Which Movie Versions Best Adhere To The Text?

When my daughter was having trouble with the opening scene of Romeo and Juliet, I fired up the 1968 Zeffirelli movie version so she could follow along … and promptly discovered that, at least for the beginning, they’re not on book at all.  It’s entirely new language.  Maybe it gets better later? I forget.

So I swapped out for the 1996 Romeo+Juliet version which, although it cuts out the collier/choler/collar stuff, seems to say true to the text for the rest of the scene.  Then somebody told me that this version only retains about 40% of the original. I don’t know if that’s true, or if I even understand it — does that mean they flat out cut 60% of the play?  Or that they wrote new dialog? Because I haven’t really paid close attention to either of those possibilities, I’m usually too distracted by the direction and over acting.

I have the 1930something Norma Shearer / Lesley Howard version on DVD, but I haven’t watched it. I’m guessing that it’s probably pretty close, since back then they seemed more interested in sticking to the original intent, setting, costume and language than we do today. But I’d also suspect it’s edited way down, it doesn’t seem long enough to be even close.

So that’s my question.  Let’s say that a student wants to sit down with text in lap and watch a movie version, much like Amazon would have us do with our books by letting the audio version read it to us while we follow along on paper.

Which play, and which movie, would give the best results?  Obviously, Branagh’s full text Hamlet is the gold standard, and not eligible as an answer to this question.  I’m wondering about all the others.

One thought on “Which Movie Versions Best Adhere To The Text?

  1. Interesting question! The answer is . . . none of them. Or, rather, very few. Almost all Shakespeare films will make substantial cuts to the text. My impression is that most films cut about 30 to 40%. Some cut less–many cut much more. I think the Zeffirelli Hamlet cuts about 60%. The Peter Hall Midsummer Night's Dream is, I think, nearly complete.

    It's great for students to have films to watch while reading the text (and the text to follow when watching the film), but it's almost never going to be straightforward. Directors will rearrange and cut scenes, conflate two characters into one, and streamline lengthy speeches. When successful, they draw our attention toward particular elements of the play that they want to emphasize, and their films create a coherent work of art, redolent of organic unity. When they fail, we just have shorter failed films to watch, so that's all to the good!

    Thanks for the good question!

    kj (Bardfilm)

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