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.