Yesterday was William Shakespeare’s birthday. More importantly (this year), it was his 400th deathday. I feel like we ought to commemorate those more often. I guess it’s considered more cheerful and positive to do birthdays… yeah, fair enough.
IMDb reckons there have been over one thousand films and TV shows based on Shakespeare’s works, including two upcoming adaptations of Pericles, for some reason. Now, unsurprisingly, not all of these are good. In fact, most of them are really, really not good… and I’ve already reviewed most of the good ones… so… how best to commemorate Shakespeare’s 400th death (could you imagine?) on this typically film-centric blog? Look. Let’s talk about death.
Now, like or love him, one thing we can all agree on is that Shakespeare could write a good death when he put his mind to it. Somehow, most movies just kind of miss the mark in the death department. With of course the one majestically wonderful exception of Vincent Price’s timeless classic Much Ado About Murder, which is just a hundred minutes of elaborately staged Shakespearean death scenes, most movies fail to pack in the narrative and emotional punches required to make these scenes great. So for today’s article, after this long, rambling 200+ word introduction, I am going to focus on some of the successful and unsuccessful adaptations of the Bard’s greatest deaths.
Probably Shakespeare’s second-best tragedy (because Lear, obviously), Macbeth nonetheless remains one of his trickiest works to put on screen. I can’t say why exactly that is, but dozens have tried and only a tiny handful have succeeded. Macbeth’s demise serves as the play’s climax, as various prophecies come to fruition and terrible comeuppances are visited upon the wicked. Since the exact moment of death (a typically fatal decapitation) occurs off stage in the play—no doubt because it’d be too expensive to have to behead your Macbeth at the end of every performance—many filmmakers struggle to figure out a satisfying way to film it. The first two examples of successful adaptations to come to mind, on both of which I have written before, are Kurosawa’s 1957 classic Throne of Blood, and last year’s Macbeth starring Michael Fassbender, both of which end with spectacularly memorable death scenes, and neither of which separate Macbeth’s head from his body. Kurosawa managed to create what I’m pretty sure is my single favorite shot in the history of cinema by doing this, so obviously that worked out well for him.
But let’s say you feel strongly that Macbeth absolutely must lose his head. You’re adamant on that point. Don’t do what Roman Polanski did (actually, that’s a really good rule to live by in general). Take a look at Orson Welles’ 1948 adaptation, inventively titled Macbeth. It’s what you might choose to call a “faithful” staging. Welles even puts on a Scottish accent. In the end, sure enough, off with his head! What makes this sequence so darn good isn’t the moment of death, but the lead-up to it. Welles’ signature use of high and low angles, moving cameras, and all dem shadows greatly recalls (possibly on purpose) the climax of James Whale’s 1931 magnum opus Frankenstein. The attacking army acts more like a torch-and-pitchfork-wielding mob, chasing down a monstrously costumed Macbeth. After minutes of animalistic combat and chase, Macduff finally corners his quarry in a cave and wraps things up nicely with one fatal blow. The reason this succeeds, and why Throne of Blood and the Fassbender version also work, is because they did something new with the death. They actually put some thought into it, which most Shakespeare adaptations don’t bother to do. Speaking of…
It’s a real shame that no one has yet done an adaptation of Richard III’s chronological predecessor, Henry VI Part 3, because that play has my two favorite death scenes in all of Shakespeare. The BBC is releasing its continuation of The Hollow Crown, soon, which will included Henry VI and Richard III, and needless to say, I shall scrutinize it mercilessly. Richard’s own death comes at the climax of his eponymous tragic history. It’s been adapted and staged often, and Richard’s been realized by some truly excellent actors, but I’ve never seen his death scene done properly.
There’s Ian McKellen, whose Richard plummets into a blazing inferno with a smile on his face while “Sitting on Top of the World” plays for some reason. There’s Al Pacino, who kind of just wanders around the battlefield until enough people shoot him. And then there’s Laurence Olivier. I dunno. Maybe it’s tacky to criticize Olivier on Shakespeare, but… of all the Richards I’ve seen, he definitely comes the closest. Take a look at that picture above. That’s his face when he realizes that he’s about to die, and few actors could pull that off. He decides to keep fighting before getting swarmed and stabbed to death. And then for some reason he has thirty seconds of really violent spasms, and then he holds his sword out in front of himself like a cross that he just can’t quite lift. It winds up very heavy-handed, but that’s the danger with Olivier. So close.
The poeticism of Richard’s death is in its abruptness and lack of ceremony. He doesn’t have any dying monologue, no clever last words, he just dies. Shakespeare does this on purpose to emphasize the fact that even though Richard’s achieved the crown, he’s baser than he’s ever been before, and doesn’t deserve a good death. It’s a tough tone to hit on film, which I suppose is why no one’s ever managed it. Who knows… maybe Benedict Cumberbatch will for The Hollow Crown… maybe…
Romeo and Juliet
Man, everyone’s always doing Romeo and Juliet. Constantly. King Lear? Nope. Julius Caesar? Nah. Troilus and Cressida? Certainly not. But we have to get two or three new versions of Romeo and Juliet every single fuck!ng year. Sorry. I am not, to employ an understatement, a huge fan of this play. However, like all* of Shakespeare’s plays, I do firmly believe that it could be done well under the right circumstances. The language is pretty enough to make up for the lack of character development and stupid plot. In theory. Having said that, I have never seen a direct adaptation of Romeo and Juliet that I liked. Luhrmann and Zeffirelli just didn’t make the cut. So, what’s the only staging that made it work and made me feel feelings?
Yeah, Shakespeare in Love. I should probably write an article about that movie… later. So, why does it work and why does it count? Nobody actually dies in this scene; the characters aren’t Romeo or Juliet; they’re actors playing the scene. What this sequence captures, through editing, direction, and some really spectacular performances from Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes, is what the play can mean, rather than what it does. We all respond differently to literature and movies based on our own personal experiences. I kinda hate Romeo and Juliet, but Shakespeare in Love shows why so many people love it: simply, it means different things to different people. Now, having said that, you can think long and hard about why I love Richard III and Macbeth so much and what that may or may not say about me.
Whether a usurping, murderous king meeting a sticky end or two lovers meeting sticky ends as a result of bad timing, poor planning, and stunningly low pain tolerance, Shakespeare’s deaths cover the full spectrum of the human experience, and the movies don’t always succeed in capturing this. Read Henry VI Part 3 and look for the deaths of Richard Plantagenet and Henry VI, read for Talbot’s death in Part 1, read Julius Caesar and examine Brutus’ death, or Antony’s in Antony and Cleopatra, any of the deaths in King Lear, Hamlet’s death, look for the abject pain in Othello’s suicide. Teachers tell you to write from experience, but it’s difficult to believe that Shakespeare wrote all of these before he died. I mean… not from a certain point of view, I guess, realistically, but you get the idea. The man died one time, four hundred years ago, of a fever he caught while out for a birthday binge. I guarantee you that when he finally went, it did not have the poeticism of Richard III or Macbeth, but I reckon it meant as much Romeo and Juliet can.
*when I say “all” this obviously excludes The Comedy of Errors, The Winter’s Tale, Two Gentlemen of Verona, and Pericles. There’s no making those good.