Feature With a slew of new Shakespeare films set to be released over the next 18 months, we look at cinema's long-standing love affair with the playwright.
The Bard of Hollywood
He is the most prolific screenwriter in cinema history, despite having been dead for the last 400 years. His plays were among the first stories ever filmed, at the dawn of the silent movie era, yet they are still being adapted today. His works have been filmed countless times as straight dramas, political thrillers, horror movies, sci-fi adventures, musicals and juvenile comedies. He has been endlessly parodied, misquoted and deconstructed. So is it time to let William Shakespeare rest in peace?
Not a chance. The next 18 months will see the release of at least another eight or nine Shakespeare films. Chief among these is a starry King Lear featuring Anthony Hopkins, Naomi Watts, Gwyneth Paltrow and Keira Knightley. But we can also look forward to The Tempest with Helen Mirren and Jeremy Irons, a new version of Macbeth starring Tilda Swinton, and half a dozen more. Every generation of great film directors, from Laurence Olivier and Orson Welles to Kenneth Branagh and Baz Luhrmann, has tried to remake Shakespeare in their own image. Romeo and Juliet, possibly the most filmed play in history, already accounts for 24 versions and counting. So far, the Bard of Stratford can boast over 400 film credits, plus more than 300 TV adaptations.
The evergreen appeal of Shakespeare to filmmakers is obvious on one level but baffling on another. Dense poetry and 16th century references clearly risk alienating modern multiplex audiences. And yet romance and revenge, misunderstanding and murder remain the essence of big-screen drama. Vicki Botnick of the American Film Institute put it succinctly in a 2002 essay: "Shakespeare has always been the ultimate pop-culture scribe." A slight exaggeration, perhaps, but Stratford's most famous export has certainly proved infinitely adaptable. Shakespeare films have always reflected the social and political climate in which they were made, often consciously, sometimes accidentally.
When Laurence Olivier began his much-admired run of Shakespearean adaptations with Henry V in 1944, the Second World War was still raging in Europe. Shooting in Ireland with US soldiers as extras, Olivier highlighted the play's themes of patriotic duty and valour. An Elizabethan play became a modern propaganda weapon. Olivier helped made Shakespeare a cinematic staple with Hamlet (1948) and Richard III (1955), but his old-school theatrical traditions soon looked dated. In Stuart Burge's 1965 film of Othello, the actor donned blackface make-up, just as Welles had done a decade before. The unspoken implication, that no black actors could have handled the role, struck an incongruous note at the height of the civil rights struggle.
More recent Othello adaptations have pointedly foregrounded the play's subtext of racial tension. Laurence Fishburne's brooding psychological performance in Oliver Parker's 1995 film, incredibly, marked the first time a black actor played Othello in a major film. Similarly, Al Pacino's performance as Shylock in Michael Radford's The Merchant of Venice (2005) did not try to disguise the play's ingrained anti-Semitism, but also attempted to explore the conflicted motives behind it.
When Olivier's stilted theatrical style grew stale, younger actors such as Marlon Brando in Julius Caesar (1953) brought a new edge of raw, anti-heroic naturalism to the plays. Filmgoers who would normally avoid Shakespeare turned out in their millions to see The Tempest disguised as the classic sci-fi thriller Forbidden Planet (1956), and Romeo and Juliet reborn as a New York street opera in West Side Story (1961).
Franco Zeffirelli's much-loved 1968 version of Romeo and Juliet may have been traditional in language and setting, but it emphatically highlighted the story's generation-gap theme during a time of youthful protest over the Vietnam War and other divisive events. Three years later, Roman Polanski took advantage of a more liberal cinematic climate to make the most graphic, bloodthirsty version of Macbeth ever. Initially derided by highbrow critics, Polanski's 1971 film has since been accepted as a stylish and successful updating of the play.
The current boom in Shakespeare films began 20 years ago with Branagh. A former boy wonder of the British stage, Branagh took over Olivier's mantle as the chief Shakespearean director of his generation. Like Olivier, Branagh began his Bard adaptations as both director and star with Henry V in 1989, a faithful version with the gritty feel of a contemporary war story. Suddenly Shakespeare movies looked less like filmed plays and more like modern action thrillers.
