An Introduction to Shakespeare Film Adaptations (and why they’re awesome)

Since a few participants of the 2016 Bardathon Challenge are interested in a list of recommendations for Shakespearean film adaptations, I’m putting together a blog post…or twenty. It seems my academic and fangirl personas have been conspiring behind my (sore and bad) back, and now I’ve no choice but to talk at little length and with great gusto about these film adaptations.


Before getting started, I want to put forth my definition of adaptation, which has been shaped by my academic work on Shakespearean films. Over three years ago, I had a rather limiting view of what an ‘adaptation’ constituted, and would always be comparing those adaptations to Shakespeare’s ‘originals’ in terms of what the new versions lacked. Now, I think of adaptations as entities in and of themselves, and not ‘copies’ or imitations’ of Shakespeare’s plays.

Linda Hutcheon in her A Theory of Adaptation (New York: Routledge, 2006, p. 8) provides a very useful way of understanding adaptations, which she describes as the following:

  • An acknowledged transposition of a recognisable other work or works
  • A creative and interpretive act of appropriation/salvaging
  • An extended intertextual engagement with the adapted work

When we apply this to cinematic adaptations, there’s a whole range of Shakespearean films that fit the agenda: we’re not limited to the ‘traditional’ adaptations that maintain Shakespeare’s language (which are often pared back anyway, with more than 50% of Shakespeare’s script cut from almost all screenplays), but find ourselves with a whole host of films that contain ‘updated’ settings and language. Of course, when approaching this challenge (or simply for your own enjoyment), please feel free to choose whichever adaptations you like, whether you’d prefer to watch something with or without Shakespeare’s language. And if you go for the latter but are afraid it won’t ‘count’ for the Bardathon Challenge, please rest assured: Shakespearean is Shakespearean is Shakespearean!

Another thing to keep in mind while watching cinematic Shakespeares is the vast difference between theatre and film, because the two mediums have different properties and capabilities. This means it’s not particularly useful to watch a Shakespeare film and think about how much is missing—because, well, it’s a film, and not theatre! Of the various quibbles ‘purists’ have about Shakespeare on screen, one of the most predominant is the ‘lack’ of language. (These purists also happen to overlook Shakespeare’s status as the most successful plagiarist of all time—like, ever.) These naysayers aren’t taking into consideration the different filmic medium, which is one of sight and sound.

For example, Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet (1967) might only keep about 35% of Shakespeare’s lines, but the ‘sun’ (which is mentioned fourteen times throughout the play) is visually shown in a variety of sequences (including the opening), and the lyrics of the film’s main song include ‘A rose will bloom/It then will fade’, which, in turn, recalls Friar Laurence’s ‘The roses in thy lips and cheeks shall fade’ (4.1.99)—and these are just two of maaaaaany examples.

Talk about cinemagic!

Finally, when something is adapted, regardless of the adaptation’s medium, there’s always an entirely different world surrounding the time/place/circumstances of production. Just as we are often told to think about Shakespeare’s Elizabethan/Jacobean/Renaissance/early modern context (I’ve actually written a post about those terms), so we should also consider the context of the adaptations. Sometimes, when a film is set in the past, there are two sets of contexts to consider: the time of production itself, and the (often) historicised setting. And of course, since Shakespeare’s themes and issues no longer have the same shape as today’s corresponding set, what becomes interesting is not how an adaptation ‘departs’ from Shakespearean values (because, you know, there are those 400 odd years to consider), but how an adaptation engages with values of its own time.

Here’s another example, this time of Henry V. Shakespeare’s play was written at around 1599 (Shakespeare’s textual history is a tricky one, about which I might post at another time), when Queen Elizabeth I was 65, had no heir, and wasn’t likely to pop one out, regardless of divine intervention. It had been over a decade after Elizabeth’s lauded defeat of the Spanish Armada, conflicts continued to escalate with Spain and Ireland, and the people of England (and probably also the nobles in Ireland) were getting pretty antsy about the future of their glorious kingdom. So what do you really, desperately want to do when faced with your nation’s political uncertainty, religion divisions, and economic instability? Go to see a play about an epic English king and his victories against his enemies, of course! Something about King Henry V (1387 – 1422) would be the perfect distraction—and Shakespeare certainly delivered.

Fast forward to 1943, when the United Kingdom was deep in the throes of World War II. Laurence Olivier wanted to make a film of Henry V, but needed some money—and the government had some to spare, at least for a morale-boosting, propaganda-esque adaptation. And so, we’re left with a very sanitised version of Olivier’s Henry V (1944), which contains a super kingly English king, the rather poncy and pathetic French, and sunny skies and just a single drop of blood throughout the (historically muddy) Battle of Agincourt.

The other two film adaptations of Henry V are similarly influenced by contemporary events and sentiments: Kenneth Branagh (1989) by post-WWII and Falkland cynicism, and Thea Sharrock (2012) (which is television and not cinema, but still counts as film) by the War on Terror and the subsequent proliferation of PTSD.

On that cheery note, it’s time to conclude this (alarmingly-long-for-a-wee-blog-post) introduction to Shakespeare film adaptations! If you do decide to watch a Shakespeare film adaptation, for the Bardathon Challenge or otherwise, please try to keep these three things in mind: the concept of adaptation, the cinemagic cinematic medium, and the shifting contexts and concerns. Hopefully, you’ll be able to enjoy the adaptations more as a result!

(I’ll start my film recommendations and lists with Anglophone adaptations of the comedies, which I’ll post either tomorrow or Wednesday—I already have the titles, so I’ve ‘just’ got to write a ‘bit’ of ‘commentary’.)

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