Adapting the Bard
Creative Screenwriting, Spring
by Ilene Raymond
Kenneth Branagh began his career
as an actor with the Royal Shakespeare Company, then founded
his own Renaissance Theater Company. In 1988 he began a draft
of the screenplay for Henry V, convinced that the story
could yield a popular and emotionally satisfying film. The film
was followed by Much Ado About Nothing (1993) and his
four-hour adaptation of Hamlet (1996), which was nominated
for an academy Award. He has also continued his stage acting
career, and has appeared in a number of other movies, including
Robert Altman's The Gingerbread Man.
Do you ever fear getting Shakespeare
"wrong?" Does he ever intimidate you?
Nobody knows how these plays
were really done. We have to remember that. It doesn't mean we
blind ourselves to the genuine research of the period or solid
academic propositions about how things might have been done.
But we are in a very different time and age, and so we need to
respond accordingly and do the plays in very different ways.
A lack of intimidation is therefore, a sort of requirement for
doing Shakespeare. Respect is total; intimidation, no.
What makes Shakespeare relevant
The obvious reasons, really.
You see Shakespeare's genius in small roles. With brevity he
manages to convey a great deal of life in fully rounded memorable
characters by giving them poetic language or comic scenes. Time
and time again, we recognize these people and they hold their
value. It's not just nostalgia. Watching kids see Shakespeare
for the first time is thrilling, because it seems to make sense
Plus there is a marvelous poetic
quality that is hard to resist. Take the St. Crispin's speech
in Henry V. Imagine if you were in a situation where there
were so many of them and so few of you and you felt you were
going to die in battle. It's probably a pretty good way to go
hearing that you would be remembered in your own country. And
that people would be saying, "Christ, I wish I were there
that day." The impact on the hearts and minds of those who
watch it is undiminished today. People weep.
In short, good, truthful productions
of Shakespeare continue to capture the emotional imagination
of the audience. You shouldn't go away feeling worthy for having
sat there through a paralyzing several hours. You should have
enjoyed a rich entertainment.
What did you think of the
recent Baz Luhrmann "Generation X" version of Romeo
I thanked God when that film
came out. For one thing, it drove many more people in to see
our Hamlet. We had a different execution, certainly, but
our goal was the same: to realize a very passionate response
to the play. The new version of Romeo and Juliet found
a very strong visual collaborate of the passion at the heart
of the play by showing youthful adolescent passion and violence
and how close they are to one another. And that's what the play
is about. It's about prejudice and violence and passion, and
Luhrmann made the play seem as real as it is. He didn't go out
and destroy copies of the play or suggest that his was the definitive
version of the play.
If a film stirs up the Shakespeare
protection industry and provokes controversy, I think that's
healthy. It does what I think is necessary for Shakespeare, which
is to keep him alive and discussed and real. When a film like
Romeo and Juliet comes along it gives kids a direct, pragmatic
relationship with the plays. They talk about plots, they end
up in a way talking about the play's dramatic structure, why
the time scheme in that play, for example, is inconsistent with
logical events. And so they can start, in the nicest possible
ways, to begin picking holes in Shakespeare and make him more
real. It allows them to appreciate those things that work and
allows his work to be something that they can have an opinion
Did you spend a great deal
of time researching prior adaptations? When you made Henry
V, for example, did you do a great deal of research?
Before I did Henry, I
had played him a long time in the theater. Prior to that I had
done a lot of research. When I directed my first Shakespearean
play it was Romeo and Juliet. I went to the Royal Shakespeare
Theater and to the Shakespeare Theater in Stratford and looked
at previous actors' prompt copies going back hundreds of years.
They showed which passages had been cut, and they were almost
always those which were the most difficult to mount. Looking
at the staged histories of these plays is very helpful to see
how other people tackled the same kind of problems. It's always
good to know how things have been handled before. Quite frankly,
there were some good ideas knocking about a hundred years ago.
You have to learn to steal from everywhere.
Also, those prompt books embody
the classical tradition. That means a whole generation of people
who pursued the same roles or worked on the same plays. And so
it's a rather nice feeling when you realize that they worked
at solving the same difficulties. How to make exciting the same
problem of Hamlet finding Claudius at prayer, saying he will
kill him, and then not doing it, for example. It's something
that's very hard to pull off with real suspense in the theater
because you know he's not going to kill him right then.
