Walsh examines the Bard in Hollywood

English professor Brian Walsh teaches the “Shakespeare on Film” seminar this semester
English professor Brian Walsh teaches the “Shakespeare on Film” seminar this semester Photo by Sharon Yin.

Thursday’s screening of Kenneth Branagh’s film adaptation of “Henry V” at the Whitney Humanities Center kicks off a series of film showings organized as part of the Shakespeare at Yale festival this semester. English professor Brian Walsh, who currently teaches the “Shakespeare on Film” seminar, spoke with the News about the history and unique challenges of bringing the Bard to the silver screen.

Q. What do we need to know before we go to one of these screenings, if we’re familiar with the plays but not the film adaptations?

A. I would say that, because of Shakespeare’s iconic status, the films are always treated with a level of suspicion by some people, particularly those who believe in a hierarchy with the written word and theater at the top. It’s a mistake to go in with a sense that there is an ideal version of, say, “Hamlet” or “Othello,” and the film is trying to match that. You’re always going to be disappointed. What you need is an open mind. Look at the film as its own independent piece of art, which is obviously still tied to Shakespeare to various degrees but features a different vision from the director, actors and film production team.

Q. How and when did the tradition of adapting Shakespeare’s work to film originate?

A. The first Shakespeare film adaptation [we are aware of] dates from 1899, which is just a few years after some of the first commercial films were made. This shows that Shakespeare has been a part of the movies for as long as movies have existed. It’s just a one minute clip of “King John,” which isn’t the most well-known play. Very quickly, however, as many as 400 silent Shakespeare films were made. They weren’t all full — some are just 10- to 15-minute long scenes ­­— but there was a very rich tradition in the silent film era. Early adaptations of “The Tempest,” “Richard III,” “Hamlet” and “Othello” are particularly notable.

Q. What were the early stages of Shakespearean film like in terms of representing the original?

A. A lot of filmmakers adapted Shakespeare’s work to film noir. We can think of Laurence Olivier’s “Hamlet” as an example. It’s shot in black and white, with specific camera and photography techniques and the mysterious female figure of Gertrude. What happened was that a lot of Shakespeare films were molded to fit specific film genres. The 1995 version of “Richard III,” for instance, is almost like a gangster film version ­— it’s an homage to a gangster picture called “White Heat.” Cinema has adapted Shakespeare to its own conventions. There have been some radical adaptations more recently, with a Shakespearean plot but new language and wild imagery. You saw a lot of that stuff in the silent period too, when there was radical experimentation. One Danish version of “Hamlet” from the 20s suggests that Hamlet was actually a woman, a big step because, even though there was a tradition of female actors playing him as a male role, this was the first time the character’s gender was radically changed.

Q. How have the film and literary academies reacted to such experimentation?

A. Some people reject it on the basis of the fidelity model but most film scholars think that it actually produces the least interesting reading of the works. Within the academy, most people are interested in seeing new perspectives … Most people who work on Shakespeare films are supportive of experimentation, arguing that there’s no point to a staid version of a Shakespeare film — it looks pretty but doesn’t really add much. Even if the films end up being silly or failing, it’s worth taking material and doing something new to it. It’s a dangerous thing to do, because there’s a sense that it’s a vulgar way to mess with some of the greatest works ever written. With the general public, this is more of an issue. A lot of people want Shakespearean works produced and that’s why we see some films trying to respond to what the general audience might want. Baz Luhrmann’s [version of] “Romeo and Juliet” was a radical adaptation, but it was called “William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet” to emphasize a sense of authenticity for marketing purposes.

Q. What’s the most outlandish adaptation you are aware of?

A. “Prospero’s Books,” directed by Peter Greenaway, was very divisive. He takes a lot of the language from “The Tempest” but adds his own as well. Also, the film had lots of nudity and strange imagery — at one point, it featured a cherubic child, supposed to be Ariel, peeing into a swimming pool as part of creating the tempest. Some people like Greenaway’s aesthetic: He makes beautiful films, the way he works with colors. But it was controversial and split audiences. I don’t think anybody really had a neutral view.

