Definitively. Maybe?

Today, Ian said to me that Taymor’s The Tempest was far from the definitive film version of that play. Which made me think of a question.
What are the definitive versions?
Choose a Shakespeare play, and tell me what you feel is the definitive film version of that play. Availability of the film in question is not relevant – if ever in your life you get a chance to see Chimes At Midnight, you must see it. Please explain what your working definition of “definitive” is.
If we need some form of common ground to start the discussion, let me offer this – the definitive version is the one you would recommend to someone who has little/no experience with the play. This film will be their first exposure to it, therefore you want their experience to be as close to Shakespeare’s ideal vision as possible.
Feel free to debate that, too. 🙂 But no fair saying “go see it live”, this is specifically about the ability to share a film, and to know that you can see a film, recommend it to a friend, and then have the experience of that film in common with others. That’s near impossible with live theatre.

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12 thoughts on “Definitively. Maybe?

  1. The RSC's Hamlet with David Tennant and Patrick Stewart, for being an excellent adaptation of the play. It's missing a few items, obviously, but the pacing is perfect.

  2. I actually did not like Stewart's Claudius in that one, primarily for the infamous shrug in the final scene, which Stewart infuriatingly refuses to talk about. While I think I might have a handle on what he was going for, I just don't like it.

    I should probably get this one on DVD and watch it a few more times. Tennant gave off a real Jim Carrey vibe to me in parts, which was distracting from what I'm sure was exactly the "antic" portrayal he was going for.

  3. May I decline the use of the D-word first? I just don't think any single performance of anything (a play, a symphony, whatever) can be definitive. There's always room for another rendition to get things right that the first one didn't, it's the nature of works written to be performed.

    That said, if we're talking about simply "wholeheartedly recommended" versions, I can name a few.

    Kenneth Branagh's movies of Henry V and Hamlet, for starters. The former is wonderfully effective, the latter uncut (a rarity), even if I could pick nits with certain choices. I have developed even more reservations about parts of his Much Ado, but it's still a hugely entertaining show.

    I really like the Trevor Nunn Twelfth Night film. A lot. It gets all sorts of things right that always seem to go wrong in stage renditions. (Actually I really like the BBC TV one too; it has a fabulous cast.)

    As I've mentioned the BBC series, I think one of its very highest points is the Measure for Measure, a difficult but marvelous play that really comes across as they do it.

  4. I love the productions getting listed here (both Hamlets, Twelfth Night, etc.) though I have problems with Branagh's Henry V. In itself a great piece of film, it falls short of definitive as it focuses exclusively on Branagh's Henry. The other characters' lines are cut to ribbons, and only Derek Jacobi Chorus (who is essentially a hagiographer of Henry) retains enough speeches. A truly definite version of the play would have more focus on giving the supporting cast adequate development.

    I would like to put forth as definitive Trevor Nunn's Othello, starring Ian McKellan as Iago. It is a smart, moving piece, and the acting is exceptional all round. Some of the characters are presented in surprising ways, yet it always seemed true to the text. Immogen Stubbs' Desdemona, for example, was faithful to Othello, but also far more vivacious, youthful, and sexy than typical for the role. Ian McKellan Iago's presented as a gruff, somewhat avuncular soldier of low rank (you see him doing menial tasks around the camp), but revealed himself in soliloquy as an obsessive, paranoid, and frightening wreck of a man. The way he stands for a couple seconds, then suddenly screams "I HATE the Moor!" in his first soliloquy exemplifies the well-hidden rage of this interpretation of Iago. All-around, a fantastic production and the finest screen Othello I've seen.

  5. I was speaking off the cuff somewhat. I was able to enjoy Taymor's Tempest on its own terms (I enjoyed a number of the performances, and there are some interesting directorial choices) as but another film adaptation of the play, since I know that there are are other adaptations that I might view.

    I don't really believe there is an actual "definitive" adaptation in the platonic sense of ideal forms, but
    I do think there are some adaptations that are stronger than others.

  6. I think that it's valid to use the D-word in this limited case. There's been a finite set of films made for any given play, no? And I set up at least some sort of guideline for what our goal is – the movie, choosing from those versions, that you would recommend as being the most accurate depiction of what you feel "Shakespeare's ideal vision" might have been. Someone who has never seen the play can only ever have one first viewing, so you can't say "See both." One has to come first. Which one?

