This is the first post in a new series discussing my 40 favorite films.
Groups can so easily turn against a single person, as I learned at the end of my freshman year in college 10 years ago this month.
Skyler* and I had met on the first morning of orientation, and for much of the year we were inseparable. Our friends said we were like twins. We listened to the same obscure bands, treated Shakespeare like a religious text, and, ultimately, fell in love with the same girl, Mary Ann*.
This was never going to end happily, as anyone with a cursory knowledge of Shakespeare probably realizes. Throughout his career, from his early comedy The Two Gentlemen of Verona to a late romance, The Winter’s Tale, the prolific playwright wove stories about inseparable friends whose friendships are ultimately torn apart by jealousy and mistrust.
Frequently the narrative of these plays hinges on the increasing instability and paranoia of a single character possessed with desire for what he can’t have. Ultimately, in The Two Gentlemen and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, this culminates in a final confrontation between the two friends which threatens to turn deadly before suddenly, almost miraculously resolving itself.
The end of my freshman year played itself out in similar fashion. During spring break when Skyler confided to me that he liked Mary Ann, I realized that I also liked her. What followed was a battle of wits (and words) in which Skyler and I seemed to be trying to impress each other as much as we were Mary Ann. When they started going out in the last week of classes, our hyper-repressed Evangelical friend group became alarmed by the amount of time they were spending alone making out, and we formed a conspiracy to break them up.
Ultimately (inevitably?), this led to a dramatic fight in his dorm room on the second-to-last day of finals in which Mary Ann and I and two other guys confronted a weeping, hysterical Skyler and told him we could no longer be friends with him.
Up until that moment I had loved Shakespeare primarily as a creator of theatricalities, a giver of worlds that were stylized, dramatic, flamboyant. This may have been why I loved Kenneth Branagh’s four-hour adaptation of Hamlet (1996), which Skyler and I watched with an obsessive, hungry relish. Branagh’s Hamlet, like his earlier Much Ado about Nothing (1993), is a stagey, melodramatic spectacle, full of sweeping gestures and grand speeches scored to intense music.
The decision to film Shakespeare this way is not without its pleasures, but it’s also inherently limiting, as the amount of artifice introduced into the story necessarily distances the audience from the reality the story seeks to portray. We might be moved to tears when Branagh’s Benedick and Emma Thompson’s Beatrice realize their love for each other, but we’re always aware, on some level, that what we’re seeing is a play turned into a movie—beautifully scored, vividly filmed, and (ever-so-slightly) over-acted. The barrier between the world on the screen and the world of the audience remains impermeable, with no danger of overlap. We are safe.
Joss Whedon’s Much Ado about Nothing (2012), on the other hand, exposes the limits of Shakespeare-as-spectacle by taking the opposite approach. Filmed on a shoestring budget in black-and-white over 12 days with a small cast of Whedon regulars at his home in California, Whedon’s film is sparse, intimate and minimalistic. Interestingly, the decision to film this way exposes some of the unsettling ambiguities of Shakespeare’s comedy, revealing the kernel of darkness at its core.
For much of their first halves both Branagh and Whedon’s Much Ado function as “hang-out movies,” escapist entertainments in which the main pleasure is seeing characters and their actors relax and hang out. For the cast of Branagh’s movie, this means leaping through fountains, horseback riding and reading poetry in the Tuscan countryside. The pleasures of Whedon’s version, with its contemporary setting, are decidedly more prosaic and mundane: sauteeing onions, going for a jog, the sight of Clark Gregg (as Leonato) dancing without music.
In the case of Whedon’s film this creates a paradoxical effect, as we the viewers participate vicariously in a level of wealth that most of us have not experienced, while the intimacy and immediacy of the filming frame the story as the kind of holiday trip that most of us have enjoyed at one point or another. After the immediate thrill of seeing actors we recognize gradually wears off, we lose ourselves in this new reality and the characters begin to seem like real people spending time at a retreat or summer camp. The story, in other words, feels like one that could really happen.
At the same time, the sense of realism created by Whedon’s film brings into painful relief tensions that were largely glossed over by Branagh. Whedon chooses to devote a substantial amount of the film’s running time to a subplot involving Hero and her fiancé Claudio, to the point where their story almost threatens to eclipse the rekindling romance between the ex-lovers Benedick and Beatrice that has traditionally been the play’s centerpiece. (Berlioz’s opera Beatrice et Benedict, for example, excised the Claudio and Hero subplot entirely).
Consequently, Fran Kanz’s Claudio becomes, not an afterthought, but the fulcrum on which Whedon’s adaptation rests. Kanz believably but sympathetically portrays a man whose happiness is sabotaged by his own hyper-mimetic tendencies.
