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What Maketh a Shakespearean Film Adaptation of Great Distinction

If there’s one thing anyone knows about me, it’s that I love William Shakespeare. Like, love Shakespeare so much I directed a punk-inspired take on Julius Caesar and wrote a… [checks Google Docs] eighty-three page thesis about his history plays in undergrad. There are few things in the world I take as seriously as the Bard, and I take him about as seriously as a heart attack. I do have a degree (soon to be degrees!) in English after all, and my one true love has always been Shakespeare. Obviously, I’ll always prefer to see a Shakespeare play on stage as opposed to watching a movie adaptation. These stories were meant to be enjoyed in a theater, where the audience, cast, and crew all share the same space. Theater is so invigorating because you get to respond to the art as it’s made in front of you — but seeing how I also love movies, I’m always fascinated by the ways in which directors attempt to do something with the text that you can’t do on the stage. It’s the marker of a great Shakespeare film adaptation.

That said, my relationship with Shakespeare film adaptations is… let’s call it touchy. Yes, Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus is one of my all-time favorite movies (as featured so prominently on my Letterboxd) and I love nothing more than thinking about all the different ways I’d cast various adaptations. But the problem is this: for every truly great Shakespeare film adaptation, there is a truly atrocious one. The exuberance of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, with its ‘90s Venice Beach setting and gang violence, is full of passion and vigor. Michael Almereyda’s biker gang Cymbeline, though? A dud, a film that reads more like a bad class project than a serious Shakespeare adaptation with major actors (Ethan Hawke, Ed Harris, and Dakota Johnson among them!!). Both films even share a supporting actor in John Leguizamo — who played Tybalt in the former and Pisanio in the latter — but even Leguizamo’s experience with the Bard wasn’t enough to save Cymbeline from its sorry fate.

Julie Taymor’s own attempts at Shakespeare reflect this rule, too. While the critics might have their own (incorrect) opinion on Titus, Taymor adapts Shakespeare’s play about rape, revenge, and paternal duty into a lush film that overwhelms the senses in the best of ways. When Titus (Anthony Hopkins) returns from war against the Goths, he sacrifices Tamora’s (Jessica Lange) son to the Roman gods, who in turn vows her revenge on Titus’ children. Tamora secures herself a position of power through her marriage to the new emperor Saturninus (Lee Pace) and tells her sons, Chiron and Demetrius, to rape Titus’ only daughter Lavinia. The play has a lot going on textually, and Taymor compensates by showing you a lot. It does what every good film adaptation of a play should do, and gives you something you can’t see on the stage.

The film’s setting oscillates between ancient Rome or 1940s fascist Italy in a lush, striking wat; it’s full of these dream-like visions that Taymor calls “penny arcade nightmares” that artistically represent scenes of trauma or violence, like when Chiron and Demetrius rape and mutilate Lavinia. It’s not just well-cast but fantastically well-acted with leading performances from Hopkins, Lange, and Pace. Like I said in my initial review back in 2020, Titus “is an obscure, difficult (and at some times, Camp) Shakespeare play, but [Taymor] handles it with the level of respect and gravitas it deserves.” I’ve not come across many Shakespeare films that gripped me completely from start to finish and made me fall in love from the very beginning, but Titus is definitely one of them.

Julie Taymor and Anthony Hopkins in Julie Taymor's Titus
Art by Lyvie Scott

…Then there’s Taymor’s The Tempest. And I’ll give her this: Taymor does try. She really does try to do something different with the text. Taymor gives the magical island-based play a feminist reimagining: Prospero becomes Prospera, and Helen Mirren is cast in the role. Where Prospero was forced to leave Naples because he wasn’t attending to his political duties, Prospera is forced to leave for being a witch. The genderswap complicates Prospera’s feelings about her daughter Miranda’s (Felicity Jones) assault by island native Caliban (Djimon Honsou) too, and transforms it from a father patriarchally safeguarding his daughter’s chastity to a mother and fellow woman who knows the trauma of assault. But for all its clever attempts to be feminist or funny, it never grips you the way Titus does. It doesn’t have the same cinematic sparkle. Its aesthetic vision is all over the place and the performances just never feel believable. I don’t remember much of the movie, but I do remember cringing at the awful CGI and at Russell Brand’s appearance as a clown. I hate to say it, but there are some people who simply cannot perform Shakespeare. Where Titus was a masterclass in great casting, The Tempest is an example of the opposite.