Q. What do you think makes a film adaptation of a Shakespeare play different from, say, a balleticized version (for example, “Romeo and Juliet,” scored by Tchaikovsky or Berlioz) or an operaticized version (such as Verdi’s “Othello” and “Macbeth”)? What about radio?

A. Film is just the most available. There’s a popular, democratizing sense about it. Even though people don’t really listen to radio plays the way they used to, and don’t really have the reach to attend the opera and the ballet, they can stream the film, just go to cinema, or even watch it on YouTube. In fact, in my class, I will be showing lots of clips from YouTube ­— they’re easy to access and you can find clips from obscure films like Orson Welles’ “Othello.” Films therefore bring Shakespeare to people who might never otherwise go into a theater. Also, as an art form, films can do things visually that theatre can’t. You can depict 200 people in battle in a way theater can’t. That means a level of realism which brings with it expectations of what realism should be like. So it’s an interesting and productive way to imagine Shakespeare outside the small, confined space of live theater.

Q. Despite the surge in Shakespearean adaptations in the 1950s and 60s, we’re seeing fewer productions today. Do you think there’s still demand for Shakespeare on film?

A. There was a real revival after “Henry V” in 1989, where you saw a number of films in between the art house independent type and the more widely circulated sort. It kind of comes in waves. There were indeed a lot of Shakespeare films in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, so the market has been a little bit saturated. Recently, Branagh’s “Love’s Labor’s Lost” (2000) did very poorly at the box office. But a new “Coriolanus” just came out, and Al Pacino put out a “Merchant of Venice” film in 2004. There are different moments in which particular actors make Shakespeare films happen. Right now, individuals like Pacino are still pushing for these films, but we’re not in a moment where there’s a high demand for them. Still, I don’t think that means there won’t be such demand again. We might need a moment like 1989 to make people realize that Shakespeare’s work is fresh and engaging. “Coriolanus” could be something like that. But the movie industry at large is in a bit of trouble right now with executives trying to figure out what works for Hollywood. So the reduced demand could be part of a bigger trend of no one knowing what really works in terms of getting audiences into cinemas.

Q. How do people deal with the challenges of incorporating Shakespearean features like long speeches and his particular language in film?

A. If you’re sitting in a theater, you’re just watching an actor pace around and deliver what could be a 20-line speech. It’s hard to do that in a film. It has to be more of a dialogue and a back-and-forth. So such extracts are often split up a little, with voiceovers, different backdrops, etc,, to make the soliloquies partly internal. A lot of editing techniques are used to make long speeches more palatable to us, just because psychological realism is a thing we tend to expect in movies, and seeing someone go on and on in a film doesn’t match that. In the 2000 version of “Hamlet” with Ethan Hawke, they used voiceovers and New York city imagery. In terms of length, I was reading the other day that, in Shakespeare films, 50 percent of the text gets cut. One exception was a 240-minute production of “Hamlet,” but that kind of length has an effect in terms of how many people want go see the film.

Q. How palatable are Shakespeare films to people today?

A. Well, some are art house films with niche audiences but there are occasional blockbusters, like 1993’s “Much Ado About Nothing” or “Romeo + Juliet,” We’re also now seeing the rise of the Shakespeare spinoff — a film that’s suggested by Shakespeare plots, for example “10 Things I Hate About You” or “O.” It’s funny that Shakespearean works have this kind of appeal to teen audiences. It’s possible directors try to create a synergy with things that young people may be studying in school to entice them to come to cinema, as they might find the film more entertaining than just reading the text. It also depends on your definition. “Shakespeare in Love” was considered a Shakespeare film by some, because it incorporates “Romeo and Juliet” and “Twelfth Night” — that was a box office hit and won the Academy Award for Best Picture; it became big in the popular consciousness.

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