From stage to screen: Shakespearean cinema and the twentieth century

When, in 1929, Sam Taylor’s adaptation of the Taming of the Shrew first screened, audiences were aghast at the legend that read: “Written by William Shakespeare with Additional Dialogue by Sam Taylor” (Johnson 7). Since that time, the notion of Shakespeare’s oeuvre as a pure, untouched and untouchable canonical monolith has come under sustained and largely successful attack. An important catalyst for this has been the enormous influence of Shakespearean cinema on our understanding of the plays. By 1930, there had already been some fifty-four film versions of Shakespeare’s work and this fascination of filmmakers and audiences with Shakespeare has continued unabated (Lemaitre 27).

A discussion of cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare as opposed to stage adaptations immediately raises two fundamental issues. First, cinema is an artistic medium thoroughly distinct from theatre—while a full explication of this is untenable in this essay, it is an idea that will be returned to. For now, one might consider that even a filmed stage play conveys a qualitatively different experience to an audience because what one is allowed to see and hear has, by the very nature of cinema, been predetermined by people (cinematographer, director, editor, studio) and technology (camera, microphones, film stock) in a way that the theatre’s in-person immediacy and unrepeatable essence cannot match. Second, cinema is a product of the twentieth century and, as such, its legacy—the precedents which filmmakers learn from, respond to and react against—all draw on a relatively concentrated historical context in a manner not as pressingly felt by the theatre, which can trace itself back to Aeschylus. So, an analysis of Shakespeare on film reveals features of cinematic discourse and aesthetics—in that the adaptation of a stage play for the screen brings to our attention the differences between the two modes of expression—as well as providing a stronger understanding of how the historical, political and ideological context of the twentieth century has affected approaches to Shakespeare’s works.

With this in mind, let us now begin to engage in an analysis of specific Shakespearean film adaptations. The primary work to be examined is Akira Kurosawa’s reworking of King Lear from 1985, Ran . In order to place this film within a broader cinematic, cultural and historical scheme, I will also bring in Peter Brook’s adaptation of King Lear (1971) and Kurosawa’s earlier Throne of Blood (1957), which is based on Macbeth . Before looking further at these films, it is worthwhile to briefly consider the history of King Lear in performance.

The extreme violence and grotesque aesthetics of certain sections of Shakespeare’s King Lear turned away many pre-modern critics and dramatists. Indeed, in 1680, the play was rewritten by Nahum Tate and performed with the joyous matrimonial union of Edgar and Cordelia and the restitution of a form of righteous order—a structural ploy akin to comedy rather than tragedy. This version continued to be staged throughout the eighteenth century and was supported by the likes of Samuel Johnson, who could not stomach the oppressive tragedy of the final scenes as written by Shakespeare (Harbage 115).

In contrast to this, even though their films are polar opposites in some respects, both Kurosawa and Brook revel in emphasising a bleak pessimism in their versions of Lear . It is an understanding of the text that is informed by the events of the early twentieth century and the resulting chill of the Cold War. Kurosawa’s relation to this context is of particular interest. Japanese culture is deeply linked to the past both in terms of the public realm of political history and in terms of the private realm of familial ancestry. One of the effects of the Second World War, often overlooked by commentators in the largely unscathed United States, was the devastating loss of this history (Galbraith 13). On a human level, generations of Japanese citizens were killed and, on a material level, civil records and documents, centuries-old buildings, paintings and thousands of motion pictures were all lost to the devastating bombing of the mid-1940s. It is in the wake of such all-consuming destruction that most of Kurosawa’s films were conceived. Not dissimilarly, Brook’s artistic vision grew out of the post-Great War milieu that incited poetry like that of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land , plays like Samuel Beckett’s Endgame and philosophical thought like that of Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre’s concepts of seriality and alterity are markers of a society where personal alienation is rife. The idea that we as communities are all linked together on a superficial level of purpose but without any expressive connections, like people waiting together for a bus, is present in Kurosawa’s films as much as it is in Brook’s. Indeed, as will be expanded on later, the alienation and ennui attendant to the rapidly modernising socio-economic structures of Europe find even greater depth in the context of Japanese culture, where conformism and communal existence are such fundamental aspects of the society’s framework. Hence, from this understanding of the historical context in which these adaptations were formed, two main thematic thrusts emerge. First, the imminence of apocalypse, through the unprecedented destructiveness of twentieth century warfare and the semi-automated absurdity of nuclear brinkmanship. Second, the crisis of individual identity apparent in an increasingly anti-humanist paradigm of economics and philosophical thought.