Henry V was a commercial success, alerting studios that a wider audience existed for Shakespeare on screen. Branagh made further all-star adaptations, including a sunny Much Ado About Nothing and a grand full-length Hamlet. Astutely combining British theatre gravitas with A-list Hollywood glamour, these films helped popularise the Bard for the DVD generation. "There seems to have been a definite shift away from the theatrical connection that maybe previous generations of Shakespeare filmmaking had, and now the plays seem to be up for grabs," Branagh told the BBC in 1996. "Maybe it's a fashion thing and the bubble will burst, but for the time being it seems like people are ready to give it a go, because it might be a good movie."
The bubble did eventually burst for Branagh in 2000, when he shoehorned Love's Labour's Lost into a lightheaded 1930s musical. The film was a half-baked muddle and a resounding flop; the floodgates had opened for a new generation of more adventurous Shakespeare adaptations. Bardmania reach a new peak in the 1990s. While Branagh was still in his prime, Zeffirelli directed Mel Gibson in Hamlet, a traditional interpretation with a dash of late 20th century angst. Ethan Hawke also played the Danish prince in the director Michael Almereyda's very different Hamlet, swapping feudal Denmark for a corporate power struggle in contemporary America. Meanwhile, Anthony Hopkins and the director Julie Taymor turned Titus Andronicus into a savage, surreal, timeless political parable.
Two bold peaks stand out among this 1990s surge of Shakespeare movies. Ian McKellen adapted his own hit stage version of Richard III for the director Richard Loncraine's 1995 film, cleverly updating the setting to 1930s fascist Europe. This was closely followed by Luhrmann's 1996 reinvention of Romeo + Juliet, a dazzling mix of rock-video visuals, car chases, advertising billboards and blazing guns in place of flashing blades.
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes as the reckless young couple, Luhrmann's revolutionary film was a sexy, glamorous, ultra-modern thriller. It also helped inspire a short-lived wave of contemporary high-school Shakespeare films, including 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), loosely based on The Taming of the Shrew, and O (2001), a modern college-campus take on Othello. By reaching out to a younger, more pop-savvy audience, both McKellen and Luhrmann insisted they were merely exploiting the populist showmanship used by the Bard himself. "I'm very excited by the idea that people may be discovering Shakespeare for the first time," McKellen told the Richard III Society. "But it's my duty to make sure that what they are excited by is not just another action movie, not just another political intrigue thriller, not just another play about family betrayals... these were inventions, not of the cinema, but of Shakespeare."
Luhrmann made a similar point to The Guardian, arguing that the mix of bawdy comedy, romance and violence in Shakespeare's plays can be found today at any cinema multiplex. "We spent a year stripping away that 19th century notion of Shakespeare," the director explained. "Everything we did in Romeo + Juliet was based on Elizabethan Shakespeare. The fact that there was pop music in it was a Shakespearean thing. We would be fearless about the lowness of the comedy."
The Bard's arrival as a pop-culture brand in his own right was confirmed by John Madden's 1998 film Shakespeare in Love, a witty romantic comedy that depicted the young playwright's early career struggles. Al Pacino's 1996 labour of love, Looking for Richard, also offered a highly accessible mix of filmed drama and playfully postmodern documentary. "Bless his heart, because it was all his own money," says Kevin Spacey, who co-starred with Pacino in Looking for Richard. "It started to gestate when he was doing Richard III in Boston. He wanted to try to find a way of bringing Shakespeare to people who think it's a foreign language and have no interest in it."
Shakespeare will clearly remain a rich source of inspiration as long as there are filmmakers such as Pacino, Branagh and Luhrmann eager to reconnect him with the moviegoing masses. Also, crucially, as long as there are studio backers willing to finance a time-tested, much-filmed story. Ultimately, this brutal commercial logic may be enough to ensure Shakespeare's continued dominance for another century of cinema. Never mind the dazzling poetry, the contemporary resonances or the profound insights into our darkest human desires - the bottom line is, Hollywood likes nothing better than a remake.