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Movies and the Bard: Comparing the Written Word
to the Hollywood Film Image
Ellen Caldwell
In her class, "Shakespeare on Film," Ellen Caldwell, assistant professor of English, comparative literature and linguistics, has students examine different film interpretations of Shakespeare's works .... and compare them to the Bard's written words.
Shakespeare adaptations take center stage in class.

May 4, 2006

Images of Othello, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and other Shakespearean figures flicker across the screen in Ellen Caldwell's classroom. Her class, "Shakespeare on Film," explores the different ways filmmakers have adapted Shakespeare's plays over the decades.

"When I'm teaching Shakespeare, often use film clips to illustrate particular plays," said Caldwell, assistant professor of English, comparative literature and linguistics. "noticed that students seemed to respond to and understand the passages far better after they saw one of these clips."

That gave her the idea of comparing film to text versions of Shakespeare passages.

"Over the past two decades, there seems to be a resurgence of interest in among the general public," she said. "Luckily since the '90s, filmmakers have 'rediscovered' Shakespeare's plays, which gives us a range of filmic interpretations to compare. In my class, we don't ever sit through an entire film — we're usually seeing five-minute clips and comparing how different directors approach Shakespeare's works."

For instance, in Hamlet's soliloquy in Act 3, Scene 1 ("To be or not to be"), the young prince of Denmark mulls over the possibility of killing his uncle to avenge his father's death. Caldwell's students first study the written words, then watch the same soliloquy as performed by actor Kenneth Branagh — where he speaks the lines to a mirror — followed by Michael Almereyda's version with actor Ethan Hawke — in which Hamlet says the speech as he wanders through a video store.

"I have the students look at where the directors are staging the actors," she said.

"For instance, Ethan Hawke ends his scene at the counter of Blockbuster
Video, where he shows up with an armload of action videos. On the background TV, 'The Crow, Part II' is playing. These little details ironically contrast video action with Hamlet's inaction. He is the voyeur, the watcher. will make tapes of his own soliloquies or watch endless loops of old videos of his father and mother, but he is too self-conscious to act.

"Branagh's in contrast, delivers his soliloquy with absolute authority, as if deliberately staging his words for his unseen eavesdroppers. Branagh's Hamlet 'acts'; Hawke's makes or watches videos of others acting."

Caldwell then adds Derek Jacobi's "Hamlet," done for the BBC, as well as the Franco Zeffirelli version featuring Mel Gibson.

"Look at how the scenes differ in these adaptations," she said. "You can tell Branagh is very aware of the BBC version, so much so that he casts Jacobi as Claudius in his own film. In his own acting, Branagh borrows cadences and gestures straight from Jacobi's soliloquies of two decades earlier. Both actors are eloquent speakers and relish the chance to prove it.

"With Mel Gibson, you have a very macho Hamlet. You're always seeing him on horseback or with a broad sword. The soliloquies are cut to a minimum. Zeffirelli does the impossible: He creates an 'action' Hamlet ... a 'Braveheart,' 'Lethal Weapon,' 'Mad Max' Hamlet."

The class always refers back to the written words. Are the directors cutting back on parts of the soliloquy? the scenes out of order? Why are they using dissolves or freeze frames? The class analyzes each scene, trying to determine the director's intent and the effect.

In addition to "Hamlet," Caldwell's classes study "Romeo and Juliet," "Much Ado About Nothing," "Othello," "King Lear" and "Macbeth" — and not just English versions. Caldwell includes the films of Akira Kurosawa, who has adapted many of Shakespeare's plays into such Japanese classics as "Throne of Blood" (Macbeth) and "Ran" (King Lear).

"When we're studying 'Macbeth,' we look at Kurosawa and Polanski's versions," she continued. "I ask students to consider the metaphor of 'Kumonosu-jo,' or 'The Castle of the Spider's Web,' the Japanese title of the 1957 film. Why was the film marketed as 'Throne of Blood' for American audiences?"

Caldwell asks students how they think events in Roman Polanski's life — including the murder of his wife, Sharon Tate, by Charles Manson — affected his vision. In Polanski's "Macbeth," Lady Macbeth is doing the mad scene naked. Does this suggest innocence? Vulnerability? Or is it a concession to Polanski's underwriter, Playboy Productions?

Caldwell admits to being pleasantly surprised by the sophistication of her students' responses. "They much preferred the fully clothed, and far less attractive, Judi Dench version of the mad scene, where Dench ends the scene on a 90-second scream. It starts as a groan and ends as a shriek. She is beyond vulnerable. She is completely lost.

"What is wonderful is seeing how excited the students become," Caldwell said. "Once the lights go back up, they're talking a mile a minute. They are quite vocal about what adaptations they like and dislike and why."

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