Five Film Favorites: Shakespeare adaptations

During the James River Film Festival, author and film reviewer Peter Schilling Jr. introduced the wonderful The Night of the Hunter.  Schilling discussed not only Charles Laughton’s brilliant film, but the same titled Davis Grubb novel on which it was based.  And while Schilling could not have been more effusive toward the film, he indicated that the novel might even be better: high praise indeed.

The discussion surrounding the film and novel versions of The Night of the Hunter helped me to rethink my idea for this week’s Five Film Favorites column, cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare plays.  Unlike novels, plays are meant to be performed, but, similar to novels, they are not written with the purpose of being captured and encapsulated within the visual language of a director’s camera.  Adjustments must always be made to turn fiction and drama into cinema, and in those adjustments, many of the literary qualities that make us love fiction and drama can be lost. 

Yet the common assumption is that one narrative form (fiction or drama) can always be successfully adapted to another (cinema).  However, anyone who has seen any number of book or play adaptations knows that the transfer is more often unsuccessful than successful. Adapting and shifting narratives to fit into different genres is difficult, and Shakespeare’s plays provide an enourmous challenge.  It is hard to argue against the lasting power and impression of his works, yet many a dull film has been inspired by his cannon.  Directors too often cut up the play in order to fit it into a nice 90 minute segment that distributors and theaters prefer.  Others are too timid in their direction and film his plays like, well, plays.  Watching a recording of a stage production can prove to be more sleep inducing than nyquil. 

Some Shakespearean adaptations work, and when they do work, they work exceptionally well.  If the director calibrates everything just right, he or she can give the appearance that Shakespeare was writing with the camera rather than the stage in mind.  For me, the best Shakespeare films draw on the tragedies and histories.  (I have not found his comedies as easily adaptable to film.)  Without further hesitation, here are my five favorite Shakespeare adaptations, and I have divided them up into three divisions based on the directors.

Kenneth Branagh Division: Hamlet (1996) and Henry V (1989)

I do not know if a director has remained truer to the actual words that Shakespeare wrote than Branagh.  Usually, directors and screenwriters do not or cannot remain faithful to the text as they try to make Shakespeare “relevant” and “contemporary.”  However, Branagh, at least in these two adaptations, is able to stay true to the language of the texts while turning these two hefty plays into terrific films.  Hamlet, in particular, is an extraordinary feat.  Since Branagh refused to cut any lines, the film is four hours, yet his directing allows the film to move as briskly as possible over the full five acts. 

It seems as though Branagh has been around forever, but he was a mere 29 years of age when he directed and starred in Henry V, for which he received acting and directing Oscar nominations.  I hope that at an appropriate moment in his eventual old age (he is still only 50) Branagh will see his way to direct an uncut film version of King Lear.  Speaking of Lear . . .

Akira Kurosawa Division: Ran (1985) and Throne of Blood (1957)

If a director is to recalibrate Shakespeare’s plays to another time and place, early modern Japan seems to be an appropriate landing place.  (At the very least, it is much better than re-imagining Shakespearen plays within a fictional Nazi England of the 1930s, as so many versions of Shakepearean films and plays did a decade or two ago.)  Maybe the formality and honor of bushido, the samurai code, make Shakespeare and samurais a natural fit.  All I know is that I find Kurosawa’s interpretations of Shakespearean plays to mesh nicely with my readings of the originals. 

Much like Hamlet, King Lear presents a difficulty to the director.  The natural reaction is to chop it up and make it fit more easily into a prepackaged commercial movie box, but Kurosawa had probably built up enough capital to direct Ran as he saw fit. I cannot recall a film in which I remember colors as vividly as I do in Ran; it contains magnificent cinematography. 

Throne of Blood is not only a wonderful remake of Macbeth, it is a terrfic opportunity to simply watch Toshiro Mifune in his role as Taketoki Washizu, the samurai Macbeth.  In all of his films, Kurosawa displays a wonderful knack for letting a steady camera capture nature and people.  In Throne of Blood, Kurosawa uses the camera as a stage and lets Mifune and the other actors move within its frame to gorgeous effect. 

Roman Polanski Division: Macbeth (1971)

Shakespeare’s Macbeth makes a second appearance on my list.  I suppose that the scenes and sequence make it more amenable to a film adaptation than other plays.  Above all else, Polanski’s rendition of Macbeth is grim and bleak.  It is almost oppressive in how it violently marches on toward the tragic culmination.  Even though such a vision of unrelenting tragedy may have sprung from Polanski’s own biography, the vision seems appropriate to the intent of the play.  This version seems to be a favorite among the Shakespeare scholars I have known, which either says something good about Polanski or portends something ominous for Shakespeare scholars.

About Todd Hunter Starkweather

Todd Starkweather is an Assistant Professor of English at South University-Richmond. He has a PhD in English Literature from the University of Illinois-Chicago; his interests include film, Victorian studies, sport, and post-colonialism.
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