Shakespeare: Skepticism About Movie and TV Versions

Extollager

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#1
One of the best things I ever read about Shakespeare was a short book by S. L. Bethell called Shakespeare and the Popular Dramatic Tradition. Published by the obscure firm of Staples Press in 1944, but with an introduction by T. S. Eliot, this book got me to think about how important it is to think of the plays as performed on an Elizabethan stage. To be brief: Plays are performed in a theatre open to the afternoon sky; the audience surrounds the stage; the actors perform mostly on a stage thrust out into the audience area a bit, or in a gallery. There is no electronic amplification of sound, of course, and props are minimal.

So the poetry has to convey the gloom of night in Macbeth, the enchanted depths of forest in Midsummer Night's Dream, etc. The actors' movements are probably stylized so as to be intelligible to viewers distant from the stage (some of whom may have trouble seeing over the shoulders of audience members packed standing around the stage). The actors are are males.

So the audience doesn't just watch a play, but it is put in a position that would be a little like us listening to old-time radio drama. What you hear is vitally important. But there are no close-ups of authors' faces, etc.

These things, I suppose, work against the conventions of the movies and TV. I love Shakespeare, but I generally haven't been all that pleased by visual adaptations that I've seen. (NB I have seen a few productions at the Oregon Shakespearean Festival, many years ago, on their outdoor stage before the area was extensively remodeled. That was a good experience.) I tend to think of Kurosawa's Throne of Blood as the most successful "Shakespearean" movie I know, which is a very free adaptation to a samurai milieu of Macbeth in which both the cinematic skills of a master director and, as I understand, some conventions of Japanese Noh are used. It's great; I think it is one of the things that justifies cinema itself as an art form, doing something of high artistic value that could not have been done without the resources and conventions of motion pictures. But it works in part because it is so free with the Shakespearean material.


J. D.'s old thread about whether Shakespeare is irrelevant prompted quite a bit of commentary, so I thought I'd throw this out and see if people want to present their opinions.
 
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hitmouse

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#2
Good points. However, Shakespeare is so strong that he can stand up to cinematic adaptation, although it clearly alters the original intentions. Some films are better than others.
I like Kurosawa's Ran, which is an interpretation of King Lear. For more direct transposition I thought Polanski's Macbeth was quite good.
 

GOLLUM

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#3
I agree with Hitmouse. Shakespeare's oeuvre can in a sense transcend all mediums and all eras becasue first and foremost it is about humanity in all its splendid complexity. Sure there is a qualitatively different experience for theater versus film audiences AND film is predominantly a 20th (and now 21st) Century medium BUT it's still up to the skill and ingenuity of the people who wish to take on this magnificent legacy as to how well it translates to film or other medium; point being film can (and at times does) work as an effective medium to do the great bard's work justice in my opinion. It can also be argued that film can 'show' certain aspects of his plays that Shakespeare could only 'tell' (not disrespecting Shakespeare's descriptive powers, the imagination of the reader nor any practical limitations of live theater) but I also agree with Extollager that it is Shakespeare's language that is first and foremost but because this discussion is about film (and TV) some of my favourite Shakespeare 'adaptations' include:

Throne of Blood - Kurosawa
Macbeth - Polanski
Hamlet - Olivier
Othello - Orson Welles
Ran - Kurosawa
Hamlet - Kenneth Branagh
Chimes at Midnight (Henry IV) - Orson Welles
West Side Story
 
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#4
As someone whose screenwriting is doing not spectacularly well but better than average - Shakespeare is still the man ;)

I first saw Julius Caeser when I was 11 on stage in Manchester and it blew me away. It was amazing. They had a black mastermind chair and stopped the play periodically to interview the characters.

The first film I saw was Roman Polanski's Macbeth and I still think it is an amazing adaptation - I'm not sure I've seen a stage version that compares with it. When I did Macbeth at school I had a view of the castle they think King Duncan actually died in from the classroom so that made it special. Due to moving the location of the school I don't think anyone will get that opportunity now.