In Ran in particular these two thematic elements are tightly interwoven and, when compared to Throne of Blood and other earlier works, reveal a shift in the broader philosophy that lies behind Kurosawa’s films. Kurosawa himself said of his filmmaking:

I look at life as an ordinary man. I simply put my feelings onto film. When I look at Japanese history—or the history of the world for that matter—what I see is how man repeats himself over and over again. (Richie 115)

This repetition of events is the necessary product of a society in which tradition and communality are combined with a conformity that promotes restrictive patterns of existence. In opposition to this, Kurosawa’s protagonists are generally solitary, autonomous individuals who live on the outskirts of society—the central samurai figure in Seven Samurai comes to mind—or they are heroes who break free of these patterns because of their integrity, outspokenness and rebellious nature—such as the central character of Ikiru who wakes up to himself as an autonomous individual with the news that he is dying. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth , Kurosawa saw this sense of conformity and destructive repetition in the ambition of the eponymous character. Thus, in Throne of Blood , General Washizu’s fault lies not in his ambition so much as his conventionality (Richie 115). He falls back on the predictable pattern of murder after traitorous murder to fulfil his desire and inevitably falls victim to the very same cycle of betrayal when his own men riddle him with arrows. The film’s beginning and end are enclosed by an ominous chorus that speaks of the “proud warrior, murdered by ambition, his spirit walking still” (Richie 117) which serves to frame the cautionary moral fable within the confines of the film. On the other hand, Ran tears this framing apart. The final image of the blind Tsurumaru edging towards a precipice is not the fate of his character in the film alone, it is the fate of a world on the brink of a nuclear holocaust. Not only is Ran a lamentation on the state of the world outside the film, it is also devoid of Kurosawa’s traditional heroes. The destructive patterns of behaviour, the fatalistic conformity that Kurosawa’s heroes rebelled against are reinforced and resigned to again and again during the film. For example, Jiro is consistently reminded by Kurogane that he must follow through with the path he has chosen even when it means the deaths of his siblings and father. He is responding not to his individual feelings or instincts—he appears at least mildly concerned by his father’s madness and his brother’s death—but to the precedents of the past, when his father was similarly murderous and ruthless. As Kurosawa said: “man repeats himself over and over again” and, by the time he made Ran , his belief in the strength of the rebellious individual seems to have given away to an acceptance of nature and karma’s pre-eminence. So, in Ran , individualism is lost and the pre-existing patterns of behaviour are left to dominate with the result that the world is a hellish environment of death and destruction on an apocalyptic scale.

Kurosawa’s cinematic style in Ran and Throne of Blood is infused with the influence of traditional Japanese Noh theatre. Kurosawa explains this influence:

Essentially I am very Japanese. I like Japanese ceramics, Japanese painting—but I like the Noh best of all. … I like it because it is the real heart, the core of all Japanese drama. Its degree of compression is extreme, and it is full of symbols, full of subtlety. … in the Noh, style and story are one. … [referring to Throne of Blood ] I wanted to use the way that Noh actors have of moving their bodies, the way they have of walking, and the general composition which the Noh stage provides. (Richie   117)

By shirking naturalism and favouring the stylisation of the Noh tradition, Kurosawa found a highly effective technique for bringing out the key thematic elements of his films. The very ritualised, regimented and confined nature of Noh performance is closely related to the restrictive patterns of general behaviour in Japanese society that Kurosawa’s heroes tend to rebel against. Hence, it is not surprising that, in Throne of Blood , the Noh elements are mostly associated with the characterisation of Asaji (Lady Macbeth) whose evil is, therefore, explained and emphasised by her acceptance of a dehumanising pattern of behaviour. Her affected delivery, careful shuffling motion, the sound of her garments rustling and her make-up are all typical of Noh theatre (Richie 118).

