Shakespeare on Film - Recommended Double-bills
Article by Daniel Rosenthal
Derek Jarman, DVD
Hailed as one of the most successful adaptations of Shakespeare, Derek Jarman’s T...
Shakespearean cinema divides into two broad schools: 'original-text' films such as Olivier's Henry V, which retain Shakespeare's sublime poetry and prose, and 'genre adaptations', whose re-imagined Shakespearean characters speak conventional movie dialogue. This commercially advantageous (and often artistically rewarding) tactic circumvents the language barrier that prevents so many cinemagoers buying tickets for the Bard's work on screen. With many examples of both forms now available, it's possible to put together an illuminating personal season of double-bills, enjoying Shakespeare in the original (if substantially edited) language, and then looking at how effectively a play has been translated into, say, a crime thriller or teen comedy.
A good starting point is the only original-text Shakespeare work to have won the Best Picture Oscar: Olivier's Hamlet (1948). A mixture of grim fairytale and Freudian case study, magnificently scored (by William Walton) and designed, its psychology may have worn better than Olivier's grandly theatrical acting, but it still grips from start to finish.
From medieval Elsinore to post-war Tokyo, and Kurosawa's The Bad Sleep Well (1960), in which Hamlet is used to condemn public sector corruption. The Hamlet surrogate is bespectacled secretary Nishi (a restrained Toshiro Mifune), who in an unforgettable opening sequence marries the lame Kieko (Ophelia), to get closer to his fearsome boss, Iwabuchi (a combination of Claudius and Polonius), who caused Nishi's father's death and masterminded a bribery scam. As Nishi tries to expose the truth, the combination of film noir and revenge tragedy, though morally simplistic, explores Hamlet themes such as suicide, guilt and individual responsibility.
Kurosawa's other Shakespeare films are much closer to their source. His 15th century samurai reworking of the Scottish play, Throne of Blood (1957), is the perfect companion to Roman Polanski's Macbeth (1971). Kurosawa’s is the most cinematic take on the play, utterly Shakespearean in imagery (foul weather, bestial omens), yet deeply rooted in a Japanese world of feuding warlords and Noh theatre. Polanski supplied the first English-language screen treatment to prove that Macbeth reads more like a film script than any other Shakespeare play, with short scenes, multiple locations and frequent bursts of supernatural and/or violent action.
Kurosawa's Ran (1985) transforms King Lear's daughters into the three sons of ageing 16th century warlord Hidetora, who unlike Shakespeare's monarch is not “more sinned against than sinning”; his downfall retribution for having spilled “an ocean of blood”. Two astonishing battles lead to a climax matched in bleakness only by Peter Brook's King Lear (1971). Shooting in Jutland, Brook made the divided realm of Paul Scofield's bear-like Lear one of the coldest, most barren and, above all, brutal places on earth. His idiosyncratic approach to the play, numbing where it might move, prompted the New Yorker to label it “Peter Brook's Night of the Living Dead”.
A full-length stage Othello runs close to four hours; my recommended Othello screen double-bill lasts just three. Orson Welles' Othello (1952), utterly dominated by his imposing Moor and Micheál MacLiammóir's weasel of an Iago, cuts the play savagely, yet is completely faithful to its tragic heart, as Welles shows his genius for evoking moods through monochrome photography and unconventional perspectives. Othello's claustrophobic tale of jealousy and murder has inspired several melodramas, including 1961's jazzy All Night Long and last year's impressive Bollywood thriller, Omkara, but its most intelligent genre interpretation is Tim Blake Nelson's O (2000). At an elite boarding school in South Carolina, Odin 'O' James is leading the Palmetto Hawks towards the state basketball championship finals, alongside team-mate Hugo. Odin loves the Dean's daughter; Hugo is jealous of the affection his father, the Hawks' coach, shows to Odin and weaves an Iago-like web around his friends. In appropriating Shakespeare, O confronts American anxieties over inter-racial sex, white kids' adoption of black 'ghetto' music, and real-life school shootings.
Romeo and Juliet's plentiful supply of "kiss, kiss, bang, bang" has always made it the most appealing Shakespeare play amongst younger movie audiences, and no other modern director has managed to erase their resistance to Shakespeare's language as effectively as Baz Luhrmann with William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet (1996), which sounds like original-text Shakespeare but looks and feels like a genre adaptation. It unfolds in a stylized US city, where rapiers are a brand of automatic pistol and the 'balcony' scene moves to a swimming pool. Luhrmann borrowed the modern urban setting and pop sensibility from the play's most celebrated genre adaptation, West Side Story (1961). This greatest of all screen musicals magically transmutes Romeo and Juliet's dramatic momentum and rich verse into the wit and longing of Stephen Sondheim's lyrics, Leonard Bernstein's pulsating music and the poetry-in-motion of Jerome Robbins' choreography.
Pairing Franco Zeffirelli's The Taming of the Shrew (1967), starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, with Gil Junger's high-school version, 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), shows up the former's deafening vulgarity and the latter's wit and intelligence. Its fine ensemble acting and good-natured script follow the Shrew's plot as faithfully as Hollywood conventions and contemporary sexual politics allow.
Although I can muster minimal enthusiasm for Derek Jarman's low-budget, high-camp The Tempest (1979), I adore Fred McCleod Wilcox's sci-fi version: Forbidden Planet (1956). On Altair-4 in 2257AD, unflappable space commander Leslie Nielsen meets the Prospero-like Dr Morbius, his daughter Altaira (a mini-skirted Miranda) and the film's Ariel, Robby the Robot. Amid talk of "monsters from the Id", sci-fi proves a fine genre choice: play and film transport audiences to a remote island/planet, where mankind encounters strange, hostile creatures.