Shakespeare is the Stephen King of Playwrights: Why you should stop worrying about adaptations, remakes, reboots, sequels, and so on.

Oooooooooooohhhhhhh snap! What could I possibly mean with that statement? Simple, as with Stephen King, the adaptations of Shakespeare’s work are better than the source material.

I use Stephen King as analogy because, gosh, it’s like a law of the universe or something. Some examples: Kubrick’s The Shining, Reiner’s Misery and Stand by Me (based on the novella “The Body”), Darabont’s Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, de Palma’s Carrie, and more. And a quick read of the source material reveals how much the writers and directors behind these films improved on the originals. Kubrick left out the overt supernatural elements of The Shining to create a film of ambiguous paranoia, murder, and madness. For Shawshank, Darabont put us in Red’s shoes—oblivious to Andy’s plans to escape, fearing for Andy’s life—and crafted a more satisfying, moving conclusion. Reiner took “The Body” and fleshed out the characters of the boys, making them both more likable and more realistic. Even the miniseries It, which was by no means good, improved on the original by giving us Tim Curry and not being 10,000 pages long. Unfortunately, one of the few exceptions to the rule seems to be Stephen King adapting Steven King, as his attempts—Maximum Overdrive and the miniseries version of The Shining—were uninspiring to say the least.

But Shakespeare? Not as good as the adaptations? That’s blasphemy, right? No, it’s not blasphemy. And yes, adaptations that surpass the original Shakespeare are far fewer, but given the choice between watching a Shakespeare play and any of the examples I’m going to list, I would choose the latter almost any day. Though to believe me, you’ll need a little background in classical music and cinema; or, at the least, a willingness to explore the examples I will now share. (Note: this is not a comprehensive list, just some appetizers to whet your appetite and prove my point.)

Let’s start with Romeo and Juliet, the most-adapted of Shakespeare’s plays. One of the most famous adaptations is Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, which offers a radically different retelling. Those familiar with the musical/opera/whatever-you-want-to-call-it will likely agree that it is a more moving, humorous, relevant, profound, and tragic telling of the famous story—yes, more tragic, because there is nothing quite as tragic as death not shared. Or, moving further from your normal adaptation, there is Sergei Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet which is just, ah it’s wonderful. The music needs no defense, stunning as it is. But ballets are silly, right? Watch the clip: those are two lovers reveling in their youth, their bodies, each other; thrilling to the other’s touch but scared of taking it further; all amplified by the pairing with Prokofiev’s sumptuous score. There is more love and lust in the lines of their music, their forms, and their movement than there is in any of Shakespeare’s lines; and thus more realism as well. Or, if you’re one for brevity, P.I. Tchaikovsky’s Romeo & Juliet Fantasy Overture captures the general outline and emotional sweep of Romeo and Juliet in a mere twenty minutes (and gave the world the iconic love theme.)

How do the comedies fare upon adaptation? Rather well. Benjamin Britten’s opera A Midsummer Night’s Dream one-ups the original with not only its brilliant musical characterization and unparalleled evocation of the dreamscape, but thanks to its thematic complexity, namely its problematization of love. Britten, using the juxtaposition of musical styles, subverts and complicates the very flawed notions of love that Shakespeare offers in the original (which is what he offers in his other plays.) Oh, and it’s just as funny as the original, if not more so (a bad play-within-a-play is funny, a bad opera-within-an-opera is hilarious.) Or, once more for brevity, Felix Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (you only need listen to the overture, but I included the rest if you want to stick around for the iconic wedding march.) As for the great tragedies, Macbeth was one-upped by Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (apologies for only linking to a trailer, YouTube is bereft of scenes.) The witch…thing, is no joke in this version. And the ending’s a cinematographic triumph. Not to mention Kurosawa’s Ran and The Bad Sleep Well which also surpass their predecessors, King Lear and Hamlet respectively (okay, maybe only Ran surpasses). As for Hamlet, The Lion King, lol. And I haven’t even mentioned the two most Shakespeare-obsessed composers yet, Berlioz and Verdi, who have loads of adaptations to their names. Even The Tempest, which is Shakespeare’s dullest play (where’s the dramatic tension dear Bard), receives a lovely treatment from The Tempest.