It's very helpful to see how
other people do it. It makes it a practical, living thing. In
a way I suppose you can counterfeit some situation where you
feel Shakespeare is a living playwright, someone you can almost
get on the phone with, and who is sufficiently fast and loose
with his work. You do feel that in the plays themselves, that
Shakespeare was a practical man of the theater. This is a man
who was an actor and a businessman. Somehow, I think what little
we know of his life leads us to think of him as a collaborator,
that he would want to change things and get it right. So you
make those suppositions and then have a go.
What led you to write a screenplay
for Henry V?
With Henry V, it wasn't
only the experience of playing it for a long time with the Royal
Shakespeare Company, but also seeing the Laurence Olivier film
and then feeling a very different reaction to the play itself.
Over a period of time, the play suggested itself as a film that
focussed more directly on the idea of a young leader being formed
during the course of the play. Not a ready made flawless hero,
leading us through a pageant, but someone with very dubious claims
on the French crown to begin with, who leads in an atmosphere
of some political intrigue. He enters a campaign in which he
is untried and untested as a real leader, carrying a number of
guilts for his past life and about his actual inheritance for
the crown, which came through a kind of revolutionary coup. I
believed that the internal pressures within him, as they reflected
back on the story itself, would make for a different experience
than the Olivier film yet rich in it's own way.
And my generation had a different
experience, even from those who had served in the Second World
War, of what battle was like. Plus the details of warfare and
medieval battle had become much more available. John Keegan had
also written a very good book, In the Face of Battle.
It's a sort of eyewitness account on Agincourt and Waterloo.
That side of the medieval battle was so powerfully conveyed to
me that I thought it would be terrific to show in a film, using
a play which can seem so glibly jingoistic but which the text
Like most of the plays, Henry
V can be seen in so many different ways. I had noticed in
the theater that despite its pro-war associations it is still
something to debate where Shakespeare's politics lie. Different
lights can be shone on it, and so it helped when I made the film
to be working with an almost new screenplay. You have one great
film made of the play but when you think of the hundreds of versions
of plays offered over the centuries...I became obsessed with
making something completely different.
The theatrical effectiveness
of it was beyond question. Even if the audience is full of pacifists,
it's almost impossible to resist the power of the poetry the
man is given to say, for example, in the famous St. Crispin's
speech. That in itself was something I found interesting because
it puts a question mark over our attitude towards war. Even those
who would condemn the politics of war out of hand find that while
the play illuminates war it doesn't necessarily recommend war.
What it does is set out the excitement and camaraderie created
amongst bodies of men who are that close to death.
In the opening scene of Henry
V, the narrator walks through a modern film studio, flings
back the doors and launches us into the story. Why did you choose
to use that frame?
The first few minutes of any
film are critically important. With a Shakespearean film they
are particularly important. With Much Ado About Nothing
we started with writing on the screen, a few proverbial truths
about men and women. We wanted to say to the audience, "You
can understand this, we're going to tell a story about all of
us. It's silly stuff, really." It was the same with Henry
V. We wanted to tell the audience, you don't have to worry.
This is artifice, a film like any other film. This is 1989; this
is now. Here are electrical switches on the wall. There are all
our tools hanging out. This is where we start, not detached from
things you know about or working in mediums you might not know,
like the theater. When I first started writing the screenplay,
I considered having the narrator walk through a modern theater,
but a film studio seemed a more honest way to start.
The frame also had visual pluses.
We've laid out the story and embraced the imaginative pleas that
the first speech makes: that this is all fiction.
You have that wonderful shot
of the tattered and vulnerable English waiting in a semblance
of bravery as the well equipped French are approaching for battle.
All through Henry V, you seem to concentrate on the terribly
human dimension of all the characters, but particularly Henry,
both in his actions and speech.
I was certainly trying for a
psychological verisimilitude, as far as we can understand it.
I try to have my characters talk as people talk. We are part
of a generation of an acting style that is absolutely going for
the revelation of the internal life, which works against a declaimed
With something like Hamlet, who
is such an interior character, the challenge is to use both pictures
and sound to get inside his mind. In the Olivier Hamlet
film, I would suggest that his internal discussions are the least
successful parts of the movie. We both tried to explore Hamlet's
internal life, but I feel Olivier knew in a way it was the wrong
casting for him. He was such a magnetic, animal individual. It
was so hard to believe that he wouldn't have killed Claudius
in a trice. Still, it's a film I find very powerful.
