Monday List: 5 Great Shakespeare Adaptations

I tend to think Shakespeare is best live and in a theatre – but with no shortage of screen adaptations, there are plenty of gems in there amidst the dullness of others. In honour of tonight’s broadcast of King Lear on BBC Two (9:30pm), enjoy this list of other fab adaptations of Shakespeare’s work.

  1. Shakespeare Re-Told: Much Ado About Nothing
    Re-telling Shakespeare in modern-day English, this series saw James McAvoy as a murderous Michelin-starred Macbeth, Shirley Henderson and Rufus Sewell as warring politicians in The Taming of the Shrew, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream set in a caravan park. But none of those was as good as the joyous rewrite of Shakespeare’s best romcom (no arguments please) by David NichollsSarah Parrish and Damien Lewis are Beatrice and Benedick as broadcasters, whose bickering is too much to take for their colleagues. It’s light-hearted and funny, just as this play should be.
  2. The Hollow Crown: Richard II
    All of The Hollow Crown is fantastic; faithful to the text, beautifully shot and acted. This, the first of them, is still my favourite, partly because I love Ben Whishaw and Rory Kinnear, who star as Richard and Bolingbroke respectively. You can find my review from way back in 2012, when this was first aired here.
  3. A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Russell T Davies)
    If you’re looking for a more irreverent take on a classic than The Hollow Crown will give you, Russell T Davies’ version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream should be right up your alley. However well you think you know this story of fairies and donkey heads and lovers, the last ten minutes will definitely surprise you. It’s also as star-studded as tonight’s King Lear, with Maxine Peake, Matt Lucas, John Hannah, Elaine Paige, and a handful of excellent young RSC/Globe actors as Puck and the lovers.
  4. Shakespeare Live! From the RSC
    Not strictly a full adaptation, but this deserves a place on this list for the many joyous excerpts from Shakespeare scenes, starring many British national treasures. The Rory Kinnear/Anne Marie Duff Macbeth scene is so gripping, it makes the recent National Theatre production feel like even more of a let-down. And who can forget the hilarious ‘To Be or Not To Be?’ sketch, starring none other than Prince Charles.
  5. Romeo + Juliet (Baz Luhrmann, 1996)
    The absolute classic. I was planning to just focus on TV adaptations, but I couldn’t leave this out. Flashy and over-the-top and melodramatic, this is a perfectly teenagery, stylistic version of Shakespeare’s fatal romance, filled with lustful longing. Also Leonardo DiCaprio deserves to be on every list in existence.

“What’s done, is done”

Macbeth, Act 3, Scene 2

William Shakespeare

‘One Day’ (David Nicholls) and ‘Atonement’ (Ian McEwan) have been two of the most famous book-to-screen adaptations in recent years, as well as some of the most controversial; whether Anne Hathaway’s English accent in the former was pitiful or perfect, and if the infamous library scene between Keira Knightley and James McAvoy was carnal or cold…

Having just read both these books before watching the films, I was actually pretty pleased with the two adaptations. Let’s start with One Day’. lifeUnfortunately, such is the fame of both of these novels that I’d already heard of the big plot twists at the end of each, which obviously kind of ruined the surprise, but oh well, never mind. Despite knowing the premise and ending of ‘One Day’, that didn’t change the fact that it was a great read; not particularly gripping, but both easy and interesting. The characters are really the most important part of the story: Emma Morley, the chippy, intelligent Yorkshire girl and Dexter Mayhew, the rich, partying playboy.

It’s pretty clear from the start these two are meant to be together, so the question isn’t what, it’s when? They have countless opportunities, but somehow each one goes awry, meaning that (for me, at least) it becomes pretty frustrating towards the end – just hurry up, already! lifeA key problem I had was with Dex; he simply didn’t deserve Em at all. It’s true that, the majority of the time, she brought out his best qualities, but all the same he was basically an annoying, selfish, egotistical bore. How Emma stuck him for that long, I don’t know. However, admittedly, he does redeem himself slightly at the end of the novel, but it takes him a while. Not that Emma isn’t irritating, what with her pride and over-zealous principle. Nevertheless, I feel that whereas these flaws make Emma more believable, her continuing love for Dexter seems unrealistic, considering his behaviour.

Actually, in this case, Jim Sturgiss, who plays Dexter, did make me like the character a little more (although only a little!), and I honestly don’t think Anne Hathaway did that bad a job of the accent, despite it being more RP than Northern most of the time. The film missed out quite of events, naturally, but it wasn’t really the worse for that, though I did feel the earlier years went by rather too quickly – but that maybe just because I enjoy those scenes more than the later ones.

The premise – that of looking at two people every year on the same day over twenty or so years – really reminded me of ‘Merrily We Roll Along’, a Stephen Sondheim musical I recently saw at the Harold Pinter Theatre, which starts mid-1970s and travels back through the years to the mid-1950s, looking at the same three friends, tracing their journey from disillusioned, depressed forty-somethings to dreaming, inspired twenty year olds. Both tales have kind of a glum outlook on life, although both end seemingly positively. As John O’Connell wrote of ‘One Day’ in The Times:

“In spite of its comic gloss, One Day is really about loneliness and the casual savagery of fate; the tragic gap between youthful aspiration and the compromises that we end up tolerating.”

This could apply just as well to ‘Merrily We Roll Along’; both show this ‘tragic gap’ – a growing disillusionment and confusion, a loss of clarity and belief, and bewilderment: “How did you get to be here?”

A message which is pretty dismal if you’re only eighteen and have your whole life ahead of you – I’m now fully aware that, basically, it goes downhill from here 😉

And regret seems to be the theme of the day, since I would say it’s also a key, if not the key, feature of Atonementlife Briony Tallis, the protagonist (or one of them at least!) spends her life regretting her thirteen-year-old self’s actions and the irrevocable consequences that they cause. However, the book also examines the issue of reliability; Part Three reveals the true narrator behind the story and how they have manipulated events for dramatic effect. Just like ‘The Turn of the Screw’ (Henry James), this means the truth of the whole story is questionable. Personally, I think the film presented this far better than the book did. The final part of the novel is overly drawn-out, whereas the film is concise and to-the-point, although I did miss seeing some of the characters after aging.

The casting is perfection in the adaptation, with Knightley, McAvoy and Saoirse Ronan (who plays the thirteen year old Briony) putting in stellar performances. But the best bit of all is the beach scene at Dunkirk. life I mean, the part of the book focusing on the WWI retreat was brilliantly evocative, but the film part was incredible – an almost continuous tracking shot demonstrating the wastefulness of war, an exploration of all the different groups of weary, worn down soldiers; those desperately singing hymns reminiscent of home, those drinking their sorrows away, those regressing to a childlike state on the carousel… I almost cried, as the beautiful soundtrack swirled and combined with the poignant hymn of the soldiers. Definitely my absolute favourite bit of either the book or the film.

Overall, both books and both their on-screen adaptations were good, I think, but ‘Atonement’ definitely wins this battle on both counts. It’s a novel with a lot more depth and much more believable characters; even though Briony is extraordinarily slow at some points. I guess you can forgive her more because of her youth and her efforts to compensate for her faults later on in life, whereas Dexter hardly ever seems to learn from his mistakes.

Thoughts?