Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Weekly Top Ten: Best Shakespeare Adaptations

I know for most people, Shakespeare remains someone the associate with school, where you had to slog through a play, and interpret every line and character, and write long, pointless essays. I remember I almost failed one essay I wrote on Romeo & Juliet where I had to write from the point of view of one of the characters after the play was over, and I picked Romeo, who regretted his choice to kill himself over a girl he barely knew. I was told I missed the point of the play. But, hell, Romeo has ALWAYS struck me as a whiner, and I never did much like that play anyway (notice how none of the film versions are on this list). But I do love Shakespeare. If you can divorce yourself from those English classes of yesteryear, and just sit back and enjoy the plays, or the film versions of them, you will find greatness in them. For this list, I chose to only have two “non-traditional” Shakespeare adaptations – one that doesn’t use the masters own words and chose to limit the films of any director to one, and any one play to one (the only thing that would have changed here is that Welles’ Macbeth would have also been included).

10. The Merchant of Venice (Michael Radford, 2004)
Michael Radford’s film version of the controversial Shakespeare play earns a spot on this list, because Radford and his cast understand something that most people have missed over the years – that The Merchant of Venice, despite being defined as one of Shakespeare’s comedies, is actually a tragedy – with the Jewish Shylock as its complicated tragic “hero”. Al Pacino delivers a passionate, brilliant performance as Shylock, a man who does what he needs to do in order to survive. The film opens with a montage showing how the Jews are mistreated by the Catholics in Venice. Although Shylock has often been treated as a comic villain, here he is more of victim than a villain. Shylock maybe unreasonable in insisting on receiving his pound of flesh for the hated Antonio (Jeremy Irons), but he just wants what is owed to him. The comedy of the movie – that of all the ridiculousness about suitors – fades from memory soon after the film ends. But I will never forget Pacino’s impassioned performance as Shylock.

9. Othello (Orson Welles, 1952)
There is a sadness for me in proclaiming Orson Welles’s 1952 version of Othello to be the definitive screen version. Not because Welles’ film is not masterfully made – as with everything he did it is visually stunning, and the lengthy delays in production are not all that noticeable in the final result – but because no matter how good Welles is in the title role – and he is magnificent – he is still a white man in blackface playing the role of an African character (the 1995 version with Laurence Fishburne is not very good, although it gives us the definitive screen Iago in Kenneth Branagh). But Welles film remains one of the best Shakespearian adaptations in history despite my misgivings about some of the content.

8. My Own Private Idaho (Gus Van Sant, 1991)
Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho recasts the roles of Prince Hal (the future King Henry V) and Falstaff from the play Henry IV into street hustlers in Idaho in the 1980s. Keanu Reeves plays Scott, the son of the Mayor of Portland, who wants to reject his father’s way of life, but is only hustling until he turns 21 and can get his hands on his trust fund. River Phoenix is Mike, the lowlife kid who somehow embraces life, despite his narcolepsy. Like Prince Hal in Henry IV, Scott will eventually abandon his loyal friend and embrace his father’s posh lifestyle. And like Falstaff, Mike is seemingly at the mercy of strangers, who can either help or hurt him, depending on what they want to do. That My Own Private Idaho is an amazing version of a story set hundreds of years in the past, in another country no less, is a testament to just how universal the themes in Shakespeare really are.

7. Macbeth (Roman Polanski, 1971)
Roman Polanski’s version of Macbeth is undoubtedly one of the most violent, sexually charged adaptations of Shakespeare in cinematic history. He casts younger actors than normal for both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, and daringly changes Lady Macbeth from a nagging bitch into a more human character, who slide into insanity comes quickly once she realizes what she has done (another daring move was to have her perform her famous sleepwalking scene in the nude). Polanski’s visual technique places the audience inside the play, turning us into voyeurs to the plays violent acts. His conclusion, where Donalbain visits the witches, suggests a never-ending cycle of violence, where in the future, Donalbain will become Macbeth. This is a chilling, violent Shakespearian film.

6. Richard III (Richard Loncraine, 1995)
Richard Loncraine’s daring film version relocates the action from Shakespearian England into an alternative Fascist England in the 1930s, thus putting the events of the film into a different light than most adaptations. Ian McKellan delivers a remarkable performance as the classic Shakespearian villain, who’s jealously, leads him to overthrow his brother, and makes the nation fall into chaos and violence. The film is heavy on the Nazi symbolism, but it used to great purpose here. The entire cast is strong, but is McKellan who makes the biggest impact as the unbalanced, violent Richard. This production took a lot of chances, and carried it off brilliantly well. I love the touch of having Richard deliver his famous “Made glorious winter by this son of York” speech while standing at a urinal, which shows his utter contempt for his brother. Wonderful work.