So how are these improvements possible? The simple truth is that Shakespeare is not perfect, because no art is perfect—man being incapable of perfection. Shakespeare’s plays are products of their age, and while they still have power today, that power has lessened. Many of the jokes fail to make us laugh, the specific knowledge and sense of humor needed to enjoy them lost to time; but the melodrama, that may draw a chuckle. And we, as audiences, are less sympathetic to the themes and concerns of his plays. The historical plays were actually Shakespeare’s most successful plays when first performed. Now? Not even close, because we fail to connect to them. There’s plenty more misogyny (Taming of the Shrew anyone) and racism (Merchant of Venice) than modern tastes can swallow. The plays have scenes that beg the question of their existence (e.g. the porter scene from Macbeth), and in general the plays run rather interminable (Hamlet.) The language, the crowning achievement of Shakespeare, is sadly inconsistent—not every scene is a “Tomorrow and tomorrow.” And that language also obscures the emotions of the scene, as actors must weigh how to convey the emotions of the character despite the unrealistically lengthy, florid, even stilted lines—it’s hard to convey maddening grief through twenty lines of pretty and precise prose. And, of course, we as an audience aren’t used to such language anymore, and so the language proves a barrier to many. It’s not even the same language we speak today; it has different words and syntax, different definitions and subtext, and isn’t all pronounced the same. It’s like watching a play in a foreign language with poorly translated subtitles (provided by our brain.) So yes, magnificent works of art, but by no means perfect.

So why aren’t there more examples of Shakespeare adapted for the better? Because it’s not allowed. The public, and artists, look on Shakespeare as a god. You don’t alter the works of a god! That’s blasphemy, sacrilege! The famous bel canto opera composer Vincenzo Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi never gained as much favor as the lesser Romeo et Juliette by Charles Gounod because critics and audiences looked unfavorably on the “liberties” taken with the original Shakespeare, except that Bellini was working from the original Italian play on which Romeo and Juliet is based. Because, of course, a huge swath of Shakespeare’s plays are themselves adaptations of other plays and stories and historical events. Shakespeare himself was an adaptationist.

Nothing is perfect. No art should be off-limits, declared hallowed and untouchable. The artist creates his art, but the art is public domain, evolving in the public consciousness like a magnificent and beautiful organism. The art exists to move and inspire us all, and leaves itself open to new interpretations and creations.

So, the moral of this argument, stop worrying so much about adaptations, remakes, reboots, reimaginings, sequels, prequels, and so on; it’s a time honored tradition. The musical world has been doing it since time immemorial. Borrowing themes and music from other works (yes, musicians “sampled” even in the Renaissance), taking themes and reimagining them through sets of variations (for some utterly mind-blowing musical invention), re-orchestrating pieces from earlier eras (or, in popular music, cover songs), completing unfinished works by other composers, taking inspiration from other works (e.g. so many composers have their own Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.) It’s pretty much accepted by the public in all art-forms except film, because film is a business and we see CASH-GRAB behind every such film. But even if the intent is the cash-grab, if placed in the properly-inspired hands, you could have something more magnificent than before. Or, at the very least, something new. For in something new, we can find yet more inspiration.

21st Century Emotional Palette, Part IV: Family, Order, Class, Phylum, Boredom

Faced with Boredom’s aping of the gray inevitable
—ashes to ashes—
the mind, anticipatory, grows yet grayer;
—dust to dust—
but not the dust that dances on sunbeams,
nor the dust that feeds unfurling flowers,
but the dust that mounts on boxed mementos
with a stifling grayness that chokes
the young and old, curious and nostalgic, alike.

Boredom, that repressive despot,
rules his torporific realm with,
as entrenched politicians do,
the heavy hand of inaction.

Roads pot-holed and undrivable,
homes unpowered and decaying,
we waste away consumed with the
raucous ferment of empty thoughts,
more inane than cable tv,
that dog us as we toss and turn
the sleepless nights and days away.

All across the barren landscape
no pleasure is to be found, nor
release from vacuous shackles
which chain us, like toil-for-naught serfs,
to the seconds that tick away,
an ice-pick at the castle walls
of our crumbling sanity.

