Friday Night Seitz
Slide show: In the wake of "The Tempest," we look at the must-see movie adaptations of the Bard's best-known plays
Textbook: The gold standard for filmed adaptations of “Hamlet” is still Laurence Olivier’s 1948 version; it’s heavily abridged (like most movie adaptations; this is, after all, Shakespeare’s longest play) but faithful to the story. And it’s still fun to watch Olivier try to make the text as cinematic as possible without completely mucking things up. Two of his bolder choices are the stark, Expressionist depiction of Castle Elsinore and the “To be or not to be” monologue, which starts off traditionally, then segues into voice-over narration over a silent close-up of Hamlet thinking. Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 “unabridged” version — the last studio release to be presented with an intermission! — is a must-see for completists, and many of the performances are superb — especially Julie Christie’s Gertrud, Derek Jacobi’s Claudius, Kate Winslet’s Ophelia, Charlton Heston and Rosemary Harris as the Player King and Queen, and Branagh doing a he-man intellectual interpretation of Hamlet. The film is marred by miscasting (Robin Williams as Osric, Jack Lemmon as Marcellus, Billy Crystal’s First Gravedigger). And there are awkwardly misjudged touches, such as the first appearance of Hamlet’s father (Brian Blessed), who roars and stomps like a beast in a Japanese monster movie, and the ludicrously acrobatic final duel, which feels like an outtake from “The Princess Bride.” But the film’s sumptuous visuals (this is the last Hollywood film shot in 70mm), sense of play and boundless ambition make it a must-see.
Wild cards: Michael Almereyda’s 2000 version of “Hamlet” is one of the shortest screen versions of the play, but like Orson Welles, the writer-director does such a good job of preserving the dramatic essence that it takes you a moment to register what’s missing. Set in contemporary Manhattan, it changes royal intrigue into corporate skulduggery, making Polonius (Bill Murray) a treacherous but affable businessman and pitting him against a Gen X slacker nephew (Ethan Hawke). Hawke wouldn’t be anyone’s knee-jerk choice to fill one of theater’s most demanding parts, but he’s right for this numbed turn-of-the-century American rendition, and in the film’s “To be or not to be” speech — delivered in understated voice-over while Hamlet wanders through a video store — he’s strangely moving; better yet are Diane Venora as a hip social butterfly version of Gertrude and Liev Schreiber as a bull-necked, hot-tempered, intensely physical Laertes. And if you want a Shakespeare gateway drug for very young children, you could do much worse than 1994′s “The Lion King.”
Textbook: Segueing from stage-bound drama to cinematic freedom and back again, Laurence Olivier’s “Henry V” is still the greatest movie version of Shakespeare’s play — a rousing, at times jingoistic adaptation designed to lift the spirits of war-weary English moviegoers. Olivier’s staging of the St. Crispin’s Day address with Henry moving among his men and divesting himself of kingly distance, has become the go-to template for every rousing movie monologue by a stalwart leader, pilfered nearly as often as the initial flight of the arrows before the armies clash. Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 version is considerably less perfect, often straining after populist energy that Olivier summoned without fuss. And it’s schizophrenic in its view of war, alternating rousing speeches and combat sequences with bloody, muddy imagery meant to evoke the misadventures of post-World War II imperial powers. But when Branagh’s Henry stalks through the forest delivering the St. Crispin’s Day address over Patrick Doyle’s unironically romantic score, it’s still hard not to get swept up.
Wild card: Though it might not belong on this or any other slide, I must acknowledge Orson Welles’ 1966 epic “Chimes at Midnight,” a low-budget labor of love that stitches together bits of several Shakespeare plays, including “Henry IV Parts I and II,” “Henry V,” “Richard II” and “The Merry Wives of Windsor.” Welles wrote the script, directed and costars as Falstaff — pretty much the only great Shakespeare part that such a huge actor could convincingly play — and redubbed the entire audio track, playing many of the characters himself like some Bard-obsessed version of Mel Blanc. It’s a touch hard to follow at times, perhaps due to its haphazard production history; Welles shot the movie piecemeal, like so many of his European films, paying for the whole thing with cobbled-together private investments and acting fees from other people’s movies. But it’s filled with splendid scenes and sequences — notably this quick-cut, brutal battle, a violent tour de force that Mel Gibson has obviously studied.
