March 25, 2009

Bard On Screen

Hello poor, neglected blog. I missed you- I truly did.

In an effort to find a topic I was enthused enough about to post on, a thought occurred to me. Shakespeare on Film.

In many ways, contemporary society has replaced the theatre with film. In Shakespeare’s time, theatre was a social media. It was a way to interact with not only your neighbors, but also the actors on the stage- to connect with the community in a very vocal and vivacious way. It was loud, raucous and boisterous- a far cry from the snooty opera boxes which come to the contemporary mind. Unless you happen to live in New York, chances are you’ve never been to a showing of a movie where individuals yelled at the screen in an effort to communicate with the characters. In our subdued, Freudian, inside-voice culture it is something highly frowned upon. What good would it do us anyway? The actors are not there in person, it is merely a projection of them we see before us. This impersonal artform leaves us with perhaps a more intimate perspective (we can, after all, watch the sweat trickle from Johnny Depp’s forehead in a film), and yet a less human one.

Despite all of this, film remains a social exercise. One goes to the movies on dates or with friends. Movies are a topic of general discussion as they are common ground- I can watch a movie from my living room and discuss said movie with someone across the country because the performance remains the same.

In general, Shakespeare on film is divided into two categories: made-for-film screenplays (like much of Kenneth Branaugh’s work), and taped stage plays. I will be discussing the former as taped stage plays have a whole slew of other complications.

We heard it from our High School English teachers and thereby it is forever engrained in one’s mind: do NOT watch the movie before you read the book. In the case of Shakespeare, I tend to disagree generally. Shakespeare, after all, is meant to be played before an audience- not read. It takes a well-trained mindset to read and make sense of Early Modern English. Many “Shakespeare virgins” find it difficult to understand on the page- and really who could blame them? The sentence structure is entirely different often times from what we use today, the words are frequently spelled differently, there is no sense of rhythm, key-words, or intonation. Shakespeare needs actors to breathe life into it. The great bard himself did not write to publish but rather for his ACTORS. Therefore, throw away your preconceived notions- if you want to love Shakespeare don’t go picking up a folgers, rent a good movie.

That being said, there are a surprising amount of bad film adaptations out there. Overall, I am extremely enthused with the work of Kenneth Brannaugh (his Love’s Labours Lost I believe is truly a triumph of the Shakespeare-to-film genre). He takes liberties on occasion (aforementioned Love’s Labours Lost, As you Like it, Othello, the infamous FIVE HOUR HAMLET…), but he’s KENNETH BRANNAUGH! The man has worked for those liberties and deserves to take them. He consistently puts forth an excellent, accessible film which is engaging and entertaining.

The largest problem with most Shakespeare on film is that it simply lacks vivacity. The film genre is by its nature more subdued than live theatre. The cameras show us the actors from a distance unattainable on a stage, thereby the acting style must be altered to accommodate. Truly, stage techniques when filmed often appear garish and overdone. And, to me, this is where the life in Shakespeare lies.

Shakespeare writes big characters- he never does anything by halves. Hotspur, Juliet, Sir Toby, Lady Macbeth- these are people who can barely be contained in the human body much less facial expressions. They require air, space, and above all human contact to bring properly to life. Wild, wacky antics on the camera are reduced down to their core- something which makes the thick language of Shakespeare difficult to palate. When Shakespeare doesn’t move and breathe and run from hot to cold in a millisecond, it dies.

A second major complication of Shakespeare to film is the lack of subtext. There is no subtext in Shakespeare. Anything a character thinks is said- perhaps in veiled terms or a metaphor- but nothing is left below the surface. There is no deeper meaning to hint at, nothing below the truly scrumptious language to dig into. I believe that most film actors rely on these kinds of subtext to deliver a performance. It is difficult to mean every word you say. But if you can’t trust Shakespeare to deliver truth from text, who can you trust?

Film is a director’s media. It uses pictures to tell a story. Shakespeare is entirely in his words. The word “audience” holds its roots in the Latin work “audientum” meaning “a hearing, listening”. When the Elizabethans came to the theatre, it was to “hear” a play not to “see” a play. The words of Shakespeare simply do not translate well to the visual media of film. It takes a skilled hand to make such a transition, one that (sadly) most directors and actors lack.

So… watch Shakespeare. But, more importantly, hear Shakespeare. And do your research- if the film stars some young, hip, pop-culture icons and leaves out the old RSC gang entirely, you should probably find something better to do with those three hours of your life.

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