Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 3, No. 130. Tuesday, 9 June 1992.
Date: Tuesday, June 9, 1992
Subject: Adpating Shakespeare to Film and Television
One of the issues that has arisen during the recent discussions of
Branagh's *Henry V* concerns adapting Shakespeare to film and video. I
have argued in several places that film and television constitute two
different media for Shakespearean productions -- that realizing Shakespeare
for television alters the dynamics of television as a cinematic subgenre.
My interest involves Shakespearean productions conceived for film and
television: Branagh's *Henry V* was made for the cinema, while Jane
Howell's plays of first tetralogy were made for television. Watching
Branagh's *Henry V* on video is, then, another issue altogether.
What I argue is that in a highly visual medium like film, images can often
be in competition with Shakespeare's language. Those who direct
Shakespeare's plays for cinema *generally* accept that this competition
exists and substitute visual equivalents, paring down the verbal texts,
generally by a half. This does not mean that one cannot have a satisfying
experience with a filmed version of a Shakespeare play. Quite the
contrary, many Shakespeare films are true to the *spirit* of the plays from
which they were derived. In this regard, my favorite Shakespeare film
remains Welles' *Falstaff: Chimes at Midnight*, clearly more of a
"Shakespeare film" than "filmed Shakespeare."
Television inherently creates an intimacy between the viewer and the actors
-- the subtleties of individual performances are generally evident. Thus,
aesthetic choices that call further attention to them can become obtrusive.
Furthermore, because of the differences in image quality and the relation
of the audience to the screen, in television the spoken word carries more
weight than it does in the cinema. This difference is an especially
important one when considering a Shakespeare play in which language is
I have, therefore, made a distinction between visuals styles of productions
of Shakespeare on television that resemble cinematic strategies (montage
techniques) and visual styles that acknowledge the importance of the spoken
word, creating a televisual analog to the theatrical experience -- one in
which Shakespeare's language is not sacrificed to the images (depth-of-
field techniques). Jane Howell's work for the BBC TV Shakespeare falls
into this latter category.
Jane Howell, in these four productions, launches an all-out assault on the
assumption that televised Shakespeare must use "realistic" film techniques
and naturalistic production designs. She consistently favors strategies
subversive to representationalism.
The handling of soliloquies and asides manifests these differences among
televisual approaches. Although direct address to the audience is common
in theatre, direct address by looking right into the camera is seldom used
in narrative film since this strategy destroys the illusion of the
transparency of the film image. In Welles's *Chimes at Midnight*, for
example, characters never look straight into the camera during asides and
soliloquies. Welles even transforms Falstaff's catechism on honor into a
direct address to Hal to prevent the possible artificiality of having a
character looking into the camera. In television, especially televised
theatre that strives for presentationalism rather than representationalism,
destroying the illusion of transparency by techniques such as direct
address to the camera is not only appropriate but part of the very quality
of television that makes it so intimate -- its ability to establish a
direct partnership between the actor on the screen and the often solitary
spectator before the television set. What is significant is that a
television director can, as Jane Howell has demonstrated, successfully use
techniques that a film director would not even consider using to adapt
Shakespeare to television.
Hardy M. Cook
Bowie State University