As the new film shows, updates of the bard's tales require both excess and respect for the text.
Ralph Fiennes's Coriolanus, now in theaters, drips with masculine aggression from the film's very first moments. A tattooed man runs his blade across a whetstone while watching a modern Rome fall to pieces on television. A rigid, pulsating march scores glimpses of Romans starving and rebelling as the area falls into a state of emergency. General Caius Martius scornfully interacts with the hungry rioters; because they do not serve in the military, he deems them unworthy. Everything is filtered through the mind of a man singularly focused on war.
Though the story comes from William Shakespeare, it is genre fare through and through. Little might be known of the bard's life, but it is understood that he wrote for money, striving to foster a business and lure audiences ranging from commoners to King James himself. Though language might make his work seem high-brow today, as Eugene Woodbury frames it, it was genre fiction "fossilized in the public mind" until it became literary fiction.
Shakespeare delighted in bawdy extremes, in suicidal star-crossed lovers, psychotic breaks, fairy pleasures, and the most horrific revenge. But human truths—notions of love, family, honor, envy, jealousy, vengeance—underlay his excesses. That's why his tales have not only stood the test of time, but also been repeatedly adapted for new eras. The modernization started in the 1920s with Birmingham Rep's modern staging of Cymbeline. By the '50s and the '60s, Joseph Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival and the Royal Shakespeare Company were running wild with new interpretations that continue on both the stage and screen—from minimalist productions to Taming of the Shrew in a multi-racial American Old West.
While never the most popular work among latter-day Shakespeare adapters, Coriolanus has rested as the sinister soldier in the background, bursting forth when needed. In Hitler's Germany, the play served as educational propaganda preaching military bravery and heroism in the face of questionable democracy. Post-war, it became the tool for Brecht to write about Marxism. By the late '80s, it helped presage the rise of leather-clad Tarantino tough men: Papp's festival saw Christopher Walken as Coriolanus strutting across the stage in a black t-shirt and long leather jacket. Today, Fiennes naturally frames the title character as the modern military hero who cannot deal with a government that pays mind to civilian protestors and commoners. As Manohla Dargis puts it, "the rule of the mob, the political hypocrisies, and the grinding of war's engine transcend any age."
But the magic of Coriolanus is that Fiennes understands Coriolanus as both a military hero and a problematic figure of masculinity. Coriolanus is a fractured icon—the result of a mother fiercely passionate about military honor—so focused on his duty that he has no tact, warmth, or ability to function outside of combat. His machismo makes him a machine, a Shakespearian Terminator going to battle with no concern for societal norms. Shakespeare's creation here smoothly fits in with the modern world and its many crises—about war, about men and women, about governments and people.
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As Fiennes's Coriolanus shows, the key to making modernizations of Shakespeare successful is finding the right balance between reverence for the original text and attention to its present-day implications. Ian McKellan's spin on the bard's iconic villain in Richard III, for example, thrived because it mixed reality and fiction to solve the problem of explaining English royalty's complicated lineage to a 1995 audience. By framing England as a fascist state in 1930s Europe, Richard's rise to power is contextualized within a recognizable era. Our knowledge of Hitler, Mussolini, and WWII become gateways into England's messy aristocratic past. The film is also evocative and more than slightly campy. McKellan's eyes gleam as he plays Richard and talks to the camera, allowing the bloody quest to be equal parts political history and tantalizing, deadly mischievousness. The actor recognizes the subtle moments of wit within the dense, historical text.
This unabashed quality, which Fiennes works into a testosterone-fueled lather and which spurs McKellan to pick out Shakespeare's pulp, is never stronger than in Julie Taymor's gore-riddled Titus. Tapping into a 16th century obsession with bloody revenge plays—not all that different from today's horror films—Shakespeare had crafted a story rife with sex, murder, and sick vengeance. The Tony-winning Taymor delights in the over-the-top theatrics of the text and runs wild with opulent imagery in a surreal setting that makes use of objects from different decades and centuries. This is apt because the timelessness of Titus Andronicus is more about how it takes advantage of the weaknesses and desires of its audience than about any character's quest. The allure of sex, secrets, and revenge drives the play; it's about an escalation that heads into ridiculousness, from Lavinia's torture to Titus's very Hannibal-Lecter-esque finale (it's certainly no mistake that Anthony Hopkins himself plays Titus).
Similar theatricality is present in Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet, where Baz savors the folly of youth in a way that might seem rather off-putting to many, but succeeds in its understanding of adolescence and pulpy Shakespearian melodrama. The characters' outsized actions seem quite natural when those characters are fervent, gun-toting gangster kids. Stretching the bard's boundaries can pay off, even when the plays are but a starting point for much different films. West Side Story became a powerhouse in its own regard, pairing gangs with finger-snapping music; 10 Things I Hate About You dared to make the bard trendy in high school.
But when the adapter's ego trumps the source material, modernizations of Shakespeare flounder painfully. Kenneth Branagh might have become a present-day cinematic icon of the bard's work, but perhaps in response to the dramatic heaviness of 1996's Hamlet, he became too focused on his own desire for Shakespearian mirth. Love Labour's Lost was a noble effort to adapt one of the lesser plays, but it missed the mark when it merged young, Hollywood talent unable to decipher and deliver Old English with Gershwin musical numbers and an iambic pentameter tap dance. The film was too self-indulgent to actually entertain. It ignored the humanity in the genre tale.
The same fate befell Geoffrey Wright's 2006 Macbeth adaptation. The Romper Stomper filmmaker was so dedicated to creating a gang-ridden Melbourne that Shakespeare became strangely secondary. Where Fiennes used machismo to link Coriolanus with a modern world, Wright used his source material as an excuse—an excuse for violence, witch orgies, and strange, velvet suit-clad opulence. Delighting more in the dressing around the words than the words themselves, Macbeth became a container for pointless, random imagery. As Slant reviewed, "the film is so interested in shallow titillation that it eventually seems as though its protagonist heeds the supernatural ladies' advice primarily because he's a stoned moron, and they're willing to have a foursome with him." In this case, Shakespeare spoke only to the filmmaker's sensibilities and not to any interest in larger truths.
There is a fine line between cleverly applying the bard's work to a modern setting and merely throwing bits of modernity at an old text to see what might fit. When the connection is right, Shakespeare's work can speak to present-day notions just as easily as it can to age-old aspects of mankind. It's genre writing that entertains while tapping into enduring truths.