April 23rd sees celebration to mark the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare. He is certainly England’s most famous and celebrated writer and there have been numerous adaptation of his plays. These range from one-reel minimal adaptations in the early years of cinema to substantial and lengthy features. Park Circus have with their usual promptness joined in the act with a list of films available for theatrical screenings. Helpfully they also list whether these are available in 2K or 4K digital versions. Note though, there have been cases in the past where a feature DCP is actually from a DVD or Blu-Ray uploaded into the format.
Writers on film adaptations have offered models for discussion. One set of categories has been offered by the writer by Geoffrey Wagner:
Transposition, ‘in which a novel is given directly on the screen with a minimum of apparent interference.’
Commentary, ‘where an original is taken and with purposively or inadvertently altered in some respect … when there has been a different intention on the part of the filmmaker, rather than infidelity or outright violence.’
Analogy, ‘which must represent a fairly considerable departure for the sake of making another work of art.’
Examples of all three variants can be found below.
All Night Long UK 1962, in black and white and 1.66:1 ratio.
Basil Dearden repositions ‘Othello’ in London’s jazz scene of the 1960s. Featuring Dave Brubeck, Charles Mingus and more. Available in 2K.
I really rate this film and the jazz performances are excellent.
Othello USA 1995, in colour and standard widescreen
Laurence Fishburne breaks new ground as the first African American actor to star in a major studio adaptation of ‘Othello’. Available in 2K.
Fishburne is very effective. The adaptation makes frequent cuts to the text but sticks to the play. The accents are variable.
Hamlet USA 1996, in colour and originally 70mm.
Kenneth Branagh’s unabridged epic now available on DCP.
Impressive though it also uses ‘star names’ for supporting cameos which is a little distracting.
Hamlet UK 1948, in black and white and Academy ratio.
Laurence Olivier performs drama’s most famous role.
Impressive and this is Olivier’s metier. John Huntley recalled that the voice of the ghost at the opening was ingeniously recorded with a microphone dropped into a cistern as the words were voiced through the studio piping.
Henry V / The Chronicle History of King Henry the Fift with His Battell Fought at Agincourt in France UK 944, in Technicolor and Academy ratio.
Olivier heads once more unto the breach.
Splendid and imaginative. Among its many fine qualities are the cinematography by Robert Krasker and Jack Hillyard and the music of William Walton.
Henry V UK 1989, in Technicolor and standard widescreen.
Kenneth Branagh’s directorial debut, restored in 2K.
A worthy alternative to the Olivier version. Also graced by fine cinematography by Kenneth MacMillan and music by Patrick Doyle.
Theatre of Blood UK 1973, in deluxe colour and 1.66:1 ratio.
Vincent Price’s Shakespearean actor adds murder to his repertoire, now on DCP.
Price is hammy but great and there is the added attraction of Diana Rigg. I rather think Shakespeare would have enjoyed this. The film offers gruesome variations of ‘Julius Caesar’, ‘King Lear’, ‘The Merchant of Venice’, ‘Othello’, ‘Richard III’ and Titus Andronicus.
Romeo and Juliet UK/Italy 1968, in Technicolor and 1.66:1 ratio. [There was a 70mm version and there are different lengths, the longest was 149 minutes].
4K restoration of Zeffirelli’s classic adaptation.
This works well, John McEnery as Mercutio is the most Shakespearean but it does capture youthful passion.
West Side Story USA 1961, in Technicolor and originally 70mm.
‘Romeo and Juliet’ gets a New York update.
This is one of the great transformations of a play. The choreography by Jerome Robbins is stunning as is the main music by Leonard Bernstein. The romantic couple are not really adequate but there is Russ Tamblyn, Rita Moreno and George Chakiris to compensate.
Richard III UK 1955, in Technicolor and 1.66:1 ratio.
Olivier’s crowning performance as the man who would be king.
Again Olivier provides a definitive interpretation. More music by William Walton and noir cinematography by Otto Heller.
Richard III UK 1995, in Technicolor and 2.35:1 widescreen
Ian McKellen is Shakespeare’s most notorious villain, 2K restoration.
McKellen provides a bravura re-interpretation as a fascist leader in the 1930s.
The Tragedy of Macbeth UK 1971, in Technicolor and 2.35:1 ratio
Polanski’s brutal interpretation, restored in 4K.
One of the most violent rendering of the play: and typical of Roman Polanski, even down to the music by the Third Ear Band.
King Lear UK 1971, in black and white and 1.66:1 ratio.
