This week I was privileged to catch a screening of Ralph Fiennes’ directorial debut as part of the London Film Festival: a visceral modernization of Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus.” In something of an extension of my piece about the relationship between cinema and the theatre from last week, I’d like to broach the question of cinema’s fascination with history’s greatest playwright, and the reasons why the adaptation of his work across mediums has always been plagued by relative failure.
This difficulty in translating the theatrical onto the cinema screen is not inherent in the migration of a work from one art form to another. Literature offers a wealth of narrative material to inspire filmmakers, and although the common adage that the film is rarely as good as the book is quite correct, it doesn’t necessarily mean films adapted from novels have no intrinsic value: they are often perfectly solid and entertaining expressions of a story which must have been engaging enough to merit cinematic treatment in the first place. Indeed, in the cases of “The Godfather” and “The Shining” we have two examples of films which far surpass the artistry and impact of their source materials. The film genre of the musical has been one of the most popular cinematic outlets since the coming of sound, and whilst the electrifying experience of a live musical cannot quite be replicated on film, it is nonetheless impossible not to be impressed by the garish spectacle and precisely orchestrated choreography of the MGM Musicals, or the sheer energy of “West Side Story” and Gene Kelly’s body of work, or by the cult excitement and immersion of something like “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Even as recently as this year, Wim Wenders’ “Pina” was far more intriguing for the way it treated the fusion of cinematic and theatrical ideas of space, movement and spectatorship than for its irrelevant use of 3D.
The point is that pieces from numerous forms work as well when translated to film as in their original state, and often gain depth and provocativeness in the process of adaptation, yet this is not true of the many film versions of Shakespeare’s plays. I approached “Coriolanus” this week as a fan of Ralph Fiennes’ ability to perform and interpret Shakespeare, having seen him give a humanistic and suitably melancholic performance as Prospero in an otherwise boring and unremarkable recent production of “The Tempest” in London, and as such was eagerly awaiting how he would execute an underperformed but brilliant entry in the Shakespearean canon. “Coriolanus” is a play about many things; the individual versus the community; the lengths to which the state will go in the name of self-preservation; the psychoses of the gifted warrior/soldier; the oedipal nature of extreme masculinity; the inability to unequivocally express our thoughts through language; and the juxtaposition of nobility and savagery in the name of patriotism. Complex ideas which have often proved insurmountable to cohesion in previous productions of the work, yet it is for more directly cinematic reasons that Fiennes’ debut ultimately emerges as an admirable failure.
Firstly is the issue of removing Shakespearean drama from the historical period in which it is set. In many of Shakespeare’s plays, the historical period of the drama is not of fundamental importance and need not be treated with absolute faith: after all, much of Shakespeare’s work uses subtle allegory to address issues of Renaissance Britain transferring from one monarch to another, or simply employs exotic locales to allow for elaborate visual spectacle in his large open-air theatres. In the theatre this use of historical time periods for spectacle tends to be less of a distraction from the drama than in film, when the nature of the form is such that historical spaces needs must become grander and expansive. Think only of Olivier’s “Henry V” and you have an example of extreme visual splendour and lavish imagery completely overwhelming the nuances of the play: though that particular film being commissioned as a patriotic piece of wartime propaganda perhaps removed the subtlety early in the production’s history. Nevertheless, removing Shakespearean plays from their assigned time and place creates grave issues in cinema. The theatre is an abstract space, and suspension of disbelief is so inherent to the experience of play-watching the metaphorical stylistic devices can effectively transport a play into an alternate yet symbolically suggestive historical period or place. Film is a medium of realism, and so to hear characters talk about Rome when they are in fact clearly in Belgrade, as is the case in “Coriolanus,” suspension of disbelief is massively compromised. Furthermore, whilst removing a Shakespeare play from context is not fundamentally wrong, it must be done for appropriate reasons and not for the sake of being more original than having actors parade around in doublet and hose. This is what made Orson Welles such a gifted theatrical interpreter of Shakespeare: placing “Julius Caesar” in the context of Italy under Fascist Mussolini highlights the removal from one oppressive dictatorship to another. Yet Shakespeare’s Roman plays are dependent upon the commonly known political infrastructure of Ancient Rome that removing the play from this context is simply absurd. Claiming to do so in the name of emphasizing thematic universality is another falsehood: if the ideas are so universal they surely work well enough in context.