I just think Shakespeare writes great characters, imaginative stories with dialogue that covers all the emotions in a single play. His work has interest for the educated and slapstick and humour for the rest of us. He has had very few equals throughout history. When Shakespeare is done well the medium is, imo, unimportant. The one thing we shouldn't really do with Shakepeare is read him.

My favourite and the one I would love to see adapted well is Henry IV part 1. I think it contains his best dialogue.

I'm just a fan of Shakespeare and he is one of my favourite screenwriters.
 

Extollager

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#5
I wanted to highlight the fact that much of what makes Shakespeare great is the poetry, which describes everything from landscapes to apparitions -- and which can seem redundant when the viewer is confronted by whatever imagery the cinematographer and director are presenting to him or her.

Imagine, say, Duncan and his entourage approaching Macbeth's castle. On the Elizabethan stage, the poetry does the heavy lifting, and it's wonderful -- those lines about the fertile martlets and all. Now imagine that location scouts have found a castle somewhere in Rumania or something and the actors have all trooped up for a location shot, and the same lines are being spoken. There's the effort Shakespeare is making, in the poetry, to suggest a castle in particular imaginative terms; and there's the structure that the eye beholds on the screen. I think there's often going to be a clash.

Again imagine a sequence in which an actor addresses the audience -- because Shakespeare wrote mostly to dramatize, but also to narrate, the characters. On the stage, this works, at least once you become accustomed to the conventions of the Elizabethan-Jacobean stage. In King Lear, for example, the Fool at one point speaks to the audience and concludes: This prophecy shall Merlin make, for I live before his time. Now for Shakespeare's original audience, this presents no difficulty of interpretation; at that point the actor playing the part of the Fool is "narrating" and enhancing the audience's awareness of the ancient time in which the play is set (and which I believe is vitally important to its meaning). But put the Fool in the "naturalistic" setting of a heath somewhere on Dartmoor or something, and the viewer will perhaps conclude that the Fool is meant to be taken as a psychic. I don't think that is Shakespeare's intention. It becomes a distraction from what Shakespeare really is up to in the play, if we start supposing the Fool is some kind of Russian Orthodox yurodivye Holy Fool with precognitive abilities.
 

GOLLUM

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#6
I wanted to highlight the fact that much of what makes Shakespeare great is the poetry, which describes everything from landscapes to apparitions -- and which can seem redundant when the viewer is confronted by whatever imagery the cinematographer and director are presenting to him or her. .
I agree that film can certainly cause an aesthetic conundrum and mislead the audience from the author's original intent but it can also enhance a work if done thoughtfully notwithstanding the fact that it seems intuitively nigh on impossible to seamlessly integrate or merge one medium with another. At the end of the day they (stage and screen) are really two different vehicles of interpretation even when acknowledging that the stage logically aligns more closely with Shakespeare's original work.

As usual your posts provide plenty of food for thought but it's getting late here and my mind is liable to explode....so I bid you adieu.
 

Brian G Turner

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#7
When I was 14, we started reading Henry IV, Part 1, in English class. It was very heavy going. Then we went to see the English Shakespeare company perform it at the local big theatre - and I was blown away. The actors brought to life all the character and comedy, drama and tension. It was absolutely wonderful.

You cannot take the stage away from a play and not lose something in the experience. However, it's the actors, director, and production that always gives it life. A good team will make for a memorable performance, no matter the media.

I currently have the Iron Crown BBC dramas of the two Richards, and the Henry IVs to V. I've only watched Henry IV, Part 1 again and it's very good - even my eldest liked it, though it probably helped having Tom Hiddleston playing a young Prince Henry. Its loses something when not performed on stage - but what it loses in that, it gains in audience.
 
