Saturday, January 03, 2004

Shakespeare Adaptations

When you are making a movie, there is almost nothing as important as getting the music right. Because they are such a familiar medium, it is very easy to forget that we have to learn the grammar of movies before we can properly appreciate them. People who have never seen a movie before find watching a modern Hollywood production like watching an opera or a ballet for the first time for those who do not regularly watch opera and ballet. (This sensation is more common for opera and ballet, because relatively few people do watch them regularly). If you have never watched a movie before, you can be impressed by the artistry and the technique, but it doesn't necessarily work as a whole. (Also, watch Bollywood movies for instance. The grammar is different. It takes a few movies to get the hang of. Or at least the Bollywood conventions stand out for a few movies before you get the hang of them. (And that is an industry that looks at and copies Hollywood a lot. Coming to movies cold is much harder).

And, in movies, a lot of this grammar is in the soundtrack as well as the visuals. An enormous amount is told to the audience in terms of audio and musical cues. And in terms of getting the emotional message across, the music is the central issue, I think.

Which is why these comments by Tex on the 2000 modernised adaptation of Hamlet are interesting to me. (I have mentioned this film briefly in a different context before, and at more length in this Samizdata comment).

Basically, though, the film didn't really work for me. The obvious comparison is with Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet, which for me did work. I think the criticisms of Romeo and Juliet are fair. The transposition to a modern setting is messy (although this is partly alleviated by the fact that the modern setting is a fantasy modern setting - it isn't a real place or time), and the acting is highly variable. (I think the acting is better in Hamlet although the interest is more in the supporting performances. In particular Bill Murray's Polonius is one of a series of excellent and really interesting performances in his recent career - Wes Anderson's Rushmore, which is incidentally far better than his subsequent The Royal Tenenbaums in terms of Murray's performance and the whole film - Hamlet and now Lost in Translation). However, Romeo and Juliet did work emotionally for me, and I think the chief reason for this is the music, which is in my mind one of the most brilliant popular music soundtracks I have ever heard. As far as the Almereyda Hamlet was concerned, the music was disjointed and uninteresting, and this is I think a huge reason why the film doesn't work nearly as well as the other.

As for Tex's comment that the modernised setting translates better for Hamlet than Romeo and Juliet, I agree to a degree. In fact, I agree until the fencing match at the end. This is in the play, and is untranslateable to a modern setting, so it is left as is in the film. So these modern corporate types agree to settle a corporate struggle through a fencing match with poisoned swords. It didn't work for me. Perhaps you could make a modernised Hamlet with a sporting setting. (Hamlet and Claudius fight for power in the international Olympic Committee. That's it). Or perhaps the fencing match would have worked with better music. I don't know, but I had a serious suspension of disbelief problem by the end of the movie. I never got this in Romeo and Juliet.

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