I seem to be in the distinct minority in being underwhelmed by Joss Whedon’s venture into adapting Shakespeare for the screen. And I’m trying to figure out why that might be.
It’s not that I’m some kind of Shakespeare purist. Far from it. One of my favorite adaptations of Shakespeare for the screen is “My Own Private Idaho,” which not only plays vastly faster and looser with the text and tone of Shakespeare’s play than Whedon’s quite faithful “Much Ado” does, but stars Keanu Reeves, who, notwithstanding his famous Canadian stage outing as Hamlet, is nobody’s idea of an accomplished classical actor (and anyway, that outing took place several years after he made Gus Van Sant’s film). I could foresee some potential problems with Whedon’s concept, but I also saw real promise in connecting Shakespeare’s play to the classic witty romantic comedies of the ’40s, which seemed to be what Whedon was aiming for, what with the black-and-white cinematography and everybody dressed in suits.
And it’s not that I’m anti-Whedon – not exactly. His thing is not really my thing, but I recognize that he’s very talented – more talented at what he does than I will ever be at what I do, undoubtedly. But more specifically, he’s talented at things that matter crucially to adapting and directing this particular play: capturing the snap and spark of witty repartee; managing ensembles rather than focusing on a single protagonist’s perspective; and keeping the narrative train on track through hairpin turns of tone. It seemed like a likely match, in other words; he wasn’t looking to adapt Macbeth.
So what went wrong for me?
Well, let’s start with the language. It’s very strange for me to say this, but for big stretches of the movie, I found it way too slow. I’m still surprised by that, because Whedon is so well-known for his rapid-fire dialogue. And there are moments where we get that kind of snap in this film – but far more moments where the pacing is more like a tennis lesson than like Wimbledon. This not only peculiar for Whedon, but also for screwball comedy, which I thought he was emulating. I can’t figure out why he did it – was he worried that audiences wouldn’t follow Shakespeare’s language at speed? That some of his actors wouldn’t be able to make sense of it? Or was it an artistic choice, to underline the serious emotional undercurrents by slowing the dialogue down? Regardless of the reason, I think it was a mistake.
Then: the way it’s shot. Now, don’t get me wrong: this film is gorgeous. It’s beautifully lit; interiors and exteriors alike are bathed in a kind of silvery sheen (and there’s little difference between interiors and exteriors, so much southern California sunshine pours in through the copious windows). And there’s unquestionable artistry to the framing of shots; it’s not all over his shoulder, over her shoulder, paint-by-numbers. But the framing didn’t feel like that of a screwball comedy, but more like a particularly stylish television drama. There’s a self-conscious artifice to screwball that favors somewhat formally framed shots – think not only of classics like “Bringing Up Baby” but later homages to the genre like “What’s Up Doc” or “The Hudsucker Proxy” or “Flirting With Disaster.” The pseudo-naturalistic framing that Whedon favors, which makes us feel like we’re another guest at the party, engaged in conversation with the various characters, works great for “thirtysomething” and its many descendants, but – as I experienced it – makes it hard to laugh as freely as we should at the more comic parts of the story.
I also felt like there was something off about the camera’s perspective in some of the moments in Shakespeare’s play that are downright sitcom – in particular, the two scenes where, respectively, Benedick and Beatrice are tricked into believing that the other is madly but secretly in love with, respectively, him and her, which prompts each to reciprocate. Whedon has chosen, in each of these scenes, to be “with” the eavesdropper primarily – with Benedick and with Beatrice. Amy Acker and Alex Denisov go through the usual sitcom behaviors – Acker falls down the stairs with laundry and bumps her head on a counter she’s hiding beneath; Denisov “hides” behind a bit of loose shrubbery like a one-man Birnam Wood. But because we are “with” Acker and Denisov in these moments, the jokes don’t quite land; we don’t participate effectively in the humor of the friends who are tricking them (and their reactions to these obvious antics are notably muted as well). I wound up not so much laughing as thinking: why are they behaving like characters in a sitcom? Who are they performing for? (And how does Benedick even hear what the Prince, Claudio and Senior Leonato are saying about him? They’re on the other side of glass.)
I started to wonder whether the very active and intimate camera was an attempt to connect with a key theme of the play. The title of the play is Much Ado About Nothing, and that last word has at least three meanings. It points to the general lightness of the subject matter – all of this ado really is about nothing much – while, of course, simultaneously point out just how much of an ado it is, just how far off the handle Claudio and the Prince fly based on very little evidence. Then, it’s a sexual innuendo – “nothing” was an Elizabethan euphemism for what we now refer to with mock-delicacy as “lady parts,” the teeth of which Benedick fears too much and the purity of which Claudio prizes too highly, or so the title would suggest. And it’s a pun on eavesdropping – “nothing” would have been pronounced similarly to “noting” back in Shakespeare’s day – which features prominently not only in the Beatrice-Benedick plot (who are both tricked into eavesdropping on their friends and, by that means, tricked into falling in love with each other) but in the Claudio-Hero plot (Claudio and the Prince are tricked by Don John into spying on a woman they think is Hero, and then the practitioners of the trick are caught by the eavesdropping members of the watch).
So perhaps Whedon’s intention was to make us feel like we were eavesdropping on the proceedings. But that wasn’t how the effect played out for me. Instead, the over-active camera points at what it wants us to see – it never lets us notice, never lets us forget that we are being shown what we see. There are rare exceptions – there’s a scene at the party where Beatrice fends off the wandering hands of an anonymous partygoer while she’s talking to somebody else, which was very fine work but notable for being an exception where we were allowed to see something interesting that was happening without being told to look.