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#8
Well Forres Castle is now just street names and Elgin Castle is a couple of walls a few feet high at the end of a modern High Street so they couldn't use that original location. ;)

Having sat in the middle of the Scottish countryside and listened to poetry - I don't think it takes away from the scenery at all, it adds to it. It gives that scenery a drama and in the case of Shakespeare sets the era very well. Shakespeare was not meant to be read - it is a performance and that works well whether that is on the radio, on stage or on screen.

The main reason I believe he and Agatha Christie are the top selling authors of all time is that all their work adapts brilliantly to the many different media it can be told in.

"Call the Midwife" does something similar with Vanessa Redgrave voicing the words of Jennifer Worth's books over the scenes at the beginning and end of the book. Actually as a modern work on the screen it is one that employs a lot of Shakespeare's techniques.

I don't think the poetry is much of what makes Shakespeare great at all. It's a part of it. He's a complete package. To say the poetry is much of what makes him great does disservice to his masterful and natural dialogue (the fact it still feels fairly natural in 2015 is amazing), his wonderful characterisation and his imaginative stories. His ability as a comedy writer is rarely bettered in my opinion.
 
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Ray McCarthy

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#9
Two of my lads did a compelling Hamlet. Well about 1/3rd of it.

They sat behind a coffee table on the floor and did all the voices, with "puppets" held in hand for the actors. The "puppets" were 2cm to 8cm high plasticine aliens that the youngest had made.
I have about 35 minutes on video. Perhaps I should put it on Youtube. :)
 

Ray McCarthy

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#11
the fact it still feels fairly natural in 2015 is amazing
I don't know anyone that speaks in iambic pentameter though :)

Certainly it's much less strange watching and listening to the play than reading the page, as you would a book. I'd kind of need to read it out loud. I have a worse problem with poetry, I often can't read it at all. I have to have it read out to me.
 
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#12
I don't know anyone that speaks in iambic pentameter though :)
But then not many speak the way we write a modern script.

Certainly it's much less strange watching and listening to the play than reading the page, as you would a book.
That would be the same with any script though. It's far stranger reading the scripts for a TV show than it is watching it.
 

Ray McCarthy

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#13
That would be the same with any script though.
I meant that, hence my comment about poetry. I have video of "A man for all seasons" and also Bolt's play script in paper back. I prefer the video. :(
I've just started The Mabinogion, a new translation by Sioned Davies. She says much of it needs to be performed, at least read out loud, especially the dialogue. Fills me with joy and despair. Joy, as it suggests it may be a very good translation, despair, because my speed reading doesn't suit such writing. Perhaps I will try reading out parts (and recording so I can relisten later, the Audacity free sw is good with good record autopause.).
I have the Charlotte Schreiber / Lady Guest free version on my Kindle too. I'll read it after. http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/author/1716
 

hitmouse

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#14
The Mabinogi started out as oral tradition, predating the first manuscript versions which were about 14th century by a long stretch. They are probably pre-Christian in origin. Whilst they are good to read out loud in the right situation, they are also perfectly good to read privately.
Again, these are strong tales which do well in different versions. There is a series of modern interpretations (including SF) published by Seren, which are well worth checking out, if you like that sort of thing:
http://www.serenbooks.com/books/mabinogion-stories
 

Extollager

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#15
The Mabinogion version much of which I've read is the Everyman edition of 1974 tr. Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones; I think this is the one, btw, that features in Garner's Owl Service.
 

Ray McCarthy

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#16
The Mabinogion version
I think the series (the Title and exact collection) being a modern invention needs these posts moved to it's own thread.
I've two versions to read before I can comment further.

My most recent Shakespeare reading was a few months ago, King Lear, then reading various stories Shakespeare drew on (he gave it the "worst" ending of course). I then blended the characters and plot with Coral Is. and Treasure Is. (Treasure Is. was inspired by Coral Is.) as a section in one of my SF stories.
 