French philosopher and sociologist René Girard used the term “hyper-mimetic” to describe a recurring character type in Shakespeare’s plays who is possessed with desire to be everything and everyone other than what he really is. (Nick Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, perpetually trying to play every role in the play-within-a-play, is probably the most famous example of this type). Hyper-mimetic people can’t see someone else enjoying something without wanting to become that person. They tend to be envious, insecure, self-loathing and prone to irrational behavior.
In Shakespeare’s text, Claudio’s hyper-mimetic nature is evident in the way he repeatedly badgers his friends for their opinions on Hero, unable to feel secure in his choice of a wife unless he sees others expressing their enthusiasm for her. He’s disappointed when Benedick shows disinterest but recovers his excitement when Don Pedro, the play’s mediator, offers to act as a go-between and woo her on Claudio’s behalf.
Don Pedro’s encouragement, however, proves to be a double-edged sword. While Claudio needs others to validate his love, he becomes insecure, suspicious and paranoid when that love is validated, believing that his trusted friends are conspiring to steal Hero away for themselves. He suspects that Don Pedro has actually wooed Hero for his own, and then, when proven wrong, concludes that there must be something wrong with Hero that prevented Don Pedro from wanting her. As bizarre suggestions swirl around him he becomes a victim of his own jealous thinking, half-convinced that Hero has been unfaithful even before the villainous Don John provides evidence that seems to vindicate this wild accusation. Caught in a trap of his own devising, Claudio is careening towards a disastrous public spectacle in which he becomes the unwitting persecutor of an innocent person.
Branagh’s adaptation attempts to protect the audience from the nightmarish reality of what’s rapidly unfolding in front of us. During the scene in which Don Jon’s minions bring Robert Sean Leonard’s Claudio to a window where a woman dressed as Hero is enjoying a late-night assignation with another man, Branagh goes beyond what’s written in the text, showing the man and woman explicitly engaging in sexual intercourse. Seeing this naked display of passion, we understand why Claudio would be driven to humiliate his fiancé on the day of her wedding. As far as he knows, he’s just seen her having sex with another man. Whedon’s adaptation, by being more discreet and therefore more ambiguous about what Claudio has witnessed, doesn’t let him off the hook so easily. We sense with a certain degree of discomfort that Claudio would have turned and attacked Hero regardless of Don Jon’s machinations.
This leads to what is arguably the key scene in Shakespeare’s play, in which Claudio, when asked by the presiding friar whether he intends to take Hero for his wife, says, “No,” and then accuses her of being unfaithful in full view of everyone. Hero is vilified by all the wedding guests, with the exception of Beatrice and Benedick, and even rejected by her own father, before the friar devises a secret scheme to vindicate her innocence.
Branagh’s film strategically dilutes the full horror of the shaming to which Hero is subjected by making the scene melodramatic and comical. Swelling strings underscore Claudio’s long tirade, at the end of which the enraged lover wanders into the crowd and begins knocking down wedding decorations. The staging and pacing of the scene, along with the heated intensity of the performances and Patrick Doyle’s insistent score, evoke parallels with Ophelia’s burial scene in Branagh’s Hamlet. In the context of the rest of the film, this brief altercation functions as a semi-comedic interlude, the primary purpose of which is to set up the exchange between Beatrice and Benedick in the next scene in which they formally declare their love for each other.
Whedon’s version, by contrast, does not hurry over this scene. It lingers, letting us absorb the fear and humiliation on Jillian Morgese’s face as Hero is thrown to the ground by the man she had intended to marry. Music is used minimally, and the fraught silence that replaces it draws us into the scene, allowing us to feel much as we would actually feel if we witnessed a woman being suddenly and unexpectedly abused, scorned and humiliated by her would-be husband.
The one downside of this approach is that it makes the eventual reconciliation, when Hero and Claudio finally marry in the final scene of the play, that much more implausible.
But by not glossing over the dark psychology of Shakespeare’s play, by portraying it realistically and not being afraid to discomfort his audience in the middle of an ostensible comedy, Whedon leaves us with a sense that we’re witnessing something that might have really happened. Branagh’s film seems to take place in a different world, a spectacular, theatrical world, but Whedon’s film takes place in this world and believably depicts realistic people behaving in believable and, in some cases, all-too-familiar ways.
In his book on Shakespeare, Girard wrote that in the world of the theater, what is mimetic and what is dramatic tend to be synonymous. In other words, the kind of conflict that results from the envy, paranoia and suspicion of a character like Claudio, or Nick Bottom, or Proteus in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, is the engine that drives drama. The narrative structure of Shakespeare’s plays is built on the structure of mimetic desire.
Conversely, when dramatic things happen in real life, when people find themselves in stories, it’s because they’ve become trapped like Hero and Claudio in a crisis of desire.
What I began to realize on that morning as I watched Skyler cry on the floor of his room—and later that afternoon, after my last final, when most of us came to him and apologized—is that Shakespeare wasn’t just a spinner of highly stylized stories. He was describing real things that happened to real people. Branagh’s film doesn’t fully seem to grasp this. But Whedon’s does.