The use of Noh stylisation in Ran , however, takes on a more complex and multidimensional aspect. First, the association of evil with the ritualised behaviour of Noh actors is not as clearly delineated. Certainly the character of Lady Kaede is reminiscent of Asaji with respect to her appearance, movement and affected tranquillity, yet Kaede has flurries of violence and a capacity for independent thought that annul any chance for a direct parallel. Indeed, Kaede’s personal strength, integrity and outspokenness—traits that run counter to the typical model of subordinate females in patriarchal Japanese culture—almost construct her as one of Kurosawa’s heroes, which only reinforces the sense that Kurosawa had, by this time, become far more pessimistic with regard to humanity’s capacity for good. The other character in Ran whose portrayal is clearly linked to the Noh theatre is Hidetora himself. Again, a certain element of evil is present in his character at the beginning of the film but the Noh stylisation becomes more and more apparent as the film develops and, thus, the Noh make-up and behaviour are more related to his journey from folly and evil to madness and insight than they are related to his murderous past. Some critics have complained that this stylised characterisation keeps Hidetora at an emotional arms length that mutes his reality and, supposedly, his importance. This point of view seems to discount the capacity for stylised acting to engage an audience in the character’s struggle and is symptomatic of an artistically debilitating school of thought that extols naturalism above all else, while ignoring the fact that, when it comes to claims of naturalism, “one and all [are] mere examples of a new artificiality—the artificiality of naturalism” (Craig 290). Returning to the main point, the use of Noh influences in Throne of Blood and Ran with respect to characterisation bring to the fore the theme of individual identity within the restrictive structures of culturally perpetuated patterns of behaviour. While in Throne of Blood the implication is that, were the characters to break free of these patterns, they would also be breaking free of the cycle of murderous evil, in Ran the outlook is less simplistic in that even when a character does break out of their confined social role their acts remain violent—Kaede—or they are cut down at the moment of self-realisation—Hidetora.

The use of a Noh aesthetic in Kurosawa’s cinema is also apparent in technical aspects of his filmmaking. The most important example of which, with respect to the thematic development of his Shakespeare adaptations, is the style of cinematography employed. In Ran especially, the camera is often placed at a great distance from the actors and a deep focal length and telephoto lens are employed to flatten the depth of field. This decision to restrict the film to long shots, that suggest alienation, rather than use close-ups, that suggest empathy, is based on the Noh’s emphasis on the whole body of the actor (Richie 121). The consequent alienation is used to highlight the cause and effect relationships at the heart of the work because, rather than allowing the camera to indulge in the momentary detail of a facial contortion, the audience is shown everything at work in the scene. From this, one can deduce that Kurosawa’s films seek primarily to engage the audience in an intellectual rather than visceral manner. This has been the inference of several critics who see the battle scenes of Ran as mere formalistic pageantry that leaves the audience cold. The mise-en-scène of the battle scenes is certainly spectacular and Kurosawa often shoots the tempestuous movement of men with a focal point beyond the actors to further abstract the imagery. Likewise, the colour-coding of the respective armies depersonalises the warfare as well as creating a brightly hued canvas. Nevertheless, the criticism of this stylisation as “images without depth” (Yoshimoto 358) ignores the potency of this cinematic alienation as a parallel of the depersonalised warfare that typified the twentieth century. When compared to the romanticised violence of Seven Samurai , Kurosawa’s depiction of battles in Ran appears terrifyingly apocalyptic. The dark mud, sparks of musket fire and sinister smoke are all suggestive of the World Wars that consumed millions of lives with no thought of individual identity. The flat composition of Kurosawa’s frame might be alienating but then so is modern warfare.

The flat spatial quality of Kurosawa’s films are related to his fascination with the Noh but they also reveal certain features of cinema and its relationship to theatre. I have for the most part deliberately avoided comparisons between Shakespeare’s King Lear and Kurosawa’s adaptation of it because any such assessment would imply that there is somewhere a pure King Lear devoid of adaptation but it is still important to discuss the problems and issues inherent in adapting a piece of theatre to the cinema—this also serves to avoid the issue of a pure King Lear because we are instead discussing the more general issue of moving from stage to screen. Early conceptions of cinema were firmly rooted in the precedent of theatre. One sees this not only in the staging of films but also in their presentation—audiences sat in movie theatres that had the same proscenium construction as any playhouse. In some respects this is still the case, though the meta-cinema of the Nouvelle Vague and the advent of television and home cinema have undermined this presentational similarity. Still, it is easy to fall back on this parallel and judge Shakespeare on film in relation to Shakespeare on stage. Kurosawa’s films have a theatrical quality in that the telephoto cinematography and deep focus flatten the image in a way that allows the audience to choose the focus of their attention in a way not as easily achievable in a film where, for example, one character is in focus and the others are out of focus. Therefore, the authorial eye of the director remains somewhat less subjective and presents the action as though from a distance, negating any calls of meta-cinema. However, the key difference between a film and theatre is that what is spoken on stage can be shown on film. Hence, Lear’s soliloquy during the storm can be replaced by Hidetora appearing in the midst of a typhoon or Kurosawa can imply a cosmic magnitude for the events of Ran by presenting the action on mountainsides or by cutting away to the heavenly enormity of clouds. The landscape becomes not only a stage but an actor as well. This is felt even more acutely in Throne of Blood which uses brooding scenes of mist, castles and dark forests in a highly effective synergy with the plot machinations. The fact that Ran and Throne of Blood are adaptations of Shakespearean stage plays brings these non-theatrical features of cinema into clearer view.