Textbook: There are so many fine versions of this tragedy that it’s hard to single out one as the best, so I’ll settle for naming my favorite: the 1997 British TV version produced as part of its “Performance” series of bare-bones stage adaptations. Ian Holm plays Lear; Barbara Flynn and Amanda Redman are the “bad” daughters, Regan and Goneril; Victoria Hamilton is the “good” daughter, Cordelia, Lear’s only true ally. What I love most about Holm’s performance is its physical and emotional smallness. Most actors, even great ones, play the mentally decaying king as an unreachable iconic presence, a legend alienated from his family by the demands of leadership and by his own arrogance, but still bigger-than-life. Holm’s Lear is an ordinary man made formidable by experience and influence. His legend precedes him like the floating face of the Great and Powerful Oz; once his vulnerability is established, all that’s left of the man is aging flesh, wounded pride and a no-longer-agile mind. Much of the adaptation occurs around a long table that suggests a conference room where a competency hearing might take place. Holm’s short stature adds subtle shadings to Lear’s impotent fury; few sights are as poignant and terrifying as a small man’s rage. He’s well matched by Michael Bryant’s’ Fool; like Lear himself, he seems less a representative social type than a flesh-and-blood man realizing he’s about to be ejected from a role in which he’d become comfortable, even complacent, and wondering what will become of him.
Wild cards: I feel as though I should put in a good word for Jean-Luc Godard’s 1987 “King Lear,” a loose meditation on Shakespeare’s play, Godard’s own career and issues of commerce and representation in cinema and art. But I’ve always found it more admirably stubborn than engaging; if anyone wants to mount a spirited defense in the comments section, I’d love to hear it. Instead I’ll go with Akira Kurosawa’s 1985 samurai epic “Ran,” a medieval Japanese version of the play that swaps the three daughters for sons and stirs in stray elements from other Shakespeare tragedies. (Lady Kaede, scheming wife of Lear’s eldest son, is the continuation of Lady Macbeth by other means.)
Also worth seeing: Edward Dmytryk’s “Broken Lance” (1954), starring Spencer Tracy as a cattle baron who divides his property among his three sons (Robert Wagner, Richard Widmark and Hugh O’Brian) and watches his empire go to hell. Interestingly, “Lance” is one of three versions of Jerome Weidman’s “Lear”-influenced novel “I’ll Never Go There Anymore,” all adapted by the same writer, Philip Yordan. The original is “House of Strangers” (1948), about three brothers at odds over their crooked banker father’s wealth. The third and final adaptation is “The Big Show” (1961), about siblings fighting for control of a family-owned circus.
Textbook: “Macbeth” is, above all else, a story of a man spiraling into insanity and violence; who better to adapt it than Roman Polanski, a specialist at portraying the unhinged mind? This 1971 version of the tragedy was shot about a year after the Manson family’s rampage through Southern California, which claimed the life of Polanski’s then-wife, actress Sharon Tate, and their unborn child. The real-life horror must have seeped into the film. This remains Polanski’s most frankly brutal movie, and the bloodiest “Macbeth” movie done up to then (though considerably less gory than its reputation suggests). It’s not just Macbeth (a slightly hammy Jon Finch) and his malevolent Lady (Francesca Annis) that seem possessed by paranoia and blood lust; the entire film is suffused with a creeping dread — a sense that evil is infecting every character and room, even the countryside itself.
Wild card: Akira Kurosawa’s fog-choked, black-and-white “Throne of Blood” (1957) transplants “Macbeth” to feudal Japan and infuses it with Expressionist menace and the director’s characteristically precise sense of space. And it contains the most spectacular screen death of the title character: heavily-armored star Toshiro Mifune being repeatedly shot with real arrows by professional archers. (Now that’s commitment!) Wilder still is Australian filmmaker Geoffrey Wright’s 2006 version, which reimagines the play as a nudity-and-gunplay-strewn gangster picture shot and edited like a music video. It’s overwrought and silly in places but always playfully so — especially when the three witches foretell Macbeth’s fate in an empty nightclub with dry ice swirling about and ominous synth music (piped in through the club’s P.A. system!) providing a makeshift soundtrack. Wright’s staging of the “Is this a dagger I see before me?” moment is marvelous: Macbeth delivers the monologue in a garden behind his house while gazing at the dagger-shaped shadow of a leaf on a wall.
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream”
Textbook: One of the earliest and best examples of Hollywood doing Shakespeare, this 1935 version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” has lost none of its charm. Set entirely on an immense forest set constructed on a Warner Bros. soundstage, it’s adapted from an acclaimed 1927 stage production by Max Reinhardt, who co-directed the movie version with William Dieterle (“Portrait of Jennie,” “Duel in the Sun”). The star-studded cast includes James Cagney as Bottom, Joe E. Brown as Flute, Mickey Rooney as Puck, Olivia de Havilland as Hermia, Dick Powell as Lysander and Billy Barty as Mustard-Seed. Yet the film never devolves into an Oscar-night red carpet parade because the movie is so astutely cast. The tone is almost exactly right; parts of it are reminiscent of the forest sequences in “The Wizard of Oz,” a film this production might have influenced.
