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Home :: Archive :: 2010 :: July ::
SBReview_6: Shakespeare and Film
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 21.0268  Saturday, 11 July 2010

From:         Hardy M. Cook <
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Date:         Saturday, July 10, 2010      
Subject:      SBReview_6: Shakespeare and Film

SBReview_6: 

Samuel Crowl.  _Shakespeare and Film: A Norton Guide_.  New York: W. W. 
Norton & Company, 2008.  ISBN-13: 978-0393927658; xxv + 238pp.  US$27.50

Reviewed by Caroline Gaddy, James Madison University, _The Shakespeare 
Standard_

_Shakespeare and Film: A Norton Guide_ reads, in many ways, like a love 
letter to the genre of Shakespeare on film. Crowl's enthusiasm and love for 
Shakespeare, film, and the marriage of the two is evident in every word he 
writes, resulting in an exceedingly likeable work. His passion is also 
wonderfully catching-one cannot help desiring to sit down with him over the 
proverbial cup of coffee and have a lively discussion about which film 
titles rank among the best examples in their fields. While not many could 
write a love letter as keen and erudite as Samuel Crowl does, he states in 
his introduction that he intends to produce "a comprehensive guide to 
Shakespeare and film focused specifically on the use of the Shakespeare film 
in the undergraduate classroom" (xi); in this regard, the book, to my 
tastes, sometimes comes up short. Though it is sometimes frustratingly 
redundant, one, nevertheless, still leaves it with a fresh appreciation of 
how filmmakers translate Shakespeare's text from the poetry on the page to 
the images on the 35mm film.

_Shakespeare and Film_ is divided into two parts: the first surveys the 
history of Shakespeare on film; the second provides a guide to critically 
approaching the genre. (The book also contains a filmography and glossary of 
film terms for undergraduates studying the genre.) Part I begins forcefully-
the Introduction and first Chapter are sharp and engaging.  The latter 
provides an overview of Shakespeare on film, with the early section on 
Shakespearean films being particularly illuminating and well written. Part I 
proceeds to investigate the major directors of the genre, Shakespeare on 
television, and Shakespeare on film in the 1990s. Unfortunately, here the 
redundant character of the book first appears: what has been discussed in 
one chapter is rehashed in another (and sometimes even in another), 
diminishing the effectiveness of the preceding sections. For instance, in 
Part I, a segment is devoted to Kenneth Branagh in the first chapter, and 
again in the following chapter, and yet again in the final chapter. At 
first, I assumed the reason for the repetition was instructional 
reinforcement, but examples are also duplicated-in Kenneth Branagh's case, 
Crowl repeatedly discusses the grittiness of his _Henry V_ and the 
commercial success of _Much Ado About Nothing_.  If Crowl's intent is to 
enhance the original point, he might do so more effectively by introducing 
different examples every time he returns to that point. Certain phrases also 
appear and reappear throughout the book, and their reappearance does not 
clearly enrich their presentation. For instance, Crowl writes several times 
that "the last decade of the twentieth century, from the fall of the Berlin 
Wall to the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, proved a rich 
revival for the Shakespeare film genre," (80) but never provides any further 
historical or cultural context for this statement, leaving the reader to 
wonder why he points to these specific events so often and whether they 
sparked some specific transformation with respect to Shakespeare on film.  

Part II of the book is stronger than the first.  Crowl is at his best when 
he makes specific connections between the visual medium of film and the 
verbal medium of Shakespeare and when he highlights how directors succeed in 
creating "a film grammar and rhetoric to express Shakespeare's rich language 
in visual images and patterns" (xii). As one who approaches Shakespeare on 
film as a student and scholar of Shakespeare rather than of film, I often 
find myself frustrated by what filmmakers leave out. In Chapter 7, which is 
particularly eloquent, Crowl tackles the issue of translating Shakespeare's 
text to a screenplay with an adroitness that left me reconsidering my 
opinions of virtually every Shakespeare film I've seen (most of those that 
are available). He skillfully sets up his argument, seamlessly flowing from 
the accepted presumption that "Shakespeare conceived of his plays as scripts 
for performance. Scripts, he knew from practice, might be trimmed, amended, 
or enlarged in the collaborative nature of theatrical rehearsal and 
performance," to concluding that "as intelligent consumers of film 
entertainment and as students of the genre, our job is not to lament what 
has been left out of a Shakespeare film but to understand what has been 
retained" (129). 

