Thursday, April 30, 2009

Shakespeare on Film

Shakespeare has always had a tenuous relationship with film. In 1948 when the producers of a new film version of Hamlet went to cast the leading role, they first approached John Gielgud. Gielgud, not trusting the medium, turned them down. The rest is history and we now all think of Laurence Olivier when we think of the melancholy prince.

But why is it that transferring Shakespeare to film is so hard? Well that's easy; Shakespeare is language based and film is image based. Film plays to our modern short attention span by showing us in a moment what Shakespeare takes 8-12 lines to describe. For example look at this quote from Hamlet where Gertrude is describing the stream where Ophelia drowned:

There is a willow grows aslant a brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream;
There with fantastic garlands did she come
Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do dead men's fingers call them:
There, on the pendent boughs her coronet weeds
Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke;

What real brook could ever fit that wondrous description. Yet film will usually flash to images of the even while Gertrud narrate the action. The film will give us a image that our mind recognizes immediately; so why does the dialogue continue to describe it. The description is way more beautiful that what we are actually seeing; so the mind become confused by the disparity. All of this combined distances the observer from the story.

Shakespeare plays heavily to the imagination. It plays on our ability to e swept up in the story that goes beyond feasibility to brave new worlds that we haven't discovered yet.

Happy Birthday: Paul Gross (b. 1959)

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