Yet in removing “Coriolanus” from Ancient Rome, Fiennes is able to do something rare and paradoxically effective in translating Shakespeare to the screen. In his film, warfare is modern and violent, and is filmed as such: the battle sequences are loud, scary and bloody, achieving the kind of frenetic intensity of pitched gunfights that truly wouldn’t seem out of place in the most serious of war films. What Fiennes therefore achieves is a Shakespeare film which feels appropriately cinematic, and avoids the staginess of most Shakespeare films, which feel too much filmed plays than actual films. Shakespeare hardly facilitates this particular aspect of translating his work due to the simple nature of most of his scenes being reasonably lengthy. This works in the theatre, where extended scenes build suspense and allow for an idea to develop and grow, yet we are not accustomed to watching this kind of staginess on film. Therefore, the scenes which are expendable in the theatre (fast fight sequences and moments of reportage) become highlights of film adaptations, and the most powerful scenes of a Shakespeare play in the theatre become long and laboured affairs on screen: in “Coriolanus’” case, the protagonist’s mother attempting to dissuade her son’s vengeful betrayal of his nation. Fiennes film begins promisingly by avoiding the stagey and uncinematic direction which is the principal killer of most Shakespeare films, especially those by Branagh and Olivier, yet he too ultimately surrenders to this apparently unavoidable malaise, which in theatre is so magnetic.
Finally, film requires for absolute naturalism in terms of actors’ performances, and again misplaced fidelity to Shakespeare’s verse in adaptation across mediums often means screen performances of Shakespeare appear bloated, hyperbolic, and alienating. Fiennes is excellent and rare in the way he rejects the grandiose theatricality the verse lends itself too, and which again is wonderful to watch in the theatre yet simply doesn’t work through the lens of a camera, and embraces the naturalism of typical screen acting by sacrilegiously, yet necessarily, sacrificing the rhythm and aural beauty of Shakespeare’s language. Fiennes’ Coriolanus is a snob and a psychopath, regarding himself as being above the common people whose affections he must court as a man of peacetime influence, and completely unable to suppress the rage and bloodlust of his wartime self. Emotions of pride and anger run through every second of the performance at the expense of having us understand every word of the text, yet importantly he transmits expertly the all-important emotions of his character as the drama unfolds in his life. Brian Cox and James Nesbitt are also effective in playing their roles not as the master orators of Shakespeare's play, but as crafty and self-serving politicians. Vanessa Redgrave fails to renounce theatricality in her performance, and is therefore the weakest element of the film. It is a lesson many great actors have failed to learn. Orson Welles’ “Chimes at Midnight” offers the best handling of the visuals of period Shakespeare alongside one of cinema’s great battle sequences, but his direction is often surprisingly stagey for the great cinematic innovator behind “Citizen Kane,” and Welles’ performance is the epitome of the pomposity and bombast of ineffective screen Shakespeare, failing to divorce itself from faithfulness to the verse.
As mentioned last week, the greatest adaptations of Shakespeare in cinema are Kurosawa’s “Throne of Blood” and “Ran,” which abandon the text and which culturally relocate the Bard’s narratives whilst preserving the dramatic and thematic depth of the original plays, therefore creating masterful pieces of film which are both adaptations of Shakespeare on screen and works of art in their own right. This is an achievement yet to be matched by a film using Shakespeare’s words, despite bold attempts such as Fiennes’ nonetheless worthwhile “Coriolanus.”