5. Henry V (Laurence Olivier, 1945)
You cannot have a list of great Shakespearian movies and not include one by Laurence Olivier. His first film, Henry V, was also his very best (sorry, but despite the Oscar wins for his 1948 version of Hamlet, I find that film a thudding bore). Olivier’s film brilliantly combines the theatrical with the cinematic, with the film opening and closing in the Globe theater on stage, with the action shifting to stylized film sets, and finally for the climactic battle, in a real location. Olivier’s performance as Henry is his greatest as any Shakespearian character. The only thing that hampers Olivier’s film is that because it was made as a “propaganda” film during WWII, Olivier leaves much of Henry’s harsher traits off-screen (no instructions to rape and pillage Harfleur, no hanging of traitors, etc.). But Henry V remains one of the most daring and brilliant adaptations of Shakespeare for the screen.

4. Julius Caesar (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1953)
Julius Caesar is one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays, and this is the best version ever put on screen. The central character is Brutus, played in a brilliant performance by James Mason, who agrees to go along with the plan to assassinate his friend Caesar hatched by Cassius (John Gielgud), but only for the good of Rome. When the act is done, Caesar (Louis Calhern) lies dead, and Brutus makes his impassioned plea to the people of Rome, who are with him, until Marc Antony (Marlon Brando), makes the famed “Friends, Romans, countrymen lend me your ears” speech, and Brutus and his “friends” are driven from Rome, only to return on the attack. What makes Julius Caesar so great is the character of Brutus who is conflicted about what he feels he must do, and therefore, he defies easy categorization. And Mason is brilliant in the role. Brando may have been the one who got an Oscar nomination for the movie, but it is Mason who is the real star.

3. Titus (Julie Taymor, 1999)
Julie Taymor took one of Shakespeare’s lesser know plays and turned it to an out and out masterwork of visual filmmaking. The film opens in modern day, where a boy’s toy soldiers morph into the army of Roman General Titus Andronicus. The film uses many differing time settings for the movie, and the musical cues follow suit. Titus (Anthony Hopkins). The film is essentially a revenge drama, where vanished Queen of the Goths Tamara (Jessica Lange) wants to get revenge on Titus for killing her eldest son. So she sends her two remaining sons to rape Titus’ daughter – which they do, and then cut out her tongue and cut off her hands, in an attempt to silence her. When Titus learns of what has been done, he kills Tamara’s other two sons, and feeds them to her is a meat pie. All the performances are brilliant – Hopkins has a lot of fun playing not only on his role in The Silence of the Lambs, but in one scene brilliantly mocking the delivery of John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson and Laurence Olivier. But I also particularly loved Henry Lennix’s performance as Aaron, a Moor and lover of Tamara, who is the chief architect of her revenge plans. The film is violent – the most violent of any Shakespeare adaptation – but brilliantly well executed by Taymor and her cast. Although this was not a box office hit, its influence can be seen in many films since.

2. Ran (Akira Kurosawa, 1985)
I had to include one non-traditional Shakespearean adaptation for director Akira Kurosawa (who made Hamlet into a film noir in The Bad Sleep Well and Macbeth into a samurai epic in Throne of Blood), along with this Japanese version of King Lear, that may well be his masterpiece (it is the best film on this list, but it felt wrong to not have an actual Shakespeare adaptation in the number one spot). Tatsuya Nakadai plays Hidetora who decides to split his kingdom into three and give control to his three sons. What happens next is straight out of Shakespeare, as the only loyal son is banished because of the King’s pride, and the other two start plotting against each other, and their father, who eventually goes mad with grief. Ran actually improves on Shakespeare’s Lear, as it deepens the characters by giving them more of a past to haunt them, and in Lady Kaede, they have created a character not unlike Lady Macbeth. The film is visually magnificent, overflowing with color and violence. Kurosawa made a lot of great films in his career – and Ran is easily the equal of any of them.

1. Hamlet (Kenneth Branagh, 1996)
Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet is the best adaptation of Shakespeare for many reasons. For one, unlike just about every other adaptation, Branagh does not omit a line of dialogue from the film – this four hour opus is Hamlet in its entirety. But completeness would hardly be worthy of the number one spot by itself. Branagh’s direction of the movie is stunning and cinematic – his use of mirrors of example rivals that of Welles at times in this movie. His performance as Hamlet, although he is too old for the role (but not nearly as old as the other cinematic Hamlets) is amazing, hitting the high notes perfectly, but also giving feeling to the less famous speeches. Although some celebrities make some ill advised cameos (Billy Crystal, Robin Williams and Jack Lemmon among them), the major roles are cast to perfection – Derek Jacobi as Claudius, Julie Christie as Gertrude, Richard Briers as Polonius and particularly Kate Winslet who is the definitive Ophelia. This is Branagh’s masterpiece.

1 comment:

  1. This is amazing...I have a quiz to prepare on Shakespeare and I very little time..this was of great help- Vidisha