And then, who are these people? As I say, I am no purist, not by a long shot. But the text says that these are a bunch of soldiers home from the wars; that Don John fought on the side of the enemy, and is, at the start, the Prince’s prisoner. That, plainly, is not the world we are in: fine. But what world are we in? What do these people do? What is their actual relation to one another? I would be fine with just about any translation – perhaps they are a bunch of wealthy actors hanging around the home of their director, Leonato, with the Prince as a big-shot producer? Or whatever – I just wanted some conceit, some anchor. (Or go the “Vanya on 42nd Street” route, and be overt about the fact that these people are acting – and then make us forget that fact through sheer brilliance of performance.)
Because, in the absence of a definable world in which the story unfolds, which can define the characters as real people, we’re left in a metaphorical high school of the mind, in which what this story is about is not love, and the inherent difficulty of accommodating oneself to life lived on intimate terms with another person (which is a deep theme), but who likes who and do they really like them or are they just pretending? Which is – I would argue – a severe decline from Shakespeare.
This brings me to the one problem that most people have had with the movie, which is really a difficulty (not the same as a problem) with the play: making Hero’s virginity (we’re back to the second meaning of the titular “nothing”) seem like a plausible basis for the near-tragedy that unfolds. Now, I tend to agree that the easiest way to handle this is to set your play in a world in which Claudio’s and the Prince’s reaction to what Don John shows them is at least minimally plausible. Last year’s production at Stratford, which set the play in 19th century Brazil, is a good example – indeed, the best example in my personal experience of the play of making the Claudio-Hero plot work. But I don’t believe directors should feel limited to that approach. So the question becomes: how can you make it work in a social context in which it can’t work if construed literally?
Well, think about who Claudio is. He’s a kid who is stupid enough to be convinced by Don John, early on in the play, that the Prince plans to take Hero for himself. And the knowledge that Don John either lied to him or was misled himself the first time doesn’t cause him to doubt him when he misleads him again. So he is profoundly insecure in his sexual position. The Prince would not value him so highly if he didn’t have other qualities (martial qualities, in the original text). But he must have become aware, from this early instance of Claudio’s jealousy if not before, that, sexually speaking, he’s dealing with a pretty fragile flower. And this would color the Prince’s reaction to learning that Hero wasn’t what she appeared – wasn’t a similarly shy and inexperienced girl, someone who would be well-matched with Claudio, but something altogether more . . . common. He would, naturally, feel protective of Claudio, and perhaps lose sight of how he was treating Hero. That’s a dynamic that can play out entirely plausibly a society that’s generally open to female sexuality – like our own.
Or like the world in which Whedon has set his movie. We have evidence from that movie itself that the women in this world do not particularly regard virginity as a great treasure to be protected; Beatrice and Benedick slept together some years before, we are shown, and any number of other guests pair off or attempt to do so at the party without anyone batting an eye. In the absence of honor, and the prize of female virginity, perforce, it seems to me, we fall back on the specific character of Claudio, and of the Prince’s affection for him, to motivate the near-tragedy.
Whedon has cast a plausible actor to play Claudio as a fragile flower: Fran Kranz, who also appeared in Whedon’s film, “The Cabin in the Woods” as the Shaggy character. But he doesn’t devote the time to creating the character that speaks his lines. And alluding to “The Graduate” by having Kranz stand in the pool in a snorkel and holding a martini doesn’t quite do it, because . . . who is he doing that performance for? Us? Himself? He is the one in the pool, which means, unless we are told otherwise, he is the one who decided to put that getup on. Why? The answer matters if we are to understand the allusion. The snorkel was a great visual idea, but I got the feeling Whedon didn’t have the time to embed it in the narrative.
Not knowing who Claudio is, nor the basis for the Prince’s affection, there’s no place for the talk about dishonor to land as a metaphor, which is what it must be since we can’t take it literally. The various actors play the lines, but the emotions they manifest are tropes floating on the wind, disconnected from any defined character – except for Beatrice and Benedick, who play their scene afterward very finely, but they aren’t playing anything related to the accusations themselves. They are playing their reaction to the betrayal the accusation represents, and, of course, their love for each other.
There were a lot of scenes that felt like they came close to being really excellent, but something was still off. The Dogberry bits, for example – Nathan Fillion did a great job of connecting that constable to familiar television tropes, and doing so in a way that harmonized with Shakespeare’s characterization while still going in a novel direction. His Dogberry isn’t just a bumbling idiot; he’s a tired veteran policeman who just wants to coast to his pension. It’s a great conceit – but something about the pacing of his first scene with the watch, and the way that scene is shot, kept it from coming alive. I felt like I was watching a rehearsal of a scene that will going to be great when the play finally opens.
Maybe the right way to look at this film is as a sketch, something to whet the appetite and, hopefully, lead to more fully realized work in the future. But I feel like it’s being received as something much more than that. I’ve heard people talking about how great it is just to hear the words of Shakespeare. Well, news flash: Shakespeare is alive and well and living all over the place – very likely at a theater near you. Check it out some time.
I feel like I’m being too negative. I don’t begrudge Whedon his film – indeed, I applaud the fact that this is the way he has chosen to spend his not-very-copious free time. And I have a funny feeling that all the things I’m saying didn’t work for me are instances where Whedon himself would say he’s doing exactly what I’m saying he should have done. So see it yourselves and make your own judgments. Maybe it’s just something I ate that morning.
Now, if I haven’t burnt those nascent bridges right down to the ground: can we talk about my film adaptation of Timon of Athens?