Adapting the Bard

Creative Screenwriting, Spring 1998
by Ilene Raymond

Kenneth Branagh began his career as an actor with the Royal Shakespeare Company, then founded his own Renaissance Theater Company. In 1988 he began a draft of the screenplay for Henry V, convinced that the story could yield a popular and emotionally satisfying film. The film was followed by Much Ado About Nothing (1993) and his four-hour adaptation of Hamlet (1996), which was nominated for an academy Award. He has also continued his stage acting career, and has appeared in a number of other movies, including Robert Altman's The Gingerbread Man.

Do you ever fear getting Shakespeare "wrong?" Does he ever intimidate you?

Nobody knows how these plays were really done. We have to remember that. It doesn't mean we blind ourselves to the genuine research of the period or solid academic propositions about how things might have been done. But we are in a very different time and age, and so we need to respond accordingly and do the plays in very different ways. A lack of intimidation is therefore, a sort of requirement for doing Shakespeare. Respect is total; intimidation, no.

What makes Shakespeare relevant today?

The obvious reasons, really. You see Shakespeare's genius in small roles. With brevity he manages to convey a great deal of life in fully rounded memorable characters by giving them poetic language or comic scenes. Time and time again, we recognize these people and they hold their value. It's not just nostalgia. Watching kids see Shakespeare for the first time is thrilling, because it seems to make sense to them.

Plus there is a marvelous poetic quality that is hard to resist. Take the St. Crispin's speech in Henry V. Imagine if you were in a situation where there were so many of them and so few of you and you felt you were going to die in battle. It's probably a pretty good way to go hearing that you would be remembered in your own country. And that people would be saying, "Christ, I wish I were there that day." The impact on the hearts and minds of those who watch it is undiminished today. People weep.

In short, good, truthful productions of Shakespeare continue to capture the emotional imagination of the audience. You shouldn't go away feeling worthy for having sat there through a paralyzing several hours. You should have enjoyed a rich entertainment.

What did you think of the recent Baz Luhrmann "Generation X" version of Romeo and Juliet?

I thanked God when that film came out. For one thing, it drove many more people in to see our Hamlet. We had a different execution, certainly, but our goal was the same: to realize a very passionate response to the play. The new version of Romeo and Juliet found a very strong visual collaborate of the passion at the heart of the play by showing youthful adolescent passion and violence and how close they are to one another. And that's what the play is about. It's about prejudice and violence and passion, and Luhrmann made the play seem as real as it is. He didn't go out and destroy copies of the play or suggest that his was the definitive version of the play.

If a film stirs up the Shakespeare protection industry and provokes controversy, I think that's healthy. It does what I think is necessary for Shakespeare, which is to keep him alive and discussed and real. When a film like Romeo and Juliet comes along it gives kids a direct, pragmatic relationship with the plays. They talk about plots, they end up in a way talking about the play's dramatic structure, why the time scheme in that play, for example, is inconsistent with logical events. And so they can start, in the nicest possible ways, to begin picking holes in Shakespeare and make him more real. It allows them to appreciate those things that work and allows his work to be something that they can have an opinion about.

Did you spend a great deal of time researching prior adaptations? When you made Henry V, for example, did you do a great deal of research?

Before I did Henry, I had played him a long time in the theater. Prior to that I had done a lot of research. When I directed my first Shakespearean play it was Romeo and Juliet. I went to the Royal Shakespeare Theater and to the Shakespeare Theater in Stratford and looked at previous actors' prompt copies going back hundreds of years. They showed which passages had been cut, and they were almost always those which were the most difficult to mount. Looking at the staged histories of these plays is very helpful to see how other people tackled the same kind of problems. It's always good to know how things have been handled before. Quite frankly, there were some good ideas knocking about a hundred years ago. You have to learn to steal from everywhere.

Also, those prompt books embody the classical tradition. That means a whole generation of people who pursued the same roles or worked on the same plays. And so it's a rather nice feeling when you realize that they worked at solving the same difficulties. How to make exciting the same problem of Hamlet finding Claudius at prayer, saying he will kill him, and then not doing it, for example. It's something that's very hard to pull off with real suspense in the theater because you know he's not going to kill him right then.