Considering his desire to make this book an undergraduate guide to 
Shakespeare on film, some of Crowl's choices about what to address or omit 
are curious and limiting. Despite highlighting the contributions of six 
major directors of Shakespeare on film (Olivier, Welles, Branagh, Kurosawa, 
Kozintsev, and Zefferelli) in Part I, Part II generally ignores the work of 
Kurosawa and Kozintsev.  Crowl turns instead towards staples of Branagh's 
_Henry V_ and _Hamlet_, and Welles' _Othello_ and _Chimes at Midnight_, 
demonstrating a particular affinity for Olivier's work. Luhrmann's _Romeo + 
Juliet_ and Almereyda's _Hamlet_ also appear frequently throughout the book. 
In his introduction, Crowl explains that he uses these selected examples 
purposefully because they are the works that are "most likely to be used in 
traditional survey courses devoted to Shakespeare," (xiii) but by limiting 
himself to repeatedly using the same examples, the hypothetical student to 
whom the book is directed receives less of a _comprehensive_ analysis of 
Shakespeare on film and more an overview of the greatest hits of Shakespeare 
on film.  Certainly, one cannot cover an entire genre in roughly 200 pages, 
but if Crowl had trimmed some of the repetitious examples, he would have had 
room for more thorough coverage of a wider range of films, resulting I 
believe in a more useful undergraduate reference work. 

Another curious choice and a source of potential confusion for students is 
that Crowl says that he will not address adaptations of Shakespearean plays 
in _Shakespeare and Film_, yet he repeatedly refers to Welles' _Chimes at 
Midnight_ and places both Welles and Kurosawa amongst the major directors of 
Shakespeare on film. While it would not be possible to write a Shakespeare 
on film book without including a discussion of the work of Kurosawa, Crowl 
does not identify Kurosawa's films as adaptations, missing a potentially 
interesting educational opportunity. An inquisitive student might be 
interested in learning about the differences between _Ran_ and _Scotland, 
PA_, as Shakespearean adaptations and why one might be more appropriate in 
the classroom than the other.

What Crowl sets out to do with _Shakespeare and Film_ is admirable, and as a 
fellow teacher, appreciated, but this book falls just short of being the 
comprehensive undergraduate guide it purports to be. Iterated discussions of 
films, directors, and cinematic examples reduce the breadth of material the 
book could cover, and Crowl rarely demonstrates his reasons for repeatedly 
examining the material he does consider. Crowl notes that in Part II he will 
teach students how to write an intelligent film analysis, but he never 
clearly does so. His writing is also inconsistent; at times, it is 
insightful and moving, while at others he provides little more than page-
long lists of songs in movie soundtracks. Though the book in its entirety 
may not be the best resource for the classroom, Crowl's history of 
Shakespeare on film and his acumen regarding the metamorphosis of 
Shakespeare's text into a director's vision as detailed in chapters I have 
already highlighted in this review serve as excellent resources for 
students. For English majors who frown upon the artistic license and script 
cutting that film directors take when interpreting Shakespeare, this book 
may be just what they need to see the field in a new light. This book may 
not be as useful in the classroom as Crowl intends, but it articulately and 
persuasively explains the reasons why we must judge Shakespeare on film 
separately from the plays, as more than adaptations, and as a genre in and 
of itself-in these respects, _Shakespeare and Film: A Norton Guide_ wholly 
succeeds. 

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