Boredom, that artless puppeteer,
grows fat the while, insatiable,
on the plentiful harvest of
our unhappy tediums.

Boredom eats away at sanity, dissolving the mind
like a pot of chamomile does a lonesome sugar cube.
the soporific diluting sweetness to nothingness
‘till life is but a bitter brew, a tepid tea, that tastes
of desiccated herbs trapped in Pompeian cellars,
of dust that fills the unswept corners of warehouses,
of yellowing novels musty with oblivion,
of basement archives stocked with technical manuals,
of incense-scarred altars lost in strip-mall antique shops,
of asphalt concrete slowly setting in vacant lots,
of near-suicidal doses of crushed sleeping pills,
of the day the vast, ancient, beautiful universe
crumbles
into the void
like a cheap clod
of dry dirt.

Boredom (state)
Bore-neo (country)
Bore-on (element)
Bore-gon (monster)
Bore-ccoli (vegetable)
Bore-tulism poisoning (infection)
Bore-minicide (the murder of the Divine Reality)

If exposed to excessive amounts of boredom,
insanity, like a malignant melanoma,
grows darkly under the sickly skin.

Oh Mighty and Cruel God, Boredom!
Your earthly ministers,
the long and idle hours,
lull us to sick stupor
with slow Sunday sermons
of your Hellish judgment!

We tire.
Lord how we tire.

Please.
Hear our prayer.
Hear our plea.

(chanted gospel-dirge)

Oh Boredom, architect of mental police states
Oh Boredom, deterrent of our dormant delights
Have mercy on our souls!

Oh Boredom, diagnostician of new-found ills
Oh Boredom, bearer of “6 months to live”-type dread
Have mercy on our souls!

Oh Boredom, professor of the moral vacuum
Oh Boredom, preacher of hurt feelings as pastimes
Have mercy on our souls!

Oh Boredom, father of our yet unborn children
Oh Boredom, digger of their accidental graves.
Have mercy on our souls!

Boredom is a one-trick pony—
crippling with a single toss.

I wander the house
directionless, bored.
I run through options
of things I could do,
but soon discover
wandering around aimlessly is my peak ambition.

Things seem quieter,
emptier, sadder.
I stare at the space
between the white walls—
not beyond, but at—
because it seems, comparatively, like the thing to do.

Sometimes I’ll sit down
and sink into sloth.
A half hour later
I’ll wander anew,
as if things have changed,
but, of course, the floor plan of my trusty wandering hole
and the cosmically empty space between the white walls

never

ever

changes

21st Century Emotional Palette, Part III: We Hold Our Loved Ones Close, but Our Loneliness Closer

You’ll find me in the dumpster
out behind the hospital
where the children with deformed
hearts are born—or are aborted.

A brutal wind tore the evergreen from the ground.
Creatures, huddled in holes, were deaf to the storm’s sounds.

The evergreen was dead long before the winter,
an orange-brown blight buried amidst the dark green.

Its long roots still clutch the clod of dirt it lived in;
Leaving a hollow fit for rodent colonies.

Chickadees, in other trees, ready themselves for winter,
singing as they huddle together ‘gainst the wind.

Thrilling passersby
with a sweet and clear
chick-a-dee dee dee
chick-a-dee dee dee

I am a brownéd blade of prairie
orphaned in this cracked and loveless lot:
displaced, desiccated, and dying.

‘Round about my asphalt ossuary,
the wind-caressed plains all dance communal,
welcoming, regretless, winter’s first storm.

Too stunted to bow with the high-sweeping winds,
I watch, inert, as the plains seethe and swirl,
aching with deathbed dreams of intimacy.

When the dark snows fall heavy, I will die,
but nothing, not even the starving rats,
will e’er break my undying aloneness.

When winter rolls around,
mice take up residence,
behind my basement walls.

Save one, who daily claws
inside my bedroom wall,
out towards false freedom.

scratch scratch scratch
scratch scratch scratch

Some body is needed to open a cemetery:
have a corpse, designate the burial ground, wait for more.

But it takes two graves to make a graveyard.
otherwise it’s a mere body buried.

Which raises the terrifying question:
how many unfinished graveyards are there?

Lonely bodies isolated from all in their pine box,
not even allowed the least company of the worms.

