Why do Shakespeare's plays make such popular films?

All the world's a screen

April 21, 2016
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Now read: How rich was Shakespeare? 

“You can’t really appreciate Shakespeare unless you know him in the original Klingon,” grumbles an alien warrior in
Star Trek: The Unknown Country. It’s a nice joke, and more than just a swipe at the Klingons’ notorious tendency towards Cultural Appropriation. Whether or not the screenwriters knew it, the gag has a long ancestry: it goes back at least as far as the story of the earnest German schoolteacher pleading with his pupils to read their national classics: Goethe, Schiller, Heine, Kleist… and Shakespeare. It took a couple of hundred years for other nations to notice that Britain had somehow given birth to a writer of astounding talents (Voltaire, for one, was very sniffy about the uncouth Warwickshire lad), but then the Romantics picked him up and Bardolatry rapidly became a global epidemic. When the Italian director Franco Zeffirelli was promoting his highly profitable film of Romeo and Juliet in the late sixties, he told his interviewers that the most important playwright in his nation’s history was the man who wrote about star-crossed young lovers. He was perfectly serious.

This success story, which should gladden the hearts of all patriotic Britons (as well as Klingons), is a good deal stranger than it first appears. If you ask English-speaking admirers of Shakespeare what makes him great, many will say it is his unparalleled mastery of our mongrel language—which is to say, precisely the sort of verbal sorcery that becomes mangled, muffled or simply wiped out in translation. And that brand of magic was lost entirely when his plays were first put on screen in the silent era, as they were by dozens and dozens of pioneering directors.

To date, there have been well over two hundred screen adaptations of Shakespeare and many more films loosely inspired by the plays: musicals such as West Side Story and Kiss Me Kate, science-fiction spectaculars such as Forbidden Planet (a version of The Tempest), not to mention westerns (Johnny Hamlet), high-school rom-coms (Ten Things I Hate About You, an agreeable update of Taming of the Shrew), bizarre film noirs: (Hamlet Goes Business, a Finnish production) and no end of Bollywood movies. Not all of these are masterpieces, or anything like, but the number of world-class directors who have tackled the plays is impressive: Orson Welles, with Macbeth and Othello and his brilliant Falstaff film Chimes at Midnight; Akira Kurosawa with Throne of Blood (aka Macbeth) and Ran (King Lear); the Soviet director Konsintsev, the Taviani brothers from Italy, the German expat in Hollywood Max Reinhardt (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), the Polish expat Roman Polanski, our own Peter Greenaway and Derek Jarman….

Cynics would point out that one obvious reason for the abundance of Shakespearean films is simple: it has usually been easier to raise the funds for a known subject than for an unknown one. Besides, a little touch of William in the night gives any production a touch of class. But there are more substantial reasons, too.

The biggest one can be summed up in a single word: not “story” but “storytelling.” Most schoolchildren know that Shakespeare hardly created a single plot—he ransacked historians like Plutarch and Holinshed, or the works of other playwrights and poets. His audiences would not have expected anything else. Instead, he mined his source materials everything he needed to make drama: for a quick insight into how he did it, compare the account of Antony’s death in Plutarch with the words and actions Shakespeare put on the stage.

So film directors, from Kurosawa to Baz Luhrmann, are not merely being cute when they say that Shakespeare is a great screenwriter, or that were he alive today he would be in Hollywood—so skilled is he at finding stories with mass appeal. He hunted through his sources like a pig for truffles; and then he saw to the kernel of what they meant, or could be made to mean. Nowadays it is considered corny or even wicked to speak of “universality” in art, especially when the artist in question is a Dead White European Male. Yet it’s hard to know what better term to use when speaking of a writer whose works have moved film-makers as distinct as Polanski (whose Macbeth, he explained, was shot through with his childhood memories of the Nazi occupation) to Kurosawa (who saw in the same play echoes of ancient wars in Japan).

In recent years, there have been versions of Shakespeare produced in Africa, India, China and other Asian countries. The professoriat will no doubt keep on frowning, but the thousands of people who make films and the millions who enjoy them suggest that Shakespeare is still the champion storyteller of our planet. Such a “universal” genius, in fact, that it is easy to see why the Klingons should want to claim him as their own.

Kevin Jackson is an English writer, film-maker, broadcaster and pataphysician and was a consultant on the documentary, "All the World’s A Screen: Shakespeare on Film." It will be broadcast on BBC 4 this Sunday on BBC4 at 9pm and afterwards available on iPlayer.