It's very helpful to see how other people do it. It makes it a practical, living thing. In a way I suppose you can counterfeit some situation where you feel Shakespeare is a living playwright, someone you can almost get on the phone with, and who is sufficiently fast and loose with his work. You do feel that in the plays themselves, that Shakespeare was a practical man of the theater. This is a man who was an actor and a businessman. Somehow, I think what little we know of his life leads us to think of him as a collaborator, that he would want to change things and get it right. So you make those suppositions and then have a go.

What led you to write a screenplay for Henry V?

With Henry V, it wasn't only the experience of playing it for a long time with the Royal Shakespeare Company, but also seeing the Laurence Olivier film and then feeling a very different reaction to the play itself. Over a period of time, the play suggested itself as a film that focussed more directly on the idea of a young leader being formed during the course of the play. Not a ready made flawless hero, leading us through a pageant, but someone with very dubious claims on the French crown to begin with, who leads in an atmosphere of some political intrigue. He enters a campaign in which he is untried and untested as a real leader, carrying a number of guilts for his past life and about his actual inheritance for the crown, which came through a kind of revolutionary coup. I believed that the internal pressures within him, as they reflected back on the story itself, would make for a different experience than the Olivier film yet rich in it's own way.

And my generation had a different experience, even from those who had served in the Second World War, of what battle was like. Plus the details of warfare and medieval battle had become much more available. John Keegan had also written a very good book, In the Face of Battle. It's a sort of eyewitness account on Agincourt and Waterloo. That side of the medieval battle was so powerfully conveyed to me that I thought it would be terrific to show in a film, using a play which can seem so glibly jingoistic but which the text continually undercuts.

Like most of the plays, Henry V can be seen in so many different ways. I had noticed in the theater that despite its pro-war associations it is still something to debate where Shakespeare's politics lie. Different lights can be shone on it, and so it helped when I made the film to be working with an almost new screenplay. You have one great film made of the play but when you think of the hundreds of versions of plays offered over the centuries...I became obsessed with making something completely different.

The theatrical effectiveness of it was beyond question. Even if the audience is full of pacifists, it's almost impossible to resist the power of the poetry the man is given to say, for example, in the famous St. Crispin's speech. That in itself was something I found interesting because it puts a question mark over our attitude towards war. Even those who would condemn the politics of war out of hand find that while the play illuminates war it doesn't necessarily recommend war. What it does is set out the excitement and camaraderie created amongst bodies of men who are that close to death.

In the opening scene of Henry V, the narrator walks through a modern film studio, flings back the doors and launches us into the story. Why did you choose to use that frame?

The first few minutes of any film are critically important. With a Shakespearean film they are particularly important. With Much Ado About Nothing we started with writing on the screen, a few proverbial truths about men and women. We wanted to say to the audience, "You can understand this, we're going to tell a story about all of us. It's silly stuff, really." It was the same with Henry V. We wanted to tell the audience, you don't have to worry. This is artifice, a film like any other film. This is 1989; this is now. Here are electrical switches on the wall. There are all our tools hanging out. This is where we start, not detached from things you know about or working in mediums you might not know, like the theater. When I first started writing the screenplay, I considered having the narrator walk through a modern theater, but a film studio seemed a more honest way to start.

The frame also had visual pluses. We've laid out the story and embraced the imaginative pleas that the first speech makes: that this is all fiction.

You have that wonderful shot of the tattered and vulnerable English waiting in a semblance of bravery as the well equipped French are approaching for battle. All through Henry V, you seem to concentrate on the terribly human dimension of all the characters, but particularly Henry, both in his actions and speech.

I was certainly trying for a psychological verisimilitude, as far as we can understand it. I try to have my characters talk as people talk. We are part of a generation of an acting style that is absolutely going for the revelation of the internal life, which works against a declaimed acting style.

With something like Hamlet, who is such an interior character, the challenge is to use both pictures and sound to get inside his mind. In the Olivier Hamlet film, I would suggest that his internal discussions are the least successful parts of the movie. We both tried to explore Hamlet's internal life, but I feel Olivier knew in a way it was the wrong casting for him. He was such a magnetic, animal individual. It was so hard to believe that he wouldn't have killed Claudius in a trice. Still, it's a film I find very powerful.

Going with that internal life of the character doesn't require you to stretch or bend the text at all. All through Henry V there are these tests and there is language which seems to express the stage of his personal journey and the impact it's having on him. Specifically, there is the scene with the traitors where he discovers the truth of their betrayal. The language Henry uses there is passionately felt; it's enormous in its imagery. He likens Scroop's fall as a traitor to another Fall of Man, not a casual image for a Christian king in the 1400's. And not, I think, a casual choice.