Casting can make or break a Shakespeare adaptation, but so can setting. I’m reminded of Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth, which pales in comparison to Joel Coen’s more recent spin on the tragedy. I’m a pretty big advocate for keeping your adaptation in its historical setting because things inevitably get lost in modern or ahistorical adaptations, but Kurzel’s Macbeth actually makes me avoid becoming too much of a purist. I’ve seen more adaptations (both film and stage) of Macbeth than I can count, and Kurzel’s is by far the worst. Where Coen’s Tragedy of Macbeth is a “historical but not” adaptation invoking German expressionism — but also medieval Scotland — in a bizarre Titus-like way that works, Kurzel’s embeds itself in proto-Christian Scotland so much it becomes off-putting, most notably in the Lady Macbeth’s iconic “Out, damn’d spot!” scene. Kurzel stages this scene in a church during confession, which feels wrong for so many reasons. In a play with so much emphasis on fate, witchcraft, and amorality… why is the Christian God suddenly being invoked? If Kurzel’s adaptation was a commentary about the hypocrisy of Christians in positions of political power, I think he chose the wrong play to do so. (Especially when Richard II is RIGHT THERE and has it baked into the text — Rupert Goold’s adaptation is the best it gets when it comes to retaining and depicting historical settings in Shakespeare, though he gets it easier since Richard II is a history play.)

Perhaps more importantly, Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard’s performances as the Macbeths never come close to just how conversational and natural Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand’s do. There's a lot to be said for being able to speak the original text compellingly well, and it’s one of the things that can make or break a film (or stage) adaptation of any Shakespeare play. It’s why I love pretty much every turn Rory Kinnear’s had in a leading or supporting Shakespeare role; he’s had the training to fully develop his acting and speaking abilities that show when he embodies a role like Bolingbroke in Goold’s Richard II.

Frances McDormand as Lady Macbeth in The Tragedy of Macbeth
Art by Lyvie Scott

Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus is one of my favorite films of all time, and my favorite Shakespeare adaptation of all time, for a reason. Much like Titus, Coriolanus hooked me from the opening scene and refused to ever let go. And like Titus, the true beauty of this film lies in the things you simply can’t do on the stage. Through the liberal use of handheld cameras and up-close shots, Coriolanus replicates what it’s like to watch a live play, with actors breathing the same air and taking up the same space as the audience. In every shot they share, Coriolanus (Fiennes) and Aufidius (Gerard Butler) take up each other’s space. The camera zooms right in on the duo as they wrestle for dominance in their first in-story meeting, lingering on how they scream in what looks like an odd mix of pain and pleasure.

What I appreciate the most about Fiennes’ adaptation is that he doesn’t shy from blurring the line between the (homo)erotic and the violent. When the plot revolves around the relationship between two military rivals (hello, Top Gun?) you can’t “no homo” your way out — and Butler and Fiennes commit to the whole enemies to lovers (to enemies again) interpretation from start to finish in an incredibly satisfying way. Coriolanus gets himself banished from Rome for pissing off the plebeians and with nowhere left to turn, goes to Aufidius’ camp and vows to help him burn Rome to the ground. And much to Coriolanus’ surprise, Aufidius accepts the offer. He even claims that this act of submission makes him more excited than he was on his wedding night… in front of a whole room of his advisers.

Butler — absolutely gripping in the villain role — absolutely sells this. Fiennes even invents a scene for the movie following Coriolanus’ submission where Aufidius shaves Coriolanus’ head with the intimacy and reverence of a lover. It’s filmed almost entirely from Coriolanus’ perspective and the camera focuses on Aufidius’ hands, his abdomen, his steely and dominant gaze… the scene is positively intoxicating without them needing to say a word at all. That scene alone makes Coriolanus a fantastic movie, Shakespeare aside.

