Rant by Amber
No matter how many times the plays of William Shakespeare are performed—whether on stage or on screen—we never tire of them. The plays endure thanks to the universalism of Shakespeare’s themes and the humanity of the characters he created. By examining the dramatic differences in two film adaptations of Much Ado About Nothing—namely, Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 film and Joss Whedon’s 2012 film—we see that there seem to be as many ways of adapting Shakespeare’s works as there are creative minds to adapt them. The differences in these two adaptations arise from the directors’ fundamentally contrasting approaches: Branagh’s is decidedly theatrical, while Whedon’s is truly cinematic.
First, allow me to clarify what I mean when I say “theatrical” and “cinematic” when describing Branagh’s and Whedon’s interpretations of the text. When Shakespeare’s plays were originally written and performed in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, there was little to no scenery or set dressing involved in the theatrical productions; the performers and audience members alike relied heavily on language to tell the story. When I describe Branagh’s Much Ado as “theatrical,” I mean to say that his adaptation relies primarily on Shakespeare’s words to tell the story. Furthermore, in a theatrical setting, what happens on stage is often larger than life; it is also in this sense that Branagh’s film may be described as “theatrical.” Cinema, on the other hand, is first and foremost a visual medium. When I say that Joss Whedon’s Much Ado is “cinematic,” I mean that his version uses images—perhaps even more than the words—to tell the story. Indeed, in Whedon’s film, there are a myriad of subtle actions, discreet looks, and facial expressions that tell the audience so much more than what the words convey (as I point out in my review). Branagh stays true to his roots, as it were, in the theater, and essentially brings a theatrical production to the silver screen. Whedon, on the other hand, a filmmaker through and through, approaches the play as if it were the beginnings of a film script, and adds layers of cinematic storytelling that are not found in the text. The end result is that Branagh has given us a romping romantic comedy, while Whedon has created a nuanced noir drama-dy.
Branagh’s theatricality permeates the setting, tone, and performances in his film. From the colorful background of the sprawling Tuscan countryside, to the extensive grounds and gardens of Leonato’s massive estate, to the energetic speeches and expressions of the actors, everything in the film seems larger than life. In this aspect, Whedon’s film could hardly be more different—shot entirely in black and white (over the course of merely twelve days) at Whedon’s own Santa Monica home. The quiet intimacy of the setting—the action never leaves the confines of Leonato’s estate—allows the audience to focus on the visual subtleties and everything that is not being said. These differences could, arguably, be due to budgetary constraints as much as creative freedom, but I think both directors did beautifully with what they had to work with.
The opening scenes in the two films serve to illustrate the difference in the directors’ approaches. Branagh’s film begins with Beatrice reading a poem (reprised as a song later in the story) to members of Leonato’s household picnicking in the pastoral setting of the Tuscan hills. The opening scene serves to set the theatrical tone of the film, and relies on the spoken lines later in the movie to tell the audience that Benedick and Beatrice have a history. In contrast, Whedon begins by showing us something of their history—we see them in bed together the morning after what was presumably a one-night stand. This one short, wordless scene gives us a glimpse into the countless unspoken thoughts and unexpressed emotions that result in the tension between Beatrice and Benedick.
Another marked contrast we see in the beginning of the two films is in the setting of the initial verbal sparring match between Beatrice and Benedick. In Branagh’s film, staying true to theatricality, the energetic exchange between the would-be lovers takes place in front of the entire company—which consists of Leonato’s household as well as the Prince’s entourage. But Whedon’s Beatrice and Benedick retreat to the seclusion of a small garden adjacent to the courtyard to swap witticisms—highlighting the intimacy that already exists between the two characters. The final scenes in each film are parallel to the opening scenes, and are consistent in their contrast to one another. Branagh’s film ends with a huge outdoor party, with everyone dancing and singing together. Whedon’s film also ends with a party, but it is indoors with a much smaller attendance, and Benedick and Beatrice are off in a corner by themselves, happy only in one another’s company.
