More than anything else in English literature, the works of William Shakespeare seem to offer limitless opportunities for reinvention and reinterpretation. For such canonical material, it is remarkable how freely Shakespeare is adapted and transformed on stage and screen. Compare this phenomenon to any other great work and the resistance that inevitably greets even modest tinkering with plot and character. "St. Peter" Jackson took substantial liberties in his film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings and met considerable resistance from Tolkien fans - though mercifully cooler heads prevailed and we did not have to endure the extremely bad idea of Aragorn engaged in combat with Sauron "in the flesh" before the Black Gate at the climax, and so a CG troll stood in for the Dark Lord in post production.
What is it about the Bard that lends him to such adaptation, more often than not in fresh and revealing ways and not mere parody? I'm not satisfied with the standard explanation that the "universality of his themes" makes these 400 year old plays relevant to modern ears and audiences. Anyone who recalls struggling through even the relatively straightforward "Julius Caesar" in High School will also recall that the interpretive footnotes take up more of the page than the actual text and are ultimately more a distraction than a means to engage with the plays themselves. It's all very well for cracking codes, and it keeps Associate Professors of English gainfully employed and off the streets, but if Shakespeare is really universal then we ought to be able to relate to a performance "full of sound and fury" and find significance.
Which, of course, is what playwrights and filmmakers have done with this material in countless and striking ways. There are, unquestionably, Shakespeare purists, but sometimes even these take daring steps, such as those who perform the plays with the original Early Modern English pronunciation, rather like performing Bach on period instruments.
Borrowing liberally from Shakespeare seems fitting for the works of an author who made free use of other material, and when artfully done the result can be a splendid reinvention like Kurosawa's Ran (1985) or West Side Story (rather than, say, William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet (1996), with its rumble on Verona Beach and uneven casting). Anachronisms often work in productions of Shakespeare, but tend to succeed best when not merely a communication devise aimed at getting teenagers to buy movie tickets. One thinks of Kenneth Branaugh's Henry V (1989) with it's gritty, slow-motion battle sequence deeply rooted in the time period of Agincourt, yet his narrator Derek Jacobi appears in a dark trench coat. This one modern element sets the film apart from other, less successful recreations of the events described by Shakespeare that emphasize realism. Polanski's Macbeth (1971), or the treatment given to Hamlet in Royal Deceit (1997), may well be true to history but they lose something in bringing the Thane of Cawdor and Prince of Denmark down to the level of mere petty lords mucking about in their squalid kingdoms.
Among my favorite and most divergent riffs on Shakespeare are films that manage to be cleverly irreverent and illuminating at the same time. One of these is Scotland, PA (2002) - in which my boarding school roommate David Wike has a minor role - and features Mac and Pat Macbeth scheming to rise above their bottom rung jobs at Duncan's Diner in the 1970s. The weird sisters are three hippies, Christopher Walken plays Officer MacDuff, and the soundtrack is all Bad Company. It makes no pretense of high art and actually works better than other more serious attempts at placing Shakespeare in other time periods (A Midsummer Night's Dream (1999) comes immediately to mind).
Ian McKellan's screenplay and brilliant depiction of Richard III (1995) is one of the very best examples of Shakespeare re-imagined in another time and place: a highly stylized and eerily familiar jazz age Europe under a fascist Duke of Gloucester. The opening soliloquy is delivered 15 minutes into the film in which Richard drives a tank through the wall of his enemy's headquarters and then addresses the assembled royals at a victory ball. There are wonderful nods to history, both of the 1930s and the War of the Roses, including the metamorphosis of the seated boar motif worn by the historic Richard's retainers into the swastika-like emblem of his black shirted legions.
Richard III is fertile subject matter for Al Pacino's wonderful film Looking for Richard (1996). It is as much a documentary about actors and acting as it is about Shakespeare's play and how audiences receive it. For that same reason, my favorite Kenneth Branaugh treatment of Shakespeare is not his flamboyantly flawed Hamlet (1996) but his inspired and often comic treatment of an church production of the play in In the Bleak Midwinter / A Midwinter's Tale (1995).
The key to Shakespeare's plays may simply be to remember that they are theater and theater is an interpretive medium. Nothing is static, not even texts, and the test of a great work may be that it continues to inspire re-engagement and recreation even if some of those inspirations fall short of the mark. I feel the same way about cover songs, especially those taken out of their original contexts (Dread Zeppelin; Hayseed Dixie, Richard Thompson's medieval reworking of Oops I Did It Again), but that's another story.