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Shakespeare on film

A brief history of the way Shakespeare has been portrayed on film, the choices made and the results.

Shakespeare's plays

William Shakespeare is probably the best known playwright of all time. He is certainly the most performed playwright ever, hiswork is still performed all over the world, practically every day. He is a staple of school classes, an inspiration for current creatives and one of the driving forces behind the strength of the British theatre.

Four-hundred years after their first performance, the plays are still a central plank of the anglophone culture, dialect and humour. It isn't surprising that the canon has been fertile ground for film-makers for as long as such a job has existed.

Generally there are three distinct ways to represent Shakespeare. Period portrayal means the cast are dressed in Elizabethan costume, that being the period of the origin of the play, or earlier costume where relevant, Julius Caesar in a toga, perhaps. Modern portrayal means retelling the play in contemporary dress, or essentially anything later than Elizabethan. Inpired by means the actual dialogue is discarded to some extent, replacing the plot with modern language and modern presentation. Here are some examples of each approach:

Henry V (1989)
The Merchant of Venice (2004)
Macbeth (2015)
Romeo and Juliet (1996)
Macbeth (2006)
Inspired by
West Side Story (Romeo and Juliet)
Forbidden Planet (The Tempest)
10 Things I Hate about You (The Taming of the Shrew)
O (Othello)
Staging for film

There's nothing wrong with simply constructing the film exactly the same way you would a play, however there are a couple of issues with such a simplistic vision. The first is that theatre audiences are much more prepared to suspend their disbelief. On stage we accept that one physical location has to be a sewing room one moment, a battlefield the next, the deck of a ship after that. The second is that the same problem means that theatrical devices like a person 'hiding' in plain sight, or 'overhearing' the stage whisper don't translate well to film. You're also missing the opportunity to encourage the director to use more imaginative settings and camera choices. Film has greater scope for control of the audience vision and sound. Generally, therefore, there's a decision to use sets or locations to reflect the scene and that often means breaking scenes up so they happen in different places. As a writer this is a humbling task. Like a fine-arts restorer being told to return the Mona Lisa to its former glory, the principal thought that crosses your mind when you sit down to adapt Shakespeare is 'I must not screw this up'.

It's often more appealing to base a screenplay on a Shakespearian play without trying to retain the language, the pacing, the genius of the original. Approaching the script as a timeless story, reimagined for a modern telling, is a reasonable and safer course.

So these timeless themes of love and loss, treachery and madness can be a fine starting point for a film. One thing must be in your mind, however. You're writing, adapting, preparing or just nudging into being a film, not a play. The finished shooting script must be built to be a film, not to retain every nuance of a tale originally constructed for a completely different medium.

Trampling Shakespeare's legacy

The solution couldn't be simpler. Write the film you want to write, throw away anything from the original material that doesn't serve that purpose. I know it's terrifying, but it's the right way.

Historically people have been nervous of approaching material in which there is an enormous amount of emotional investment among the community. Shakespeare, Dickens, Twain, Steinbeck, Goethe and any number of religious texts raise the possibility that your adaptation won't merely be ignored but actively hated.

It's especially a problem when people are constantly placing their own contemporary issues into the pot. Most revivals of The Merchant of Venice are accused of being political by one group or another. Julius Caesar was banned in several countries, notably Italy under Mussolini, because it describes a coup. As for The Taming of the Shrew, I've seen people refer to it as a hate-crime. I think these sort of issues tell us much more about the people raising objections than it does about the plot of the play.

So here's the best advice available. Take what you want from Shakespeare, do what you want with it, ignore those who try to silence you. What you create may be wonderful or terrible, but it will be yours.

"Until the screenwriter does his job, nobody else has a job. In other words, he is the asshole who keeps everyone else from going to work."

Robert Towne