Peter Brook’s uncompromising take on Lear’s descent into madness.
Impressive Danish landscapes and Paul Schofield in the lead.
My Own Private Idaho USA 1991, in colour and standard widescreen.
Gus Van Sant’s street hustlers travel through the history plays.
Combining the two parts of ‘Henry IV’ and ‘Henry V’ with freedom and with settings in the contemporary USA and Italy. River Phoenix is excellent and one can imagine Shakespeare loving the suggestions made by the film.
Most of the above films could also be screened from 35mm prints if enlightened distributors and exhibitors so wished. And there are other fine variants of the Bard’s work.
Akira Kurosawa made several adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays, available in subtitled versions.
Throne of Blood / Kumonosu-jô 1957, in black and white and in Academy ratio. The film has a bravura performance by Mifune Toshirô as ‘Macbeth’ and is filmed in the style of Noh Theatre. Possibly the most original treatment of a classic Shakespeare play.
The Bad Sleep Well / Warui yatsu hodo yoku nemuru 1960, in black and white and Tohoscope. [The Japanese version is longer, 151 as against 132 minutes]. The film can be read as a version of ‘Hamlet’ and develops its own inexorable sense of the tragic.
Ran 1985, in colour and standard widescreen. Based on ‘King Lear’ this is an epic film with lustrous visuals and an ironic treatment of the characters.
Orson Welles is another filmmaker who repeatedly revisited Shakespeare’s work. Note, that in most cases there are either different length versions or truncated versions.
Macbeth 1948, in black and white and Academy ratio. Welles does wonders with a small budget and some serious trimming of the play.
The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice 1952, black and white and in Academy ratio. This is noir or expressionist Shakespeare. Welles’ Othello is matched by Micheál MacLiammóir’s Iago. The production, involving five cinematographers, four editors, two designers and two composers, was itself a legendary odyssey.
Falstaff: Chimes at Midnight 1965, in black and white and 1.66:1 ratio. Taken from ‘Henry IV Parts 1 and 2’, ‘Henry V’ and the ‘Merry Wives of Windsor’. This is one of the great treatments of a Shakespearean character. Essential viewing for Shakespeare and the cinema.
Grigori Kozintsev is another great interpreter of the Bard, these are in Russian with subtitled versions..
Hamlet 1964, in black and white and Sovscope. This has a terrific lead in Innokentiy Smoktunovskiy and a major contribution to the script by Boris Pasternak.
King Lear / Korol Lir 1971, in black and white and Sovscope with subtitles. Magnificent with the settings providing the desolation which is at the centre of the play. Again with scripting by Boris Pasternak and a score by Dimitri Shostakovich.
Then there is the William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet USA 1996, in colour and 2.35:1. Many imaginative and contemporary touches, but also frequently camp. Luhrmann, unlike Shakespeare [except in ‘Titus Andronicus’] never knows when to stop.
Omkara India 2006 in colour and 2.35:1 and with subtitles. This is a Hindi language version of ‘Othello’. This is the Bard with real panache. The translation to the subcontinent is really intelligent.
The Merchant of Venice USA 2004, in De Luxe colour and 2.35:1. Al Pacino is splendid as the much debated Shylock. The performance captures the contradiction at the heart of the famous play.
Then if you want something a little lighter in tone.
The Taming of the Shrew USA 1967, in Technicolor and 2.35:1. [Also screened in 70mm]. Shakespeare comes off well, Richard Burton is excellent but Elizabeth Taylor walks off with the honours.
Kiss Me Kate USA 1953, in Ansco Color and both 3D and ‘flat screen’, [which does not help technically]. ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ again and Ann Miller is splendid, Cole Porter is tuneful and the film has the mantra for this whole post – ‘Brush up your Shakespeare!”. Be warned, there are probably another 400 film versions.
Room is this year’s favourite amongst mainstream critics with four Oscar nominations and many other accolades, including a BAFTA for Brie Larson as Best Actor. It is a major film for both the Canadian and Irish film industries and it is proving immensely popular with its audiences – already established in IMDB’s Top 250 film entries. Its emotional power eventually worked for me but, surprisingly, in a relatively conventional way. I think I was expecting something quite harrowing but it came across as something different.