21st Century Emotional Palette, Part I: Symphony in A for Apathy

I: Adagietto
Apathy is a psychological disease.

Symptoms:
the absence of any desire to do anything,
condition will exacerbate if left untreated,
fatal indifference may develop.

Treatment:
being active and remaining active,
in opposition to all symptoms.

Conclusion:
maybe tomorrow.

II: Adagio
Apathy is a black hole
in my chest.
My body and being collapsing
in upon itself.
All actions outward movements I cannot make, as
inward-pulled as I am,
gravity-drawn.

Stars of ambition, initiative, and drive burn brightly above me—
beautiful, life-creating orbs gleaming in the heavenly firmament.

I feel ashamed.
And am depressed.

I’m afraid.
I’m afraid that it is growing stronger,
denser, more
inescapable, feeding on every
indecision and
inaction
in my life.

III: Larghetto
Inertia: the property of a body by which it maintains its present state, be it a state of motion or rest, unless acted upon by outside forces.

Entropy: the property of an isolated system by which it tends towards disorder and a homogenous distribution of energy that makes all work impossible.

Physics: explaining the presence of apathy since the late 18th, early 19th century.

IV: Largo
Apathy, lethargy, languor, and sloth,
Indolence, lassitude, laziness, dross!
Stuporous ennui’s, torpid maladies,
Apathy, lethargy, languor, and sloth.
Strange that for such an impeding disease
Words for it roll of the tongue with such ease.

V: Lento
My apathy is so monumental
That I am mesmerized
By the momentum
Of mountains.

VI: Grave
Apathy is a beast,
a predator,
lurking in the high grass.

It preys on the sick and the weak,
consuming their muscles
degeneratively.

It rests under shady trees
in plain sight of its prey,
yawning to reveal its toothless maw.

There is no boom and bust cycle for apathy.
Apathy feeds.
And apathy spreads.

VII: Larghissimo
I am as apathetic
as a starfish.

My only hope
that when my limbs rot off,
like a starfish,
I can grow them back.

I have sunk
to abyssal depths.

VIII: Larghississimo
It has been so long
since I last moved
from this seat.

I have become
a corpse.
I have rotted
away.

People spray me
with Febreze
as they pass.

I am a disgrace
to life.
I am a stain
on a sofa.

They’ll sell this
sofa
soon.

IX: Infiniment lent
I am stranded in the Sea of Apathy
And make no effort to tread the water.

I am sinking in the Sea of Apathy
And make no effort to break the surface.

I am drowning in the Sea of Apathy
And make no effort to hold my breath.

My lungs are full of apathy
And I am dead inside.

X: Eternelle

XI: Andante
Went for a walk today.
Feel productive.

21st Century Emotional Palette, Part II: Anxiety in a Pre-apocalyptic Present

Like a dust-encrusted gunman
The future haunts the desolate road ahead.

The sky is black with birds flying south.
Left behind, shivering, I dream of tropics.

We long for a zombie pandemic.
Only in such a future are plans concrete.

Only thing I’ve managed to prep for?
My punk attire: ass-less chaps and shoulder pads.

My brain has named such concerns taboo,
But my adrenal glands love to break the rules.

Stomach snarling like a starved possum;
Hollow eyes ringed, raccoon-like, by sleeplessness.

I feel like an old load-bearing wall
Infested with skittering, gnawing termites.

Do we even need adrenaline?
I’ll still be easy prey when the wolves make chase.

Swift suicide’s an escape plan,
But I’m a survivor, unfortunately.

The past gleams like a forgotten sun,
Dim and golden in the halls of memory.

When a child, the future was smaller,
Reaching only as far as the next sunrise.

The landscape is already barren.
People ask what I see, I tell them, “nothing.”

I would so watch that! “The Prisoner”

When I have trouble falling asleep, I pitch movie ideas to myself. It’s a lot of fun, though they sure as s*** doesn’t help me fall asleep. Neither are they shining beacons of originality; they’re merely delights–sweet and empty calories. But enough exposition, last night I pitched The Prisoner, a fun little sci-fi horror flick.

The movie opens with a science expedition exploring alien ruins on a lush and far-distant planet, ruins abandoned for millennia. Continue reading