the gravedigger, and Robin Williams, mannered and mawkish as Osric. To the extent than an audience was being drawn into Hamlet's conspiracy against Claudius, these jolting, non-integrated performances welled up like buboes on an otherwise limpid epidermis.

For Branagh, "Hamlet" is the weave of the verse and the spiral of the soliloquies. His way of expressing the character's inner state is to pump meaning into the language and so, to know what the character is feeling, we merely have to interpret the vocal nuances of his delivery. The permutations of his inner self don't really come into it. Olivier, with those hooded, baleful eyes and that irrepressible world weariness, caught our sympathy because of his emanations; the woefulness that oozed from his silences and sheltered behind the throwaway phrases. With Branagh, it's all out there -- spread-eagled in the language and immediately decipherable. It is just possible that a play that for over four hundred years has been a triumph of ambiguity doesn't need so forthright a degree of explicitness.

But at least Branagh respects the dignity and quality of the original material, whereas a rising number of Shakespearean film makers seem to believe that Shakespeare, being outmoded, cries out to be updated. This is no less true on the stage as it is in films. Over the years, stage directors have been very prone to put Shakespeare into fancy dress: Wild West garb, Martian space suits, Napoleonic tunics, Edwardian tailcoats, mittle-Europa military uniforms and every kind of modern apparel from Carnaby Street to Wall Street. The assumption seemed to be that if one changed the period, one was simultaneously making a conceptual statement. Of course, that was never true. The work of costume and scene designers alone can never express the ideological implications of a complex play or take the place of an intellectually-tooled reinterpretation. Even today, directors approaching Shakespearean revivals squander their ingenuity trying to come up with a fanciful or startling period context rather than plumbing the depths of the material they're trying to convey. Recostuming rather than rethinking seems to be the order of the day.

In films, it seems to me, there is greater justification for transmogrifying the locations of Shakespeare's plays. We know that on stage, no matter what the settings and costumes, we are always in a theatre, but a movie takes place in a tiny little groove in the spectator's imagination where he expects to be transported to exotic landscapes and faraway places. They are products of the Dream Factory, and "the stuff of dreams," Prospero's observations notwithstanding, is the commodity of films.

In Michael Almereyda's "Hamlet 2000," the action is set in modern Manhattan, in a corporate world where Claudius is the CEO of "The Denmark Corporation." Hamlet's first soliloquy is rendered through a laptop screen, Hamlet's Ghost is glimpsed on a television monitor, fax machines deliver segments of Shakespeare's text, other bits of it are overheard in telephone conversations. Ophelia, trying to escape Hamlet's diatribe in "Get thee to a nunnery," rushes home only to find that his rant continues when she turns on her answering machine. The evil that the play originally located in Claudius's reign is here transferred to all forms of technology. The villainy is somehow rooted in the cyberspacial world itself, with palm pilots and computers replacing poisons and daggers. The "tragedy" reveals itself through an "urban isolation" that envelops almost all of the characters, and as the New York Times review pointed out: "corrupted wealth is used as a surrogate for stained royalty."

The play's commitment to contemporaneity is total. But the language of the play hangs on the film like barnacles on the sides of a sleek, modern cruise liner; never stylistically integrated, never organic to behavior or events, always quirky and incongruous in the midst of corporate splendor and glass-and-steel, metropolitan architecture. The nagging, unanswerable question is: why are people behaving one way and talking in another? There is, I have to admit, a kind of daft consistency in Almereyda's relentless update of the story and he does convey the inconsolable grief of a young, moral, prince of industry unable to cope with the venality he's inherited from his elders, but the language and the action never join up. "Hamlet 2000" is not so much "Hamlet" reinterpreted as "Hamlet" jettisoned, and the retention of the original language feels like a misguided reverence for something no longer needed and no longer serviceable.

