June 4, 2020

Shakespeare on Screen: Do or Don’t?

In Issue 39 (Jan/Feb 2012) of Little White Lies magazine, the publication’s editor, Matt Bochenski, reviewed Ralph Fiennes’  Coriolanus. In his review, Bochenski claims “there’s no place for William Shakespeare in cinema”, commenting on the “dull drone of a dead language”, and ending his article with the assertion “no more Shakespeare until we agree it needs to be translated into real English”. Now this got my blood boiling, and cued an “o’er hasty” (Hamlet 2.2.57) reaction on Twitter.

However, Bochenski does raise a valid, if contentious, point, and he will not be alone in his beliefs. Seemingly the might of Baz Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet and Kenneth Brannagh’s Hamlet and Henry V still can’t convince people that Shakespeare can work on screen. Yes, Coriolanus does look like a bit of a turkey. But I never said all Shakespeare will work. A play dependent on soliloquising will never go down well on screen because people don’t want to watch the inner torment of the protagonist. It works on stage as it is what you expect, and the whole room is right there, in the moment (see David Tennant’s Hamlet). In cinema you want to see Hamlet get on with bumping off Claudius then jump into bed with Ophelia.

Getting the right film-maker is a must. Coriolanus has been Ralph Fiennes’ pet project for years now, and the actor turned director is obviously trying to put his own stamp on his favourite play. But a director seeking glory with Shakespeare is on course for a failure. These plays were never written for the directors, actors or theatres in which they played, but for the people they played to. When writing an essay on Shakespeare, you always have to remember that this is just entertainment, and, for the most part, base entertainment at that. So the film-maker needs to make the film for the audience, not himself, as that is the way the play was written. Think of it as working with the grain of play, it’s much easier if you go along with what it wants.

Bochenski’s main gripe with Shakespeare on screen appeared to be the language, and yes, it can be very scary. People have hangovers from school that immediately equate ‘Shakespeare’ with ‘oh no, that old stuff’, and I must admit, the first scenes of a play are hard before you’ve got your head around it. But what it can provide is well worth any initial difficulty. Shakespeare wrote some of the most genuinely beautiful lines in the English language, and their pacing, hilarity and imagery give the plays their magic. A modern English adaption would lose this spark created by the rhythm of the words and their heart-felt originality. And besides, we all speak Shakespeare anyway. It’s no secret that Shakespeare coined many of the words and phrases we use today, ‘be all and end all’ (Macbeth), ‘every dog will have its day’ (Hamlet) and ‘jealousy the green eyed monster’ (Othello) being just a few. In order to make a film more viable, a few choice translations and alterations may be necessary, yet a complete translation would never work, the dialogue would be sticky and unnatural, rather than the lively, rhythmic prose it is in its unchanged state.

So, with the right film-maker, the right play could really do well. These are the greatest stories ever told, full of plot twists, characterisation and social awareness most Hollywood screenwriters could only dream of. And as much as this is rehashed and variously not believed, the plays really do resonate in modern society. A girl forced to give her body to a corrupt ruler to save her brother’s life (Measure for Measure). A woman systematically bullied and abused into submission to her husband (The Taming of the Shrew). A man dealing with his conscience after the murder of his father (Hamlet). How can these essentially human problems, issues of morality, human nature and the mind, not mean something to us? Get the right play, one that has something to say, not too dense, with a bit of sex and violence, and you could see a transformation of cinema’s (and maybe Bochenski’s) view of Shakespeare on screen.

1 Comment on Shakespeare on Screen: Do or Don’t?

  1. Watched the musical West Side Story on TV last week. Romeo and Juliet brought to 1960s Manhattan. However, it’s done, portrayed or stylised; theatre or screen, modernised or classical, Shakespeare caters to all.

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