The performances of the actors and their interpretations of their characters further illustrate the differences in the approach of each director. Branagh’s production is consistent in its emphasis on the words and the language; the actors take their time with Shakespeare’s text and breathe life into the words on the page. In Whedon’s film, the actors treat the language as if it were simply every day speech—the only drawback being that audience members might tend to miss some of the verbal witticisms because they are delivered so casually. There are also numerous differences in the individual portrayals of the characters. While there is a delightful chemistry between Alex Denisof and Amy Acker (as Benedick and Beatrice) in Whedon’s film, the sparks that fly between Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson are so intense one can almost see them—which could be part of Branagh’s theatrical take, or it could due to the fact that the two were actually married at the time (or perhaps a bit of both). Branagh’s mastery of the language is almost unparalleled on screen these days; while Thompson’s Beatrice, as Shakespeare scholar Harold Bloom expertly puts it, has “nuances of a Brontë-like independence conveyed mostly through tone and facial expression.”* Indeed, Thompson puts the character of Beatrice on a level of the very best heroines from the likes of Brontë and Jane Austen. The character of Don Pedro, or the Prince, is an interesting one. He is clearly a leader who is “a man of the people,” and that is precisely how Reed Diamond plays him in Whedon’s version—just “one of the guys.” In Branagh’s film, Denzel Washington brings a regal and princely air to the character, making him a charming and enigmatic Don Pedro. The air of authority—or somewhat lack thereof—could also be, at least in part, a deliberate choice based on the setting of each film. Whedon’s version is set in the present day, when signs of superiority or condescension could be viewed as snobbery. Branagh sets his film in the not-so-specific once-upon-a-time realm, though judging by the military uniforms, it probably takes place sometime in the mid- to late-19th century. During that time, differences in rank were a fact of life, and so behavior and attitudes in accordance with those differences does not seem out of place—though Washington manages to balance a regal aloofness with a one-of-the-guys approachability. Leonato is another character with varying degrees of authority in each film. In Branagh’s film, Richard Briers, while being a doting father, is still every inch the patriarch with a strong air of authority; in Whedon’s version, Clark Gregg is less formidable and more endearing—but his Leonato certainly flexes his authority when the situation calls for it. Lastly, the villain Don John is played very differently in the two films. Keanu Reeves is perhaps the weak link in Branagh’s chain, giving a one-note performance of a hot-tempered Don John. Sean Maher does better in Whedon’s adaptation, giving us a Don John who is a conniving and subtle manipulator rather than a rash and petulant hothead.
In spite of all of these differences, similarities do exist between the two films. Happily, both make excellent use of physical comedy. The funniest scenes in both films—and perhaps in the play as well—are those in which the Prince and his associates arrange for Beatrice and Benedick to “overhear” their conversations about each one being in love with the other. Hilarious hi-jinx ensue while Benedick and Beatrice attempt to escape detection while they eavesdrop on their friends’ conversations—and all the while, these same friends are not only aware they are there, but orchestrated it so that they would be. In Branagh’s film, Benedick (Branagh) fights a losing battle with a folding lawn chair. In Whedon’s film, Benedick (Denisof) attempts to hide behind objects that hide nothing at all—like small windows, narrow branches, and stacks of glassware. In both films, Beatrice’s efforts at secrecy are only slightly less ridiculous without being any more successful. In Branagh’s film, Beatrice (Thompson) stops dead in her tracks when she hears Ursula and Hero talking of Benedick’s love for her; she then ducks behind a series of shrubs and garden statues in order to hear everything they say. In Whedon’s version, when Beatrice (Acker) hears that Benedick (allegedly) loves her, she falls headfirst down the stairs; she then tiptoes back up and crawls into various hiding spots in the kitchen, no doubt acquiring several bumps and bruises along the way. But it’s not the major players who have all the fun—Michael Keaton and Nathan Fillion get to have their comedic moments in their roles as Dogberry (Keaton in Branagh’s version, and Fillion in Whedon’s). My favorite moments for each one relate to their modes of transportation: Keaton’s Dogberry pretends, for whatever reason, that he is riding an invisible horse (a la Monty Python); while Fillion’s Dogberry undermines his own assumed dignity by locking himself out of his car. There are many, many more wonderful comedic examples in both adaptations, and both films make me laugh out loud every time I see them.
Branagh and Whedon are both masterful directors, and trying to determine if one of their adaptations is “better” than the other would be much like comparing apples to oranges: larger-than-life theatrics vs. intimate and subtle nuances. Both Branagh and Whedon bring their own unique perspective to Shakespeare’s delightful comedy, and preferring one to the other would likely be a matter of personal taste. One thing these two films certainly illustrate is that Shakespeare’s works will never grow stale.
*Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. New York: Riverhead Books. 1998.