Baz Luhrman's "Romeo and Juliet" from 1996 is also updated, set in a decadent urban neighborhood suggestive of both Miami and Mexico City. The film is flecked with subliminal in-jokes like a run-down cinema called "The Globe" and a glimpsed store front whose sign reads: "Out, Out Damned Spot Cleaners." The background music is, of course, obligatory "rock." It's just as insistent on its modernity as Almereyda's "Hamlet," but here, the visual imagination of the director is so compelling that we make greater allowances for the colloquialized classical text which just seems to be "along for the ride."

The other advantage that Luhrman has is that the juvenile violence that swirls beneath both his film and Shakespeare's play lends itself more readily to a drug-rattled world of shivs and motorcycles, unfeeling parents, and free-wheeling gang warfare. But perhaps the film's greatest virtue is that it preserves the tragic lyricism which is intrinsic to both the story and the play, and the film does draw audiences in to a story about wrack't adolescents and star-cross't lovers. One really feels that behind the callousness and the assumed "cool" of these kids there are volcanic emotions of yearning and frustration, love and hysteria -- that neither/nor world between adolescence and early manhood -- and if a film manages to achieve that, perhaps we're demanding too much to ask for beautiful diction and poetic subtleties as well.

Oliver Parker's "Othello" from 1995 is far less flashy than Orson Welles's 1952 black and white version. The director has wisely gone for under-statement rather than hyperbole and by and large, this is an effective choice -- except in those scenes where the hounded Othello is supposed to rage and crack asunder. There the underplaying cheats the audience of some of the legitimate high notes in Othello's breakdown. Then there's the question of balance between Iago and Othello, always a crucial concern in this play and perfectly maintained by Welles and Michael MacLiammoir, two comparable talents; whereas in Parker's version, Kenneth Brangah's Iago continually outpoints Laurence Fishburn's Othello and the film seems to be more about a villain's stratagems than a hubristic general's downfall. If one feels fonder of Welles's version than Parker's it's mainly because Welles's Othello benefits enormously from the actor's own personal charisma and, in films as on the stage, you can't ignore the magnetism of an outsize personality.

There is one Shakespearean transfer to film with which I'm on fairly intimate terms, and that's the Peter Brook-Paul Scofield "King Lear" on which I served as both assistant director and unofficial dramaturge at the Royal Shakespeare Company. The stage version that premiered at Stratford in 1962 was a spare, dry, bleak, Beckettian vision of the play that owed a lot to Jan Kott's essay "King Lear or End Game." In that era in which Theatre of Cruelty was very much the watchword, it was a cruel and flinty retelling of the story that took place in a withered land, bereft of both God and salvation, where the lines "As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods/They kill us for their sport" could easily have stood as an epigraph for the entire production.

The play's setting was located in a kind of barren no man's land; the film version was set in a primitive, arctic wasteland covered with snow and filled with furs, horses and ancient wagons. Relentless close-ups hugged the actors' faces and the storm scenes seemed to be shot through rain-splattered windshields. The vestiges of the best stage performances -- Scofield's, Alan Webb's, Irene Worth's -- were still there, albeit in subdued form, but the narrative tapestry of the play had come apart. Grounded in the original stage conception, Brook used cinema as a series of "takes" to frame salient bits of language from the play, but the need to condense and compress the numerous strands of plot in "Lear" virtually tied him -- and the film -- in knots. The stage production was as close to a masterpiece as any stage production I had ever seen; the film, merely a clutch of images that caught glimpses of some of the best performances and echoes of salient bits of verse. Rather than starting from square one and rethinking the whole project, Peter proceeded to filter content from one medium to another and the Law of Diminishing Returns kicked in with a vengeance.


Peter Brook has often expressed the view that films are much more amenable to Shakespeare than the stage because film actors have no need to project their voices in order to make their points; that, in fact, the electronic medium is something of a godsend to Shakespeare because close-ups and sound technology allow for an intimacy that simply cannot be obtained in a theatre.