Ralph Fiennes and Gerard Butler in Coriolanus
Art by Lyvie Scott

Like with much other art, you just know great Shakespeare when you see it. It’s difficult to capture the emotional center of these plays in the medium of film sometimes, even when the stories really blow you away. Shakespeare’s plays have such sticking power 500 years later because their stories strike at the pain and joy alike of the human condition. Shakespeare’s popularity is not some arbitrary decision a bunch of stuffy academics made hundreds of years ago, or that modern-day English students mindlessly perpetuate. There’s a reason why Much Ado About Nothing feels so modern in its exploration of romance; some of those ideas and feelings of falling in love with a person you’d rather not are universal. It’s probably the reason filmmakers love to adapt Shakespeare’s stories for their own purposes.

It’s also why, I suspect, there are some truly fantastic films in what I’d call the “Shakespeare imagination” — as in, media that reimagines Shakespeare’s iconic works in a fresh way. The always-amazing 10 Things I Hate About You reimagines The Taming of the Shrew as a high school-set teen romcom, starring Shakespeare girlie ~supreme~ Julia Stiles and a young Heath Ledger in the lead roles. 10 Things fundamentally “gets” what Taming is all about: the foibles and gender politics that young women and men are forced to navigate when finding love for the first (or dozenth) time, and — if read through a feminist lens — a skewering of men’s misogynistic intentions in pursuing women. 10 Things even explores how men can unlearn those behaviors. It retains none of the original text, yet it works because it deeply understands the beats of Petruchio and Katherina’s relationship, and is able update it to a ‘90s high school setting with ease.

Rave Macbeth is another of those late ‘90s/early aughts modern Shakespeare adaptations that fundamentally knows what’s so essential and universal about the text it’s inspired by. The early aughts rave scene and its corresponding culture of substance abuse are an apt translation of the anxiety, paranoia, and visions that propel Macbeth forward in the first place. Because all of the characters use mind-altering drugs and hallucinogens from start to finish, they and the audience never really know if the witches’ prophecies are true. It makes the erratic behavior of Marcus and Lidia (the film’s stand-ins for Lord and Lady Macbeth) entirely believable. Though the movie is incredibly cheesy — they’re all fighting to be named “king of the rave” — and low-budget, director Klaus Knoesel very clearly loves Macbeth. The synopsis calls Rave Macbeth a “loose adaptation,” but I don’t buy that for a second: each of the major moments — from Duncan’s death to the “Out, damn’d spot!” scene — translate seamlessly and feel so rooted in reality. Rave Macbeth truly shows how Macbeth could happen in a contemporary setting. It reimagines Macbeth in a refreshing way that more directors could take a note from when considering the setting of their adaptation.

But let the record show that I’m not a complete purist when it comes to adapting Shakespeare. A bad filmed stage adaptation can be just as bad as a traditional film adaptation. But what a filmed stage play can do is capture the magic of that one night of interpretation and marry it with cinematic filming qualities that draw the at-home audience into specific props or facial reactions you might not notice sitting in the theater so far from the actors. They become movies in their own right because of this, creating an entirely different interpretation by virtue of the director choosing which moments to film in close-up or wide shot, by cutting together multiple nights of performance to create a kind of “definitive” performance that might be more in line with their theatrical directorial vision than any one night of performance or rehearsal.

Shakespeare film adaptations aren’t going away so long as Hollywood keeps making movies and actors from the stage make the jump to screen, like Shakespeare extraordinaires Kinnear and Fiennes have done. The Bard’s canon of work holds in itself every human emotion and some of the tightest scripts in Western drama, so it’s no wonder that filmmakers and actors want to infuse their own interpretation of the text in the medium they know and love so much.

To check out the rest of Rebecca’s picks, visit Blossom at Letterboxd.

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