Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!
“My conscience hath a thousand several tongues, And every tongue brings in a several tale, And every tale condemns me for a villain.” ~ Richard III, Act V, Scene III
From its earliest days cinema has had an interest in adapting Shakespeare’s plays. From Laurence Olivier to 10 things I hate about you and, of course, Romeo + Juliet.
One such classic adaptation is the, admittedly rather dated, prestige piece Richard III (1955), in which Olivier has a great deal of fun, and consequently is fun to watch despite the extraordinary wig. It must be a massively fun villain to play, as Ian McKellen’s 1995 film version of the play clearly attests.
Then there’s Brando’s incandescent Marc Anthony in Julius Caesar (1953), another production weighed down by misguided hair. The actors deserve a great deal of praise for toning down the ham, despite the elaborate surroundings. One suspects they would have fared a great deal better on a bare stage, and without having their faces slathered in Vaseline.
Then there are the Branaghs. In his Henry V, the eulogy for Falstaff is undoubtedly the high point. In Much ado about Nothing (1993), Emma Thompson is a lovely Beatrice, Keanu’s Sir John seems rather flat (even if he does have the best monologue in the play), and the Hey Nonny Nonnys tend to get on one’s nerves after a while.
Perhaps these adaptations, or films like them, might be what initially springs to mind when you think “Shakespeare adaptation”. Lots of extras, incongruous costuming and, Lo!, acting deserving a capital A.
However, Hollywood does not have a monopoly on the Bard. Kurosawa not only takes on Lear in the powerful epic, Ran (1985). He uses Hamlet to expose the effect corporate corruption has on the soul, in the beautiful noir-style The Bad Sleep Well (1960).
Angoor, itself a remake of Bhranti Bilas, is Gulzar’s charming Bollywood take on The Comedy of Errors featuring a stunning Sanjeev Kumar in a double role.
And if you’re wondering about Shakespeare’s language: 1921’s silent (!) film features Asta Nielsen as a charming Hamlet, in which Hamlet is, yes, a woman.
That just goes to show, we don’t need to treat Shakespeare as Holy Writ in order to enjoy glorious adaptations of his work. Sometimes the less faithful adaptations are some of the most compelling.