One of the great virtues of Shakespeare’s material is its remarkable adaptability. His themes and characters are obviously universal and have resonated with audiences for centuries. One of the favorite tricks of a Shakespearian director is to modernize the setting of the play in order to capture something fresh in the verse. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think it’s necessary. The best live production I ever saw was a fully ruffed, doubleted and hosed “Hamlet.” It is interesting, however, to see how a director manages to fit Elizabethan verse in an updated setting. To see how far you can bend the Bard before you break him.
Ralph Fiennes’ directorial debut, Coriolanus, premiered at the Berlin Film Festival yesterday to rave reviews. While maintaining the original verse, Fiennes has updated the setting from pre-imperial Rome to an anonymously modern civil war-torn state. Coriolanus is a story of blood, violence, military scheming, and torture that rings true in any era. As well as directing, Fiennes plays the titular Coriolanus and has cast Shakespearian veterans Vanessa Redgrave (stately!) and Brian Cox (stentorian!). Also starring is Gerard Butler and before you roll your eyes the man is a damn fine actor (Dear Frankie) who has made an avalanche of bad choices (The Ugly Truth, Bounty Hunter, P.S. I Love You, etc. ad nauseum). More exciting than the cast, for me, however, is the fact that Fiennes enlisted Hurt Locker cinematographer Barry Ackroyd. I’ll expect some gripping combat scenes and am prepared to not eat before the viewing lest I lose my lunch due to unrelenting shaky-cam.
Here are some recent examples of modernizations… only one of which is truly broken.
Hamlet (2000): This production grew on me with multiple viewings. I objected, at the time of its release, to the ubiquitous Julia Stiles who was great in Ten Things I Hate About You but rather dull when it came to speaking Shakespeare’s actual verse. But Bill Murray kills as Polonious and Sam Shepard is truly the face of every haunting father figure you want to impress. The director did some nice modernization work by having Hawke’s Hamlet be a filmmaker. Many of his soliloquies are films Hawke replays. As is “The Mousetrap.” It rather works.
Richard III (1995): This fantastic production with a killer cast (Ian McKellen, Annette Bening, Jim Broadbent, Robert Downey Jr. and Kristen Scott Thomas) reimagines Post War of the Roses Richard as a 1930’s fascist dictator. The man cries, “a horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse” because his jeep is stuck in the mud. Brilliant.
Romeo + Juliet (1996): Perhaps the most well-known of the modernizations, Luhrmann’s film caught some flack for the pop soundtrack and MTV cross-promotion. DiCaprio’s performance is gripping, however, and it’s a cute touch to name the weapons DAGGER 9mm and RAPIER 9mm. Luhrmann also cut more text than most directors, relying on visuals to convey meaning.
Love’s Labour’s Lost (2000): This is where Kenneth Brannaugh, after a wonderful streak of Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing and Hamlet took his first, huge misstep. Love’s Labour’s Lost is not Shakespeare’s strongest plot at the best of times, and it crumples in this mess of a modernization that is set in the 1940’s. Oh and it’s a musical. Berlin and Gershwin are dragged into the fray. The Good? Adrian Lester, accomplished stage actor and singer. He makes both the verse and the dancing seem effortless. The Bad? Matthew Lillard who, like Keanu before him, is woefully miscast. The Ugly? Poor, poor Alicia Silverstone who can neither dance, nor sing, nor speak the verse. She’s a triple non-threat and it’s painful to watch.
Joanna Robinson is relieved to have side-stepped talking about the non-verse modernizations because she would have had to reveal her love for Get Over It starring Ben Foster, Kirsten Dunst, Mila Kunis and Sisqo (of Thong Song fame). Hermiaaaaaaaaaaa, I’ll make you love me.