This month brings two high-profile films inspired by the works of William Shakespeare: The Tragedy of Macbeth, directed by Joel Coen, and the Steven Spielberg/Tony Kushner revamp of West Side Story, the Romeo and Juliet variant previously transferred from Broadway to the silver screen six decades ago. One keeps the Bard’s language intact while the other discards it entirely, only using the play’s basic framework to fashion its story about star-crossed lovers caught between rival street gangs. Both approaches have their merits, but to weigh the benefits of choosing one or the other, it makes sense to examine an extreme example of each. On the side of the purists: Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet. For the liberty-takers: Billy Morrissette’s Scotland, Pa.
Throughout his early career on stage and screen, Branagh positioned himself as Laurence Olivier’s heir apparent. His first feature as director and star was 1989’s Henry V, also the play with which Olivier made his directorial debut 45 years earlier. More Shakespeare films followed, including the star-studded Much Ado About Nothing and Hamlet (released 25 years ago this month), with the latter his most concerted attempt to one-up his hero, for while Olivier’s Hamlet won Best Picture and Actor at the Oscars (as well as the BAFTA for Best Film from Any Source), it was with a heavily truncated version of the play. Branagh, on the other hand, took the bold step of filming the complete text, resulting in a four-hour epic that required an intermission and looked like the millions of dollars poured into its making.
At the other end of the spectrum is the scrappy 2001 indie Scotland, Pa., which transposes the plot of Macbeth to small-town Pennsylvania in the ’70s and reconceives it as a fight over a fast-food restaurant. In this, writer/director Morrissette followed in the footsteps of Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood and 1990’s Men of Respect (starring John Turturro as a mafia hitman who kills his way up the ranks of his crime family). And that’s not to forget the SCTV spinoff Strange Brew, which cast Bob and Doug McKenzie as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern figures in a Hamlet-inspired conspiracy plot, and the off-kilter office comedy of Aki Kaurismäki’s Hamlet Goes Business. Morrissette’s script pulls double duty, though, piling a host of ’70s signifiers (the Bad Company-heavy classic rock soundtrack, a Magic 8-Ball, Yahtzee, fondue, Prince Spaghetti, Tab, even a streaker) on top of the expected Macbeth callbacks.
These start, naturally enough, with the character names. The protagonists, played by James Le Gros and Maura Tierney, are Joe (“Mac” to his friends) and Pat McBeth. Both are in the employ of Norm Duncan (James Rebhorn), one-time donut czar who has gone into the burger business because he has some fresh ideas about how to distribute them. Duncan’s surly sons are Malcolm (a rocker with no desire to inherit the family business) and the unambiguously gay Donald (who’s more comfortable singing show tunes than playing football). Mac’s best friend, meanwhile, is Anthony “Banko” Banconi (Kevin Corrigan, Le Gros’s co-star from Living in Oblivion), and the cop who gets called in when Duncan takes a header into the fryer during a robbery gone awry is Lt. McDuff (Christopher Walken), an avowed vegetarian. As for the “weird sisters,” they’ve been reimagined as a trio of hippies (Amy Smart, Timothy “Speed” Levitch, and Andy Dick) and do just as good a job of turning Mac’s head as their medieval forebears.
The play’s supernatural elements aren’t entirely forgotten, though, since Morrissette sets key scenes in the Witch’s Brew Tavern and Birnham Woods Hunting Grounds. The most pivotal ones, though, take place at Duncan’s and, after it’s been refurbished, McBeth’s. As the restaurant changes hands, so do the fortunes of its owners, a state of affairs that brings to mind the jockeying for control of the Denmark Corporation in Michael Almereyda’s modern-dress Hamlet. By design, Branagh didn’t have to jump through any such hoops when he embarked on his adaptation a few years earlier, though he did update the time period to the brightly lit 19th century, which helped set his film apart from Olivier’s inky, black-and-white rendition, as well as the 1990 Mel Gibson starrer directed by Franco Zeffirelli, which was in the vanguard of ’90s Shakespeare-related films along with Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho and Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of his play Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead.
Unlike Olivier’s Hamlet, which eliminated entire subplots and characters (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to name two, are nowhere to be seen or heard from), Branagh’s makes a virtue of reinstating all of the political intrigue with Norway and Fortinbras, along with the entire performance of The Murder of Gonzago, only the dumbshow of which is seen in the earlier version. Branagh also makes liberal use of inserts and cutaways to illustrate and clarify certain lines, but refrains from doing so for Ophelia’s report of Hamlet’s visit to her bedchamber or Gertrude’s description of Ophelia’s death by drowning, both of which Olivier had depicted in his film. Perhaps the performances by Kate Winslet and Julie Christie convinced Branagh it wasn’t necessary to cut away from them. They did the work for the viewer.
As he had in Much Ado, Branagh cast movie stars in a number of roles to make his Hamlet more appealing to general audiences. (This is also why Richard Dreyfuss rubs shoulders with Gary Oldman and Tim Roth in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern.) In addition to Winslet, Christie, and the members of his ad-hoc repertory company (Derek Jacobi, Brian Blessed, Richard Briers, Michael Maloney), he gave small parts to Billy Crystal, Gerard Depardieu, Charlton Heston, Jack Lemmon, and Robin Williams. If some of them have more facility with Shakespeare’s language than others, that’s part of the tradeoff, and it’s one Branagh is acutely aware of in light of the film he wrote and directed right before Hamlet, 1995’s In the Bleak Midwinter (renamed A Midwinter’s Tale in the States to avoid having “bleak” in the title). In it, a troupe of semi-professionals mounts a threadbare benefit production of Hamlet over Christmas, with all the expected pitfalls. That it actually comes off qualifies as something of a miracle, almost on par with a Hollywood studio backing a four-hour Shakespeare extravaganza to the tune of $18 million.