The narrative opens with Joy and her son Jack living in a small room as Jack’s fifth birthday approaches. It soon becomes apparent that they are prisoners in the room and that Jack was born there and has no experience of ‘the world outside’. I was quite surprised that Jack ‘escapes’ from ‘Room’ (as he calls it) and the remainder of the narrative deals with what happens to Jack and Joy when they are ‘outside’. I’m still thinking through how the two parts of the narrative fit together. I wonder what might happen if one part was considerably longer and the other shorter? But perhaps the narrative needs a balance between the two? Since the original novelist Emma Donoghue wrote the film script it’s reasonable to assume that the balance is correct but perhaps it depends on the audience? As a childless person, I was less interested in the ‘Room’ sequences than in the family melodrama that followed the release of Joy and Jack – although I think I recognise the interesting questions that the incarceration throws up about Jack’s development cut off from experience of everyday life. One of my viewing companions said how much she enjoyed the viewpoint of the child and it is certainly true that Jack Tremblay the young boy who plays ‘Jack’ gives a remarkable performance. Brie Larson as Joy is also good in what is a difficult role but for me the film picked up with the appearance of Joan Allen as Joy’s mother.
Director Lenny Abrahamson moves into the big league with this film. I didn’t see his previous film Frank, but I do wonder if something has changed with Room. I think I prefer his Irish films What Richard Did (2012) and Garage (2007). In all three films I feel a sense of distanced observation, even though difficult emotional situations are being explored. But in Room the approach just doesn’t seem to work quite as well as in the earlier films – perhaps there was some kind of subconscious attempt to be truer to the script – or perhaps young Jack is just too sympathetic a character? Thinking about Room some days after the screening, I also note that we never find out anything about the man who captures Joy. In the book I understand he is referred to as ‘Old Nick’. I didn’t think about this during the screening but making him a ‘non-human’ character is actually quite disturbing.
I did find the dialogue difficult to follow at times. Perhaps I was disorientated by having to sit in the circle of the Hebden Bridge Picture House (because the stalls have not recovered as yet from the flooding over Christmas). I’m usually much closer to the screen. At one point I thought that Jack referred to being “here in America”? There is actually nothing in the film to confirm that it is actually Toronto that is the location of the action. Yet this did seem to me to be a ‘Canadian film’. It seemed calmer, less frenetic than how I might expect a Hollywood version of the story to work out. I liked this – just as I liked the film overall. But I remain doubtful as to whether it is one of the handful of films that deserve honours and rewards (but then I don’t really value Oscars and BAFTAs – they seem simply commercially-driven celebrity events these days).
Keith reported on Sunset Song after its inclusion in the Leeds Film Festival. Seeing it now on general release, I recognise several of the points he raises and it is certainly a ‘flawed’ film in several respects. However, as Keith suggests, as a Terence Davies fan I find much to admire. I haven’t read the novel(s) (A Scots Quair Trilogy) by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, but I’ve done my research and some interesting issues arise that are worth discussing. Sunset Song is the first and most widely praised (and presumably most widely read) of the three novels written in the early 1930s when Gibbon (real name James Leslie Mitchell) was in exile in Welwyn Garden City where he died just short of 34 years old in 1935. Although the film is relatively long at 135 minutes, Davies, as his own adapter, has cut several characters and attendant narrative lines from the central story – which will/has alienated some fans of the novel (a novel seen as central in the canon of Scots literature).
One of Keith’s main reservations was that the film does not deal sufficiently with the two central themes of the modernisation of the rural economy/agriculture in the 1900s and the socialist politics of some of the characters. Unfortunately, the screening I attended had sound problems for the first ten minutes and I couldn’t follow some of the dialogue. I think I missed some of the arguments around education. Chris, the central character played Agyness Deyn is a bright young woman, encouraged by her otherwise brutal father (Peter Mullan) to become a teacher. But I suspect Keith has a valid point about the politics in the novel that doesn’t get much of a mention in the film. Davies is not really interested in politics. However, I disagree about the importance of the land, especially to Chris. There is a distinct discourse about the land and what it means to her. I was also struck by some of the similarities between the narrative and Thomas Hardy’s novels such as Far From the Madding Crowd and Tess of the D’Urbevilles. Unlike Hardy’s fictional ‘Wessex’ a few decades earlier however, the similarly fictional Kinraddie Estate in The Mearns inland from Stonehaven does have access to the railway but the claims to mechanised farming seem less secure. I did though find one scene particularly symbolic when Chris’s father has a stroke while he is in the process of preparing a cart to receive a horse. It is almost as if he is the horse being felled.