The choice we made was not that Henry was the typical self-aggrandist who wishes to glorify himself with words and pictures, but his words showed how keenly he felt the betrayal. Those wounds we see and those he plays are dramatic and supported, if you like, by the more obviously dramatic things like the later "once more over the breach" and the St. Crispin's speeches. Beneath that rhetoric was a human being whom we had seen with some degree of vulnerability earlier on.

The night before the battle, in the "upon the king" soliloquy, he surprises us by alluding not only to the death of Richard the II, but the fact that now he has built churches to sing for Richard's soul. So there is a gnawing guilt about the very illegality of his having taken the crown in the first place. That is the center of everything, the human dimension.

Why did you choose to restore Hamlet to a full text? Wasn't four hours a risk?

There are some disputes among academics about what constitutes a full text of Hamlet. We have the fullest text we believe that may have ever been performed, which includes restoring a speech from one of the "bad" folios, as it were, and includes, among other bits, the speech which ends our first half, which is Hamlet's reflection on himself acting.

It was a risk, I felt, only commercially. It was a challenge creatively to make all those pieces hold their own. I felt we had a pretty marvelous response from audiences to both the previous Shakespeare films, in that they enjoyed the Shakespeare and would go back to it and read it. By putting in everything, the whole life of the castle, the whole nation really, as reflected in some of the common people, who are included in there, you see how people in position of great power are nonetheless human, full of all the human foibles we have. And yet their actions have an impact on a whole country.

The challenge was whether there was an audience of some size who would experience the spirit of the whole. To understand each and every syllable wasn't necessary -- it was the music created by the whole that acts on one in a mysterious way that's only possible when you're in the hands of a great poet. Our challenge was to send the music out there as well as plot, action, story, and character in the way I thought we should do it and hope for the magic.

The biggest risk was that no one would finance it, and God knows it took a long time for that to happen. That was because it was a four-hour Hamlet and it would be difficult if not impossible to persuade cinema owners that they should have two shows a day instead of five because of the finances. I've never argued it's what Shakespeare would have wanted, to have it at this length, but he might have done it. If you like, all his rough drafts are in there.

A scary thought for a writer.

Yeah, but the bizarre thing was that the screenplay for Hamlet was nominated for an Academy Award, which caused much hilarity back home and not a little embarrassment. I wanted to work out why it occurred. On one level I was very happy; it was recognition for the film. But I asked them, "Why, how is this?" And they said, "Well, it's the writers' branch who does these things." And I asked, "Well, why would they do that?" And they said they were voting for someone who hadn't cut the play, who protected and honored the writer's version.

In a way, when I heard that I was delighted. I mean, my screenplays don't feel like full-blown screenplays. They're what we work from; they're sort of visual storyboards, the written practical expression of my vision of my film. And in that sense, it was something. It is a form. The recognition in that way was very pleasing even though I did think the Academy recognition was going a bit far.

Would it have been more pleasing if you won?

I don't know how pleasing that would have been. (Laughs) I think that would have been embarrassing. But I liked the recognition and was pleased it had come from the writers. I can't think of a film in history that could have been shot as it was originally intended on the page, at least dialogue-wise. Obviously, we moved things around a little, but everything is pretty much as it was.

Every generation interprets Hamlet in his own way. Your Hamlet is very self-aware, very self-conscious. What's holding him from seeing around all the corners?

We worked hard to show Hamlet as a liberal minded, Renaissance guy, who is utterly and absolutely grief-stricken. This was not an unreasonable or neurotic position. The idea that within a month his mother could marry a man other than his father, whom he clearly adored, stunned him. On top of that, his bitter grief renders him isolated, and quickly, I think, paranoid. That leads to some of the self-consciousness and blindness. I said to Julie Christie once, that if he and his mother had a good chat during that month after his father's death, the whole thing might not have happened. Unfortunately, they don't, and the whole thing leads to the closet scene with his mother where he kills Polonius. He's heading towards that scene with his mother.

It happens so regularly, that no amount of intelligence seems to be a guarantee against emotions. Despite his intelligence, we get to the closet scene and hear him saying: "How could you do this! You're my mother!" We never played it for any sexual tension; only the moral outrage accompanied with isolation could blind that ironic man to how extreme his position was.

