I recently traveled to my local multiplex to see Ralph Fiennes’ directorial debut effort Coriolanus, which was, in my opinion, a grand spectacle of not-quite-epic proportions (I’m not sure it was cinematic enough to work on the big screen, and think that maybe it would have been better as a one-off telly special). Despite this, I thought it was bloody good, bottom line, and my apprehensions about not being able to follow it as quickly as I wanted to were quickly quashed within a few minutes. My knowledge of Shakespeare is limited to what I studied in high school and what I’ve seen onstage throughout the years, and I will never pretend to be an expert. However, the dialogue is delivered clearly and – I think that this has as much to do with the strength of the acting as it does on John Logan’s brilliantly adapted screenplay – I was able to follow the story easily, and most importantly, with interest. What a great pace it has, what a great sense of tension, despair, power and anger.
Of course, being an Orange Wednesday and being at the (see above) local multiplex, there were some punters who didn’t actually realise what was in store for them. “I think it’s based on Shakespeare…” someone muttered as the trailers ran. “You never told me this was a foreign language film!” one woman behind me guffawed to her partner, thirty minutes in. Oh dear.
Then I went home to look at some of the reviews online, and while most of them were extremely positive, Little White Lies coughed up something positively damning. Bit of a shot in the foot, really – especially considering that this was brewed up by the magazine’s editor. It’s a publication I hold in high regard (and own a subscription to), and was extremely disappointed to read such nonsense as “there’s no place for William Shakespeare in cinema”.
A bold statement. Do you agree with them? I don’t. There have been plenty of Shakespeare adaptations (cinematic and on TV) that I’ve enjoyed and have thought worked very successfully. whether modern adaptations or traditional, with original Early Modern English or the tongue we’re used to today.
Take the BBC series ShakespeaRe-Told for example. Broadcast in 2005, the series was a collection of four modern adaptations of popular Shakespeare plays – Macbeth (above), Much Ado About Nothing, The Taming of the Shrew and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It was an ambitious project and its stand out for me was Macbeth, the titular character played by James McAvoy as a mad, egotistical (and not forgetting Scottish) chef working in London.
Another favourite has to be the camp, multicoloured spectacle that is Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, set in present-day Verona, where swords are swapped for guns and a garish Hawaiian shirt is a must-have fashion accessory if you’re a Montague. Starring the particularly dreamy Leonardo DiCaprio and adorable girl-next-door type Claire Danes, this 1996 version of the play made use of original Shakespearean dialogue and was a huge hit worldwide.
Then there’s not forgetting Michael Hoffman’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1999, 2004′s The Merchant of Venice directed by Michael Radford and starring Al Pacino as Shylock and Kenneth Branagh’s multiple efforts. Even films you might not think to associate with Shakespeare are based on his plays – The Lion King (Hamlet), My Own Private Idaho (Henry IV), 10 Things I Hate About You (The Taming of the Shrew)… but to name a few.
So what do you think? Has Shakespeare on screen had its day? Were you a fan or Coriolanus? What are your favourite adaptations?