To provide a stylistic counterpoint to the above discussion of Kurosawa’s films, let us now turn our attention to Brook’s adaptation of King Lear . I stated earlier that the two filmmakers created vastly differing interpretations yet their thematic content was similar. For Brook, the key to Shakespearean drama, or Elizabethan drama in general, was the freedom of blank verse (Reeves 38). In his staged Shakespeare adaptations he used a blank stage to propagate this freedom of expression because it afforded intertwined meanings related, on the one hand, to diegesis and, on the other, to the art of theatre (Reeves 38). For example, the act of Gloucester jumping from the cliff is made all the more compelling if the actor is jumping on a bare stage because one is aware not only of the ‘reality’ of the character’s situation but also of the ‘unreality’ of an actor performing and, from this, the idea of jumping from the cliff rather than the specific event itself is brought to the fore. Similarly, Brook wanted his film adaptation of Shakespeare to be based on the idea of a blank screen. The effect is to prioritise the spoken word rather than the visual image—the polar opposite of Kurosawa’s highly pictorial representation. So, instead of using full shots of actors, the focus is on close-ups that give so much attention to the actor over the background that the actors become delocalised. The ascetic set design and sparse motion allow the words themselves to tell us what we should ‘see’, just as they do in the theatre. While the focus in Brook’s adaptation is on the spoken rather than shown images, the alienating affect of his meta-cinematic touches—tight close-ups with 180 degree cuts, for example—has a comparable effect on the audience as does Kurosawa’s Noh stylisation. This common element of alienation in the stylistic aspects of Ran and Brook’s King Lear bespeaks the shared experience of twentieth century history and the common thematic elements that arise from this—identity and apocalypse. Brook’s vision of apocalypse has none of the formalised imagery of Ran but rather expresses this destructiveness through the spoken word and the oppressive nihilism of the production. With respect to identity, Brook opens the film with a silent tracking shot of blank, expressionless faces that might represent the people of the kingdom at stake. The audience is given no sense of what these people are thinking. It is an explicitly incomprehensible image that yields no sign of what is to come yet in its silence and blankness is as telling an omen as the “darker purpose” line which is cut from the opening scene. It is one of the few nonverbal images of the film and has a similar thematic impact as Kurosawa’s hordes of faceless soldiers—individual identity is impossible in a world of faceless industry and death.

Kurosawa’s Ran and Throne of Blood and Brook’s King Lear are cinematic adaptations of Shakespearean works that pull the texts in remarkably different stylistic directions yet it is their similarities and reflexivity that is most striking. On the one hand, Kurosawa’s films offer us an insight into how the history and social structures of Japan inform his interpretation of Shakespeare and how his fascination with the classical Noh theatre becomes entwined with his thoroughly contemporary allegory for a world on the brink of apocalypse. On the other hand, Brook brings with him a theatrical heritage of a different kind and turns the dialectic between the spoken (theatre) and the shown (cinema) on its head by producing a cinema of the spoken word. In both cases, the impact of twentieth century history—the devastation of the World Wars, the confusion of the industrialised human identity and the looming threat of nuclear holocaust—are related on both thematic and stylistic levels. King Lear is no longer a happy story, as it was for centuries. Instead, these filmmakers respond to its tragedy and its grotesque imagery as befitting the age. In doing so, they reveal truly contemporary approaches to Shakespeare’s work and find new ways to accommodate the theatricality of a play within the scope of cinematic language.


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