2016 marks 400 years since Shakespeare’s death. Fans all over the world are celebrating the iconic playwright’s legacy with new theatrical productions, exhibitions and educational lectures about the Bard — which can’t be any different than most other years. The fact is, William Shakespeare has been a driving cultural force for centuries and there is no reason to believe that will change anytime soon.
Shakespeare’s works haven’t just stayed on the stage, or in the written word: there have been over 400 film adaptations of Shakespeare plays, making him the most filmed author in any language.
In 2014, the BBC took a look at Shakespeare’s contributions to the world of cinema with All the World’s a Screen: Shakespeare on Film, a documentary program highlighting some of the best and most influential adaptations. Archival footage, interviews and film clips piece together an important cross section of film and literature history.
The first Shakespeare adaption on record is a French film Le Duel d’Hamlet, released in 1900 and starring Sarah Bernhardt in the titular role. The film wasn’t technically a silent film, as it had a cylinder soundtrack on the then new phono-cinema-theatre system. Silent films followed throughout the 20s, and Shakespeare adaptations were produced in Germany, France, Russia and Japan.
Shakespeare leans itself to film because of its translatability. Plays are already a visual medium, and filmmakers could expand on that by using visuals to express the ideas of the plays. The universal stories remained intact, but the language, style and era greatly influenced the presentation. Still, each picture is undeniably Shakespeare.
Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 Romeo & Juliet was the highest grossing Shakespeare film in history, dethroned only by Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 Romeo + Juliet. Both films took different approaches to the story but had common ground in what Zeffirelli’s mantra was while filming: energy first, dialogue second.
“That’s the real difficult thing to do. Create such a real sense of energy and exuberance but also a connection,” said Adrian Wootton, producer of the BBC’s All the World’s a Screen. Both adaptations were able to cut through the language and connect with the audience, regardless of anyone’s understanding of the prose. In Romeo + Juliet, stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes are infamously poor verse speakers (especially when compared to Brit actors who train with Shakespeare for years), but the film still managed to capture the essence of the story with dynamic, energetic performances. Wootton believes it “takes a really gifted filmmaker to be able to create that.”
Some of the greatest filmmakers of all time have worked with Shakespeare: Akira Kurowasa transformed Macbeth into Throne of Blood; Orson Welles did Macbeth, Othello and combined history plays into Chimes at Midnight; Roman Polanski took on Macbeth as well. But no conversation about Shakespeare on film is complete without the works of two actors turned directors: Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh.
Olivier, a trained Shakespearean actor, made Henry V in 1944 and is the first true success story of Shakespeare on screen. It was both critically and commercially successful at the time of its release and continues to impress audiences today. Olivier opened the doors to Shakespeare on film for modern, English-speaking audiences, and went on to adapt Hamlet and Richard III. Decades later, his proto-protege Kenneth Branagh continued the tradition with his own adaptation of Henry V, followed by Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet, Love’s Labour Lost and As You Like It. Branagh, according to Wootton, is a “great, great Shakespeare film director, one of the greatest of our age in the English language and probably not recognised as much as he should do.”
Branagh’s skills are on display with Much Ado About Nothing, one of the few Shakespearean comedies to successfully translate. Wootton calls it a “genuine comedy film,” something not modern audiences would usually call Shakespeare. While tragedy and romance still resonate, the humour is often lost or harder to understand. Branagh managed to pull it off by mixing the acting styles of American and British, theatre-trained actors and creating a light, fun and energetic film.
Branagh hasn’t made a Shakespearean adaptation in 10 years now, and Luhrmann’s film, the most successful to date, was 20 years ago. Are we at an impasse for Shakespeare on screen? There’s a lack of a recent success story: 2013’s Romeo & Juliet was passed over by critics and audiences alike; 2014’s Cymbeline was only released on VOD; Joss Whedon’s 2012 Much Ado About Nothing was regarded as lighthearted and charming, but failed to spark a renewed interest in Shakespeare films.
Wootton has one theory as to why more filmmakers aren’t taking on Shakespeare today — National Theatre Live. The innovative series films stage productions in London and plays them in theatres worldwide. Recent productions include Tom Hiddleston’s Coriolanus, David Tennant’s Hamlet and Kenneth Branagh’s Romeo & Juliet.
“I worry about it from a filmmaking point of view,” Wootton states. “Film financiers will be like ‘why do we need to finance a new Shakespeare film when you can have this beamed into cinemas all over the world whenever you like?’” It’s a fair concern — when the top actors are working in beautiful and innovative theatre productions that can easily be filmed and sent to theatres, why put down millions in an attempt to recreate the magic?
What’s needed is another interested, invigorated director. Someone who can bring their own unique stamp to the stories we already know so well, the way Kurosawa turned Macbeth into a tale of revenge in feudal Japan, or Grigori Kozintsev made Hamlet with such striking and spectacular visuals. Imagine the sprawling, mad epic the Wachowski siblings could create. Imagine the beautiful, soulful work Ang Lee would make. Imagine someone who masters every genre, like Danny Boyle, or someone who brings their own strong stamp on every project, like Edgar Wright. Imagine Andrea Arnold’s beautiful restraint, or even Tim Burton’s stylish darkness.
There’s no overstating William Shakespeare’s impact. He’s the greatest writer in the English language, so it’s no surprise he’d leave his mark on the world of film too. More great adaptations, interpretations and unique visions will come — we’ve had 400 years of Shakespeare but only about 100 years of film. There’s still more ground to be covered.