The issue about Davies’s adaptation is that this isn’t a ‘filmic version of the book’, but instead it is another auterist work by the creator of Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and succeeding melodramas, usually focusing on central female characters (often as witnessed by the young Davies himself). Distant Voices includes some of the most stunning and disturbing scenes I’ve ever seen on a cinema screen and the same approach is taken here for many of the domestic scenes. The static camera views various tableaux head on. During a wake the assembled male mourners are gathered around a table and then we look through a doorway to see the women in a separate room, further back from the camera with shafts of light creating dark shadows around them. These are images like old Dutch paintings and from interviews we know that Vermeer is a favourite for Davies. But he also tells us about a Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864-1916) whose work on interiors was introduced to Davies and his cinematographer Michael McDonough by production designer Andy Harris. At this point I should say that one of the great achievements of the production is the way in which Davies and his production crew have managed to bring together three completely different production set-ups and meld them into a single coherent visual narrative. Keith suggested that: “It was shot on film but the transfer to a DCP is very good”. I need to correct and amplify that statement.
I think I’m correct in saying that in contemporary filmmaking, the original footage, whether it on film or digital, is first processed to create a ‘Digital Intermediate’ which is used for post-production. When this is complete, the print for projection is created, usually now via a digital master copy which is used to create a DCP, Blu-ray, DVD etc. In a sense, all films, even those that started on celluloid will be ‘digital’ at some point. For Sunset Song, the production went first to New Zealand for the summer harvest scenes which were shot by McDonough on 65mm film using an Arriflex 765 camera. 65mm gave McDonough the chance to film in very deep focus. There were just four days in New Zealand, followed by twenty days in a studio in Luxembourg for the interiors that were shot digitally on the Alexa XT Studio. Finally the production moved to Scotland to Gibbon/Mitchell’s chosen location for the fictional Kinraddie and completed the shoot after thirteen more days, combining 65mm film and digital for both exteriors and interiors. McDonough (a Scot trained in the US whose best-known film work is perhaps on Winter’s Bone) explains how he ‘matched’ the film and digital sequences in an interview for the ARRI Rental website. He also spoke about what Davies wanted in terms of visual style:
Terence has a very precise style. His frames are classically composed and he loves the camera to flow – to move elegantly and always with a clear justification. I knew going in that there would be no Steadicam or handheld shots; this would be classically lensed with tripod, dolly and crane. Our production designer, Andy Harris, had introduced the idea of taking the paintings of Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershøi as our main inspiration for the look of Sunset Song. The paintings are illuminated by a soft, directional, northern light; there was a coolness to them that suited our Scottish setting perfectly. The only variation from this was the summer harvest scenes, which were much warmer and more romantic in tone.
Sunset Song used the latest anamorphic lenses for a ‘Scope presentation and the care taken in the visual style means you should try to see this on the biggest screen possible. Unfortunately, I don’t think that the audience looking for a literary adaptation or for a straightforward romance or drama will recognise the artistry of the presentation. The film has received a number of negative reviews and it may be that it will attempt to find its audience on TV and video which will struggle to show it in all its glory. I’ve already indicated that I think the adaptation is flawed. For me the final part of the film that refers to what happens to Ewan (Kevin Guthrie) when he enlists in the Great War just doesn’t work. I’ve read what Davies says in interviews and his logic and arguments are sound but it didn’t make sense to me on a first viewing. It felt to me that the ending had been foreshortened and the events didn’t seem to go together – the timescale seemed wrong.
The other criticisms of the film seem unwarranted. Inevitably there are arguments about ‘authenticity’ of accents etc. There are some local actors, specifically Ian Pirie as Chae, but many of the Scots are from the West Coast (Mullan, Guthrie and Daniela Nardini as Mrs Guthrie). I’ve seen some comments from North East Scotland both pro and anti. But of course it’s the casting of Agyness Deyn which is most controversial. Ms Deyn is a Lancashire lass and she makes a brave stab at the local accent but to see how far off she sometimes gets (especially in her voiceover narration) just go to the 1971 BBC TV serial of the books on YouTube (mind you, I don’t know how authentic that is!). Does it matter? Not at all for me. I was very impressed with Agyness Deyn. I’d never seen her before and I thought she moved well, used her modelling training and conveyed her spirit through her sparkling eyes. Most of all she conveyed what I take Terence Davies to have wanted from his heroine – which is all that matters really. I enjoyed all the other performances as well – although I do understand why many audiences might be tired of yet another angry and violent man portrayed by Peter Mullan. I feel that I do have to mention the pairing of Agyness Deyn and Kevin Guthrie. I like Kevin Guthrie but he is shorter than his co-star (as was the case in Sunshine on Leith as well). I can’t work out if Davies thought that having Chris taller than Ewan said something in terms of the narrative or whether the height difference is irrelevant – but it is there and I increasingly find casting decisions interesting.