  7. I'm with Jon — I think the idea of "definitive" is antithetical to a play. Plays, by their nature, are never the same twice, and that's part of the ephemeral beauty. A movie is always the same, it doesn't change, and that has its advantages, sure — but that's what's great about a movie, not what's great about the play it's based on. Plus, I don't think a movie could ever be close to "Shakespeare's ideal vision" because movies remove a key element — the ability for give-and-take with the audience.

    I honestly can't think of a single movie version I would call essential. There are some I'd recommend if you had no other way to see the play… But even so, I still wouldn't recommend a movie. Their very nature is too removed from all of Shakespeare's essentials. A movie's just never quite going to get at what Shakespeare's play is. Just because you've got a limited set to choose from doesn't mean any of them is actually even close to ideal. So, for someone who wants a first experience with a play but can't get to a live performance, I wouldn't say see a movie — I'd say pick up the text and act it out with some friends.

  8. It is precisely that "always the same" aspect of film that makes it so interesting, Cass. People can say all they want that Brooks' Dream will never be equalled – but if you didn't see it, you never can. Or that Richard Burton deliberately played his Hamlet different every night, so even though there's a film version it leaves behind all the other times he wasn't filmed.

    But with film, and I completely appreciate that film is a different beast, with film we could all get together and discuss a single film, and know that we've all shared the same experience. I think there's value in being able to recommend to somebody and know beyond a shadow of a doubt what they're going to get out of it.

    Your "rather than see the film, go act it out" is an interesting idea. Unrealistic, of course, but interesting :). I think that as long as we recognize film for the different entity that it is, there's still plenty of value to it as an artform.

  9. "Acting it out" is not all that unrealistic, Duane. I still haven't seen a production of Winter's Tale, but I know it pretty well from doing a play-reading with friends.

    I concur with Ed that Radford's Merchant (with Al Pacino, Lynn Collins, and Jeremy Irons) is an excellent film and a nuanced production of the play. Is it the definitive Merchant? I think that play in the particular can't have a definitive version. I have reservations in recommending Radford's film, though.

    Parker's Othello is a respectable adaptation, but I restate my support for the Trevor Nunn version. The character all seem real there. I bought the story completely. The tragedy proved incredibly effective because I cared so much about these people. If you can track it down, see it. It is as close to definitive as a film can be.

    Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart's respective turns as Macbeth are my favorite film versions of that play. I won't go on about them since I discussed them at length in the "Ask a Director" comments section.

    PS: Would it help we called what we're looking for the "definitive cinematic version" of a play?

  10. What Cass said…:)

    The nature of the medium makes it virtually impossible, at the outset, to do justice to what the plays seminally are. Add the ability to take immense liberties, which the medium allows for and which film makers seem to feel obligated to do, and technically the word definitive isn't even approachable as a way of defining the works of Shakespeare.
    I know what you're going for, Duane. It's not a question that can't be asked. And obviously, it doesn't mean that some great film treatments haven't happened.
    But ultimately, they all fall woefully short, as Cass and Jon have intimated; not because they're inherently bad, but because of how they're forced to address the vehicle itself.
    Thus, there will be as many different answers (and they'll all be valid in some way) as there are examples from which to choose. Tennant's Hamlet, for instance, would be the last version I'd recommend to anyone seeing Hamlet for the first time, never mind entertain as being 'definitive'. Yet, there are those whose opinion I respect, who, obviously, would more than strongly disagree with me on that for various reasons.

    All of the versions cited here have their moments. None of them, in my opinion, are 'definitive'.

  11. echoing Jon's reluctance to use the D-word: Kozintsev's 'King Lear;' Taymor's 'Titus;' RSC/Tennant 'Hamlet;' Zeffirelli 'Shrew;' Branaugh's 'H5;' Olivier 'R3;' RSC/Barbican 'Winter's Tale;' Nunn '12th Night; Hoffman 'Midsummer's;' Parker 'Othello;' Zeffirelli 'R&J;' Mankiewicz 'Antony & Cleopatra;' Brothers Karamazov 'Comedy of Errors; Radford 'Merchant;' Branagh 'Much Ado,;

    I'm torn between Welles and Polanski for 'Macbeth.'

  12. I'm not saying the acting out can't happen, Alexi, and I do encourage it. I'm just saying that it's not realistic to come at it from that angle. I'm not the only 40-something guy with a busy life and no real attachment to any sort of theatre group or for that matter friends that have the same interest in this stuff that I do. If I wanted to act out King John I'd have to rustle up a group of strangers who want to do the same thing. Possible? Sure. Likely that I'll go to the effort, rather than renting a movie version? No.

    I concede the point on definitive play versions. See new post on cinematic versions.

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