It's a view that, on the face of it, sounds convincing, but it doesn't take into account that Shakespearean verse, and indeed much of the prose, consists of a kind of athleticized language that works against the rhythms and tenor of naturalistic speech. When language is highly wrought and embellished with similes and metaphors, ironies and ambiguities, apostrophe and rhetoric, bringing it down to the level of colloquial interchange robs it of those very characteristics that defines it either as poetry or heightened prose. It's true that on film actors need not raise their voices to be heard, but it's equally true that when one is conveying complex language in subdued and conversational tones, the spires and buttresses of that language become merely brickwork.

The language was conceived for outdoor delivery in theatres seating as many as 2,000 spectators. It was structured by a poet with the intention of soaring beyond the hubbub of groundling chatter, the cries of pippin sellers and the clatter of horse hooves on cobblestones. The size is not so much in the vocal cavities of the actors as it is in the fine mesh of the text itself, and what strikes me over and over again in filmed Shakespeare, is how emasculated Shakespearean language becomes when placed in the mouths of actors habituated to movie naturalism. The screen is a larger canvas than most stages, and it seems to me, it should accommodate the largesse of language that has been pumped into the plays.

The other problem of filmed Shakespeare has to do with sequence. Much of the effect of Shakespeare's plays comes from the scenic continuity that every stage director invariably tries for in the theatre; the shortest possible lapse between scenes, the quick and effective marshalling of one situation after another so that the momentum of the performance is never lost. In films, again due to the tyrannical obligation to "open up" the material -- landscapes, crowd scenes, lingering close-ups, atmospheric vistas -- are interspersed throughout the action to augment, illustrate or just beautify the film product. These often retard the plot line and indulge in visual effects for their own sake. As a result, the excitement that comes from unbroken dramatic continuity on the stage is fractured and, sometimes, lost altogether. (The Michael Hoffman "Dream," which suffers from this kind of pictorial discontinuity, is a case in point.)

When a Shakespeare play is revived on stage, the justification for that revival is the new angle or insight that a director has about the material. That sense of looking anew at the work is just as obligatory in a film. It isn't enough merely to "set it" in some novel pictorial context. Visual reconception is not tantamount to textual reinterpretation. Putting the characters in the forest scenes from "Midsummer Night's Dream" on bicycles, or those from "Love's Labor's Lost" into a 1930s musical comedy studded with excerpts from Gershwin, Porter and Berlin, are not interpretative concepts; they're only gimmicks. Although one has to add hastily, that even gimmicks, if they're outrageous enough, can be transformative.

When one adapts a novel or a short story into a film, one is transforming like unto like. Many a novel and short story already is an imagined film -- replete with sequence, incidents, location, character, action, and special effects. When one does the same with stage plays that date from about the middle of the 19th century to the present, one can argue that they too contain "malleable constituents," which can be moved from one medium to the other. But when one goes back only three centuries earlier, one finds that works designed for the stage are, inescapably, verbal constructs. That doesn't mean that they don't contain sequence, incidents, location, character, action and special effects, but that all of these elements are stored in what one might call verbal compartments. They are circumscribed by the conscious use of literary conventions in order to convey their meaning.

If that shaky proposition is true (and I'm well aware of its vulnerability to attack), then language constructs from those earlier periods are not easily susceptible to cinematic manipulation. And so, perhaps there is something in Shakespeare that fundamentally resists a process which parcels out the contents of his works on the pretext of modernizing them. And that may also be why sometimes the more successful film adaptations are those that put the greatest distance between the original work and what one might call the contemporary riff; a curious paradox in which infidelity may well be the more honorable course.

The larger question in all of this I suppose is: Should the copious mind and refined sensibilities of William Shakespeare be subjected to the crass motives and fatuous contrivances of people who work in the motion picture industry? And my answer to that would be, a resounding Yes! It was the "groundling mentality" that established the fledgling Will and it is the same mentality, in both its brilliant and contemptible manifestations, which must keep him before the mass audience -- no matter how many yawns, how many brickbats, how many seizures it may inspire. Beneath the sludge, the dross and the drivel, there is always the possibility of striking gold.

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Published November 21, 2005