Connavar

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#17
I have huge respect for Shakespeare in written form as in plays,sonnets but he is also timeless to me because his plays on stage are still alive, awesome thing to see with any decent theatre company. I saw recently Twelfth Night; or, What You Will in big national Swedish theatre and i was shocked by how low,high comedy it was and how it was so much like him despite the swedish translation. That comedy play was my first ever play of his i saw live. I couldnt believe someone wrote that 400 years ago.

You are fed his work in every english class from age 8-18 in this country so you tend to think he is overhyped, not as important as they make it seem. As an adult im impressed he just like Homer was is worth all the hype, praise. The language,sheer poetry is one thing but the wit, the intelligance is also importont in my eyes.

I think he works decent in film, tv but not even brilliant actor like Ian Mckellan or genius director like Kurosawa can make any tv,film adapation half as good as the plays on the theatre or reading him in bookform. Tv,film doesnt take you as close as reading, seeing on stage does. He becomes a comical farce, melodramatic historical epic, silly romantic story on film they just talk like his work that is all.

I will see Richard III next month in Royal theatre in Stockholm. I have a fun new project to read the plays i havent read just after when i have seen them on stage.´

Film, tv adaptation can only become pale copies to me, they can never capture him fully. You can copy his words in cinema but you cant copy the poetry of it, the wit, cant get close to him as you get to see his works on stage.
 
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Connavar

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#18
I wanted to highlight the fact that much of what makes Shakespeare great is the poetry, which describes everything from landscapes to apparitions -- and which can seem redundant when the viewer is confronted by whatever imagery the cinematographer and director are presenting to him or her.

Imagine, say, Duncan and his entourage approaching Macbeth's castle. On the Elizabethan stage, the poetry does the heavy lifting, and it's wonderful -- those lines about the fertile martlets and all. Now imagine that location scouts have found a castle somewhere in Rumania or something and the actors have all trooped up for a location shot, and the same lines are being spoken. There's the effort Shakespeare is making, in the poetry, to suggest a castle in particular imaginative terms; and there's the structure that the eye beholds on the screen. I think there's often going to be a clash.

Again imagine a sequence in which an actor addresses the audience -- because Shakespeare wrote mostly to dramatize, but also to narrate, the characters. On the stage, this works, at least once you become accustomed to the conventions of the Elizabethan-Jacobean stage. In King Lear, for example, the Fool at one point speaks to the audience and concludes: This prophecy shall Merlin make, for I live before his time. Now for Shakespeare's original audience, this presents no difficulty of interpretation; at that point the actor playing the part of the Fool is "narrating" and enhancing the audience's awareness of the ancient time in which the play is set (and which I believe is vitally important to its meaning). But put the Fool in the "naturalistic" setting of a heath somewhere on Dartmoor or something, and the viewer will perhaps conclude that the Fool is meant to be taken as a psychic. I don't think that is Shakespeare's intention. It becomes a distraction from what Shakespeare really is up to in the play, if we start supposing the Fool is some kind of Russian Orthodox yurodivye Holy Fool with precognitive abilities.
Thats what im trying to say in my long post above but you put it so well there. Reading his plays, seeing his play on stage lets the poetry do all the work, his wit, his whole writing. Some writers are too hard to adapt well. Its like making a film version of a short 1 page poem that is more style,feeling than telling a story.

The part about the Fool is also interesting point, there are alot simple of techniques that were common in the theatre of his times.
 

Extollager

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#19
Interesting:

----The council noted that Shakespeare’s demise as a subject of specialist study mirrored an increase in courses with emphasis on race, class, gender, and sexuality such as “Literature, Food, and the American Racial Diet” at Princeton University. ....
“Many of these institutions brand themselves as places that provide a true liberal arts education, but this study shows that is too often a claim full of sound and fury and signifying nothing.
“Rather than studying major literary works in depth, students are taught the rationale for and applications of critical approaches that are heavily influenced by theories of race, class, gender, and sexuality.”----

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/...-reading-for-most-literature-grads-in-US.html
 

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