Going with that internal life
of the character doesn't require you to stretch or bend the text
at all. All through Henry V there are these tests and
there is language which seems to express the stage of his personal
journey and the impact it's having on him. Specifically, there
is the scene with the traitors where he discovers the truth of
their betrayal. The language Henry uses there is passionately
felt; it's enormous in its imagery. He likens Scroop's fall as
a traitor to another Fall of Man, not a casual image for a Christian
king in the 1400's. And not, I think, a casual choice.
The choice we made was not that
Henry was the typical self-aggrandist who wishes to glorify himself
with words and pictures, but his words showed how keenly he felt
the betrayal. Those wounds we see and those he plays are dramatic
and supported, if you like, by the more obviously dramatic things
like the later "once more over the breach" and the
St. Crispin's speeches. Beneath that rhetoric was a human being
whom we had seen with some degree of vulnerability earlier on.
The night before the battle,
in the "upon the king" soliloquy, he surprises us by
alluding not only to the death of Richard the II, but the fact
that now he has built churches to sing for Richard's soul. So
there is a gnawing guilt about the very illegality of his having
taken the crown in the first place. That is the center of everything,
the human dimension.
Why did you choose to restore
Hamlet to a full text? Wasn't four hours a risk?
There are some disputes among
academics about what constitutes a full text of Hamlet.
We have the fullest text we believe that may have ever been performed,
which includes restoring a speech from one of the "bad"
folios, as it were, and includes, among other bits, the speech
which ends our first half, which is Hamlet's reflection on himself
It was a risk, I felt, only commercially.
It was a challenge creatively to make all those pieces hold their
own. I felt we had a pretty marvelous response from audiences
to both the previous Shakespeare films, in that they enjoyed
the Shakespeare and would go back to it and read it. By putting
in everything, the whole life of the castle, the whole nation
really, as reflected in some of the common people, who are included
in there, you see how people in position of great power are nonetheless
human, full of all the human foibles we have. And yet their actions
have an impact on a whole country.
The challenge was whether there
was an audience of some size who would experience the spirit
of the whole. To understand each and every syllable wasn't necessary
-- it was the music created by the whole that acts on one in
a mysterious way that's only possible when you're in the hands
of a great poet. Our challenge was to send the music out there
as well as plot, action, story, and character in the way I thought
we should do it and hope for the magic.
The biggest risk was that no
one would finance it, and God knows it took a long time for that
to happen. That was because it was a four-hour Hamlet
and it would be difficult if not impossible to persuade cinema
owners that they should have two shows a day instead of five
because of the finances. I've never argued it's what Shakespeare
would have wanted, to have it at this length, but he might have
done it. If you like, all his rough drafts are in there.
A scary thought for a writer.
Yeah, but the bizarre thing was
that the screenplay for Hamlet was nominated for an Academy
Award, which caused much hilarity back home and not a little
embarrassment. I wanted to work out why it occurred. On one level
I was very happy; it was recognition for the film. But I asked
them, "Why, how is this?" And they said, "Well,
it's the writers' branch who does these things." And I asked,
"Well, why would they do that?" And they said they
were voting for someone who hadn't cut the play, who protected
and honored the writer's version.
In a way, when I heard that I
was delighted. I mean, my screenplays don't feel like full-blown
screenplays. They're what we work from; they're sort of visual
storyboards, the written practical expression of my vision of
my film. And in that sense, it was something. It is a form. The
recognition in that way was very pleasing even though I did think
the Academy recognition was going a bit far.
Would it have been more pleasing
if you won?
I don't know how pleasing that
would have been. (Laughs) I think that would have been embarrassing.
But I liked the recognition and was pleased it had come from
the writers. I can't think of a film in history that could have
been shot as it was originally intended on the page, at least
dialogue-wise. Obviously, we moved things around a little, but
everything is pretty much as it was.
Every generation interprets
Hamlet in his own way. Your Hamlet is very self-aware, very self-conscious.
What's holding him from seeing around all the corners?
We worked hard to show Hamlet
as a liberal minded, Renaissance guy, who is utterly and absolutely
grief-stricken. This was not an unreasonable or neurotic position.
The idea that within a month his mother could marry a man other
than his father, whom he clearly adored, stunned him. On top
of that, his bitter grief renders him isolated, and quickly,
I think, paranoid. That leads to some of the self-consciousness
and blindness. I said to Julie Christie once, that if he and
his mother had a good chat during that month after his father's
death, the whole thing might not have happened. Unfortunately,
they don't, and the whole thing leads to the closet scene with
his mother where he kills Polonius. He's heading towards that
scene with his mother.