I’m not going to attempt to deal with the music and the singing in the film, even though they are a crucial element in any Terence Davies film. The choice of songs – and versions of the songs has been quite controversial, but information on the soundtrack is difficult to find. I need to see the film a few more times. But to go back to Keith’s review, he mentions the Glasgow Orpheus Choir (I’m assuming it’s them singing ‘All in the April Evening’ during a sequence in which the villagers ‘flock’ to the church). This is a good example of Davies creating an image that doesn’t refer to realism. People would not trample through the barley field as depicted in the film and it is very strange to have the scene in the church with the choir singing. Is it diegetic or non-diegetic? I kept wondering if the choir would emerge from the shadows at the back of the church. My knowledge of Scottish religious practice is limited and didn’t allow me to recognise what kind of church it was. But I don’t go to a Terence Davies film for authenticity, I go for art.
Sunset Song is absolutely worth seeing on a big screen and some of the points discussed above are illustrated in the trailer:
This film is in the Official Selection at the Leeds International Film Festival. From the opening sequences the meticulous mise en scène and the overbearing father figure we are in the familiar territory of director Terence Davies. Farmer Guthrie presides over a family of wife, older daughter and son and younger children in the early C20th. They live and work in Aberdeenshire near the North East Coast of Scotland. If you like Davies’ work then you will, along with my friend Jake, be absorbed and impressed by the film. I found it rather long and not that involving. This is partly down to Davies’ style: the film appears to aim at naturalism, but the self-conscious style militates against this.
It is, as always with Davies, beautifully done. The cast are excellent and to my (untrained) ear the Scottish accents were correct. Note though, the film uses locations in New Zealand as well as Scotland: surprising when the film was partly funded by Creative Scotland. The farm is set on the edge of rolling hills and the landscapes, buildings and surrounds appear authentic. This is equally true of the costumes and props, and indeed the animals on the farm. But there is an absence of muck. There are muddy fields, but elsewhere it all seems rather pristine. The daughter Chris at one point states that
“I hate dirt.”
And this seems true of the film. Chris appears to be wearing make-up all through the film, in 1900s rural Scotland. There is mud aplenty in a wartime sequence; here we get a slow overhead tracking shot of mud and barbed wire, possibly a fly cam.
The film presents all this in a slow manner. There are frequent slow pans, tilts and dissolves. Whilst the pace of a early 20th rural community would be slow I rather felt that there would have been a quicker rhythm to life. The most dramatic sequences involve violence and sex with a raw realism.
The period is just before and during World War I. This was a period of transition in Scottish rural communities, a major theme apparently in the source novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbons (1932) adapted by Davies.
“i.e. the coming of modernisation to traditional farming communities”.
However I felt that the film did not really dramatise these themes effectively. Obviously the film has made cuts to the novel, but not always to best effect. Just one example, the novel includes the following:
“The theme of the onset of modernisation and the end of old ways is explored using many symbols, for example, violent deaths of horses (supposed to represent old, traditional farming methods)”
I can ensure animals lovers that I did not spot any animal fatalities in the film.
Another theme in the novel, addressing the position of women, is there in the film. Indeed Agyness Deyn as Chris Guthrie is excellent, but the other women in the story are undeveloped, so it becomes a film about a heroine rather than a community. One of the major scenes of community in the film is a gathering to attend the Church Service and be harangued by the minister on the war effort. The critical tone of this is good but it also feels so conventional. Davies likes shots of golden cornfields. And the villagers gather through a cornfield whilst the Glasgow Orpheus Choir sing on the soundtrack: this was overly rich.
The novel has enjoyed a number of adaptations, both for the theatre and for television. I have not seen these but apparently they also made changes. It is not really fair to judge the film by its faithfulness to the novel. However, apart from the style, I found the film thematically unclear. In particular there is a strong strand of socialist thinking in Gibbons’ novels, but the film only had three lines of dialogue in which ‘socialist’ or ‘socialism’ appears, and no serious context for this: (rather like Suffragette 2015). The novel is part of a trilogy by Gibbons, so I suspect the absence of the later two from the treatment leads to the sense of irresolution at the close. I think if you like Davies’ films you will probably enjoy his treatment of this period story, it is a visual and aural feast. It is screening again on Thursday November 12th at the Hyde Park Picture house, but at 3.30 p.m. It is a long film 135 minutes. It was shot on film but the transfer to a DCP is very good.
Wikipedia has a page on the novelist and there is Paul Foot.