I’ve been thinking about adaptation lately, and not just because Bardfilm keeps dumping homework in my lap. This idea has been a recurring theme here on the blog all the way back to the Lion King / Hamlet debate.
(For the sake of terminology, when I speak of “adaptation” I refer to telling the story using modern language. Kenneth Branagh’s work, using original text in a modern setting, is what I’d call “interpretation”. 10 Things I Hate About You or She’s The Man or, yes, even Lion King are adaptations.)
When you take this approach, a new telling of Shakespeare’s stories, what you’re really doing is deconstructing the story and building it back up from its elements. Start with a king, have his brother kill him and take over his kingdom, and the son is left to avenge his father? Is that all you need to be Hamlet? What about Lear? If you start with a powerful landowner and his three assumed heirs, and add a misunderstanding and a falling out with the one good one, do you have a Lear story?
I don’t mind modern adaptation. When people talk about Shakespeare no longer being approachable or relevant the first thing they trot out is how it’s all about kings and ghosts and swordfights and we don’t have any of those things in any meaningful capacity, so you have to switch it out. Instead of a king we have the president of a company. Instead of Montagues and Capulets with swords we have Jets and Sharks with guns. Lear’s “heirs” don’t have to be his children, and Claudius doesn’t have to be Hamlet’s uncle. You can work at the edges of those relationships (you want approachable Shakespeare? How many young people out there right now do you think have to call mom’s new friend “uncle” and it drives them insane?)
So how far back can you take it? Is there a minimum where, if you don’t take at least that much, you no longer have the story? You’d think there must be. If King Hamlet isn’t out of the picture at the start of the play, it’s a different play. If Macbeth doesn’t make his move on his superior officer, it’s a different play.
Of course there’s no rules for this, so what I’m really talking about it something between being recognizable, and “getting a bump” as they say in political/media circles. Whether something is recognizable as having elements of X is entirely dependent on your audience’s familiarity with X. Only recently did somebody point out to me that Lion King has elements of Cymbeline. I don’t think that the recognition factor is something that writer/directors can control. They can hope, but they can’t control.
It’s the “bump” thing that’s more interesting, and it’s very similar to how people quote random things on the internet and stick “-Shakespeare” at the end. It makes people think twice, and think better. Oh you wrote a love story? Big deal, there’s lots of those. Oh you wrote a Romeo and Juliet story? I know that story, that’s a great story! I’ll check out your version.
Did Tommy Boy or Strange Brew ever market themselves as Shakespeare remakes? Maybe if they did, they’d have been more critically received. Or, worse, maybe they would have been crucified as terrible Shakespeare adaptations.
In the drive in to work this morning I thought of something. In Lion King, Simba doesn’t realize that his uncle Scar killed his father until the very end. This is entirely different from the world of Hamlet where his father *tells* him that, and he first has to prove it, and then has to do something about it. Yet another reason why I will continue to argue down the “Lion King Is Hamlet” theory to the day I die.