Shakespeare in the Movies: From the Silent Era to Shakespeare in Love.
By Douglas Brode. Oxford University Press, 2000. 257 pp. $24.95
Review by Tom Wilmeth 3 August 2000
What sets this book apart from numerous other works on Shakespeare-related movies is the varied contexts that the author provides. While most books of this sort quickly become little more than capsule reviews and lists, Douglas Brode does an admirable job of giving historical backgrounds for the stage productions of each play before addressing the various film adaptations.
In addition, the book explores relevant situations behind the filming of most of these works. When discussing Charlston Heston’s 1972 version of Antony and Cleopatra, Brode takes the reader to the tumultuous set of this ill-fated effort, discussing aspects ranging from a miscast leading lady to stern directoral advice from Orson Welles. The intrigue stretches back to an industry’s refusal to put money into any Cleopatra picture after the major box office flop that starred Elizabeth Taylor as the queen just a decade before.
While providing a view of this type of Hollywood politics, Brode also lets the critics and scholars have their say. Battle lines are drawn over director Peter Brooks’ 1971 version of King Lear, starring Paul Scofield. Hailed as both “a masterpiece” and “a mess,” the book documents the heated debate that erupted over this strikingly bleak adaptation. The conversation, if not argument, that began in earnest over this film about “what Shakespeare cinema ought to be” continues to this day, as can be seen by the varied critical reactions to director Michael Almereyda’s recent Hamlet.
Brode is not afraid to champion lesser-known films, but he never becomes obscure for its own sake. Nor does he lift himself or the subject matter to the level of exclusivity or elitism. He unhesitatingly calls a Wales-produced puppet-animation adaptation of The Tempest “by far the most faithful representation of the play on film.” Although surprising to champion a 25-minute stop-action animated adaptation (seen domestically on HBO), Brode convincingly backs up his assessments here and throughout this interesting book.
Shakespeare in the Movies: From the Silent Era to Shakespeare in Love travels far beyond the role of a useful reference tool. It is fine read in its own right, and a well researched historical account of the transference of Shakespeare’s art from the stage to the movie theater during the last century.