Wild Cards: “Smiles of a Summer Night,” an ode to the magic of the theater in which Ingmar Bergman does Shakespeare; and Woody Allen’s “A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy,” in which Allen does Bergman doing Shakespeare. Meta enough for ya?
Textbook: The all-around best traditional adaptation of “Othello” I’ve seen is the 1981 version — an entry in a comprehensive, mostly excellent BBC series of no-fuss Shakespeare adaptations. The only troublesome element (for modern audiences) is the casting of Anthony Hopkins in the title part (filling in for James Earl Jones, who was replaced after complaints that the “definitive” BBC Shakespeare should not cast Americans in iconic roles). The strength and tenderness of Hopkins’ performance overcome cosmetic objections; he’s aided by a near-perfect supporting cast that includes David Yelland as Cassio, Penelope Wilton as Desdemona, and the electrifying Bob Hoskins as a gleefully malevolent Iago. (After the Moor collapses in epileptic seizure, Hoskins’ Iago literally jumps for joy.) Less faithful to the text — but far more cinematic — is Orson Welles’ 1951 version, the most visually inventive and suspenseful adaptation yet.
Wild cards: Intriguingly, two of the best “inspired by” versions of “Othello” are cop corruption thrillers. In the 2001 British TV riff on “Othello,” the noble general of Shakespeare’s tragedy is now John Othello (Eamonn Walker of “Oz”), a righteous cop hired to replace the white London metropolitan police commissioner when the latter is secretly taped making racist remarks. He’s undermined by colleague Ben Jago (Christopher Eccleston), who thought he was a lock for the promotion Othello received; he hires white racists to harass the hero’s wife, Dessie (Keeley Hawes), and assigns a dashing lieutenant, Michael Cass (Richard Coyle), to guard her, setting the stage for the hero’s paranoid meltdown. Director Geoffrey Sax and prolific screenwriter Andrew Davies modernize Shakespeare’s language and story (DNA testing figures prominently in the plot) without diminishing the core themes of loyalty, betrayal, professional jealousy and bigotry.
Equally good, and much pulpier, is Mike Figgis’ 1990 thriller “Internal Affairs,” which restages the tragedy in a contemporary police department, following a Latino internal affairs officer named Raymond Avilla (Andy Garcia) as he investigates a ring of corrupt cops headed by a sexed-up, smirkily amoral Richard Gere. Figgis’ neo-noir riff substitutes purloined underwear for the fabled handkerchief and entraps the hero into thinking the Iago character is the cuckolder. The film excels at portraying the hero’s alienation from the dominant culture, and the corresponding pressure to be 10 times smarter, stronger and straighter than the whites around him just to be accepted as equal. A brilliant touch: When Avilla suspects his beloved Kathleen (Nancy Travis) of cheating on him, he doesn’t have a seizure, but instead reverts to his cultural roots, sloughing off his white-bread facade, lashing out against his wife and cursing her in Spanish, then nearly self-destructing in a blaze of machismo.
Textbook: Richard Loncraine’s zippy, wickedly amusing 1995 version of “Richard III” is a borderline candidate for the “Wild Card” section of this slide — a 20th century update set in an alternate-universe England during World War II. But despite major cuts to the text (total running time: 104 minutes) this is a faithful adaptation, preserving much of the playwright’s language while placing the tale in fresh context. Ian McKellen, who played the title role in the stage version of this film and co-adapted the script, is an irresistibly spicy Richard, a trickster hero par excellence. He’s also first cousin to Shakespeare’s Prospero — a puppet master-storyteller shaping the drama he stars in, and reveling in his own cleverness. (The all-star cast includes Robert Downey Jr., Maggie Smith, Jim Broadbent, Annette Bening and a pre-”Wire” Dominic West as the Earl of Richmond.) By the time Richard falls into a raging furnace to the tune of “I’m Sitting on Top of the World” — grinning like a nasty schoolboy on the way down — you’ll cheer the film’s exuberant wickedness.