Part of his self-awareness is also that he is a prince, observed by all observers. He is born into a life where spontaneity isn't encouraged. Shakespeare is continually interested in the emotional constraints on those in power. Henry V the night before the battle, Hamlet with the need to say to Horatio, "You're in my heart of hearts." For him, friendship doesn't come easily. Shakespeare cuts Horatio off from Hamlet as well, partly because of Hamlet's behavior but also because what can Horatio do? Start a revolution? Kill the king?

At the end of Hamlet, you've said he finds peace. What is peace to Hamlet?

He achieves that peace before he goes into the sword fight, expressed in the "fall of the sparrow" speech. Before that, all through the play, Hamlet is dealing with his intense angry resistance to death. He fears that place, death. If he acts on his father's advice, which is expressed in the "To be or not to be" speech, he fears where he will end up. It's odd he talks about the undiscovered country of death, since the father has spoken of that country.

But when he comes back from England, he returns a changed man. Once again he constantly talks about what it means to die. And he encounters it in a very practical way, in terms of what death means in the skull of Yorick, when he talks about the emotional costs of death, losing loved ones, the indignity of what may come afterwards. All of these things are presented when he finally gets a chance to talk to Horatio. But by now he's already a murderer once removed from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and he has killed Polonius, so he also has to struggle about how you deal with taking life as well as dying.

In the sparrow speech, which runs something like "If it be now, if it is not now, it will come," I think, trite as it may sound to some, Hamlet reaches some kind of Buddhist acceptance of the requirement to live in the now. All he has at that moment is Horatio and that peace, but he's at his least angry, least resistant. He has been resisting what is all through the play. He hasn't copped out of life, as it were, but has accepted at some level, that things will happen if they happen. He feels he has wasted time. Life has to be a series of moments during which you are ready. You don't have to be a saint about it, about your dad dying, about your mom behaving differently, but "readiness is all."

How does your acting relate to your scriptwriting or script editing?

It did spectacularly in Hamlet. If the director is going to play Hamlet, the character of the actor is going to have a huge impact on the way the character is played. What's important about playing Hamlet is how Hamlet speaks to the actor. If he's got a very active, political Hamlet, or a languid Hamlet, you begin to place him in context with other characters.

The way I planned and shot the movement was to give Hamlet a very strong sense of isolation. The very first shot I made of Hamlet, was to show how a man in his position could be off to the side, a dark force. There are many, many images of this throughout the film. I wanted this to be set in a Northern European climate, to show how isolated this character was, and powerful his family was.

Four hours is still a very long film. Is there anything in Hamlet you now might want to change?

You have to get into this mode where you accept whatever is there when the paint is dry. I don't watch the films more than once after they're finished. I watch once and try to give myself to the experience. Any more than that and I begin talking to myself about changing things that were not achievable in that current state of knowledge. There were a number of things I'd change, quite frankly, if I had more money and, quite frankly, more imagination. I would have presented the ghost stuff in a more frightening way. I wanted to make it in a way I thought people might have resisted. I wanted to make it scary.

Oh, I thought it was pretty frightening as it was.

Well, we were trying to make it so. But there wasn't enough money to do it. It was the kind of thing that if you were doing the Midsummer's Night Dream I'd love to have real money to make movie magic.

There's a shot in Citizen Kane where Welles walks into a row of mirrors and his reflection is thrown back at him over and over again. I wanted to do that in Hamlet when Ophelia was dragged around by Hamlet, and have the two of them stretching away into infinity. And yet, I suspect if I had done the shot, it would have been potentially confusing with the music, the rich dialogue. So my answer is, I wouldn't change anything because I can't.

Why is Hollywood so enamored of Shakespeare at this moment?

They're only interested in things that make money. And I'm one who has reaped benefits from that. But people shouldn't assume that I think I'm doing something better by choosing to do Shakespeare. You have to believe in your script and not just in a reaction against other things. All kinds of good work is out there. And good work is good work.

Any words of wisdom for struggling screenwriters?

Yeah, I like working with writers. I have enormous sympathy for screenwriters. They're the most abused people on the food chain. They truly are. Yet from my background, the only thing I base my decisions on is the screenplay.

So the play's the thing.

In my view, the play is the thing. Only in a very few cases can a genius director or genius actors make up for what's not on the page. They can't replace the words. I definitely think the play's the thing. Hence, four hours proving it.

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