Wild Card: Al Pacino’s charming, shaggy-dog documentary “Looking for Richard” is an essential companion to any screen version of the play, a charming polemic dedicated to proving that Shakespeare is a simple pleasure that can be enjoyed by anyone. Pacino, John Gielgud, Alec Baldwin, Kevin Spacey, Estelle Parsons, Winona Ryder, Paul Guilfoyle and other actors sit for interviews and enact scenes, and Pacino takes his camera crew onto the streets of New York to interview groundlings about the Bard and politely correct their misimpressions. The film explores several Shakespeare-related topics, including the relative merits of English vs. American actors; the consensus seems to be that Brits have superior technique, but Americans make the text more accessible.
“Romeo and Juliet”
Textbook: Franco Zefferelli’s 1968 film version of “Romeo and Juliet” is anathema to Bard scholars, not just because teenage stars Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting are more enthusiastic than precise, but because the whole film is wildly over-the-top — overdirected, overscored, over-everythinged. The young actors deliver every line breathlessly, as if their hearts are about to explode from feeling so much! It’s youth-market Shakespeare and doesn’t pretend otherwise. Yet here I am recommending it. Why? Because it’s the first film version of Shakespeare that I ever saw (in sophomore year of high school) and damned if it didn’t succeed in convincing me that there was nothing difficult about this playwright — that the plotlines, place names, royal titles and iambic pentameter were all comprehensible if you saw yourself in the characters and cared what happened next.
Wild card: “Maria … I’ll never stop saying Maria …”
“The Taming of the Shrew”
Textbook: By modern, politically correct standards, “The Taming of the Shrew” is one of Shakespeare’s most problematic works. No matter how strenuously a production tries to foreground the title character’s life force, it’s still the story of a spirited woman brought to heel by a relentless man emboldened by a sexist society. The 1980 British TV version of “Shrew” — directed by veteran Bard interpreter Jonathan Miller and co-starring Sarah Badel (“Small World”) as Katherine — has a warm, relaxed vibe that dissolves the ugly undertone. Mostly avoiding the battle-of-the-gargantuas slapstick that fuels other adaptations, this production presents the Katherine-Petruchio relationship as a marriage of true minds that slowly comes into focus. The end result may remind viewers of a Katharine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy comedy, minus the paternalistic condescension. The production is anchored by a wonderfully knowing performance by John Cleese as Petruchio, who channels Basil Fawlty during the verbal duels but reveals unexpected tenderness and sincerity in quieter moments. When Petruchio exclaims, “By the world, ’tis a lusty wench! I love her ten times more than ever I did!” Cleese sounds truly infatuated, and when he tells Katherine, “I’m a gentleman,” he means it.
Wild cards: The 1999 comedy “Ten Things I Hate About You,” starring Julia Stiles as Kate Stratford and Heath Ledger as Patrick Verona, is a beguiling modern version of the play set at Padua High. Like “Clueless,” a contemporary teen version of Jane Austen’s “Emma,” it manages to infuse a pop sensibility into a centuries-old play without losing the essence of its source. And for sheer goofiness, the “Moonlighting” episode “Atomic Shakespeare” wins in a walk. (When Cybill Shepherd refuses to let an absurdly bewigged Bruce Willis into her room, he takes an ax to the door)
Textbook: Although Peter Greenaway’s 1991 film “Prospero’s Books” is faithful to the plot, characters and dialogue of “The Tempest,” the director’s approach is so conceptually bold that I was tempted to file it in the “Wild Card” section of this slide; if you’ve seen it, you know what I mean. Greenaway, a painter and opera director who had an arresting, controversial run of film work in the ’80s (including “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover”), seems to have read modern interpretations of “The Tempest” as the ultimate play about playwriting and incorporated them into the marrow of this film. Prospero (played by a then-86-year-old John Gielgud) is not merely an exiled conjurer but a stand-in for Shakespeare himself, and for Greenaway: a control-freak storyteller who can’t let go of the world he’s created. For about 80 percent of the film’s running time, Prospero is the only character who speaks in his own voice; when anyone else speaks, you hear Gielgud’s voice electronically filtered. The entire film is like this: highly stylized, at times abstract, with theatrical sets and painterly (often deliberately flat) compositions. Yet it communicates the full spectrum of emotions conveyed in the original text; the other characters are like flesh-and-blood version of Pinocchio, dreaming of being “real” as they dance on invisible strings. The various annotated and illustrated “books” by Prospero that periodically appear on-screen — their contents coming to life like the newspapers in a Harry Potter film — are gorgeous.
Wild Card: “Forbidden Planet,” of course!
Every Friday, Salon writer Matt Zoller Seitz sifts through beloved classics and obscure indies for a slide show that sheds light on the hidden connections and most fascinating moments in film and TV history.