It happens so regularly, that
no amount of intelligence seems to be a guarantee against emotions.
Despite his intelligence, we get to the closet scene and hear
him saying: "How could you do this! You're my mother!"
We never played it for any sexual tension; only the moral outrage
accompanied with isolation could blind that ironic man to how
extreme his position was.
Part of his self-awareness is
also that he is a prince, observed by all observers. He is born
into a life where spontaneity isn't encouraged. Shakespeare is
continually interested in the emotional constraints on those
in power. Henry V the night before the battle, Hamlet with the
need to say to Horatio, "You're in my heart of hearts."
For him, friendship doesn't come easily. Shakespeare cuts Horatio
off from Hamlet as well, partly because of Hamlet's behavior
but also because what can Horatio do? Start a revolution? Kill
At the end of Hamlet, you've
said he finds peace. What is peace to Hamlet?
He achieves that peace before
he goes into the sword fight, expressed in the "fall of
the sparrow" speech. Before that, all through the play,
Hamlet is dealing with his intense angry resistance to death.
He fears that place, death. If he acts on his father's advice,
which is expressed in the "To be or not to be" speech,
he fears where he will end up. It's odd he talks about the undiscovered
country of death, since the father has spoken of that country.
But when he comes back from England,
he returns a changed man. Once again he constantly talks about
what it means to die. And he encounters it in a very practical
way, in terms of what death means in the skull of Yorick, when
he talks about the emotional costs of death, losing loved ones,
the indignity of what may come afterwards. All of these things
are presented when he finally gets a chance to talk to Horatio.
But by now he's already a murderer once removed from Rosencrantz
and Guildenstern, and he has killed Polonius, so he also has
to struggle about how you deal with taking life as well as dying.
In the sparrow speech, which
runs something like "If it be now, if it is not now, it
will come," I think, trite as it may sound to some, Hamlet
reaches some kind of Buddhist acceptance of the requirement to
live in the now. All he has at that moment is Horatio and that
peace, but he's at his least angry, least resistant. He has been
resisting what is all through the play. He hasn't copped out
of life, as it were, but has accepted at some level, that things
will happen if they happen. He feels he has wasted time. Life
has to be a series of moments during which you are ready. You
don't have to be a saint about it, about your dad dying, about
your mom behaving differently, but "readiness is all."
How does your acting relate
to your scriptwriting or script editing?
It did spectacularly in Hamlet.
If the director is going to play Hamlet, the character of the
actor is going to have a huge impact on the way the character
is played. What's important about playing Hamlet is how Hamlet
speaks to the actor. If he's got a very active, political Hamlet,
or a languid Hamlet, you begin to place him in context with other
The way I planned and shot the
movement was to give Hamlet a very strong sense of isolation.
The very first shot I made of Hamlet, was to show how a man in
his position could be off to the side, a dark force. There are
many, many images of this throughout the film. I wanted this
to be set in a Northern European climate, to show how isolated
this character was, and powerful his family was.
Four hours is still a very
long film. Is there anything in Hamlet you now might want
You have to get into this mode
where you accept whatever is there when the paint is dry. I don't
watch the films more than once after they're finished. I watch
once and try to give myself to the experience. Any more than
that and I begin talking to myself about changing things that
were not achievable in that current state of knowledge. There
were a number of things I'd change, quite frankly, if I had more
money and, quite frankly, more imagination. I would have presented
the ghost stuff in a more frightening way. I wanted to make it
in a way I thought people might have resisted. I wanted to make
Oh, I thought it was pretty
frightening as it was.
Well, we were trying to make
it so. But there wasn't enough money to do it. It was the kind
of thing that if you were doing the Midsummer's Night Dream
I'd love to have real money to make movie magic.
There's a shot in Citizen
Kane where Welles walks into a row of mirrors and his reflection
is thrown back at him over and over again. I wanted to do that
in Hamlet when Ophelia was dragged around by Hamlet, and
have the two of them stretching away into infinity. And yet,
I suspect if I had done the shot, it would have been potentially
confusing with the music, the rich dialogue. So my answer is,
I wouldn't change anything because I can't.
Why is Hollywood so enamored
of Shakespeare at this moment?
They're only interested in things
that make money. And I'm one who has reaped benefits from that.
But people shouldn't assume that I think I'm doing something
better by choosing to do Shakespeare. You have to believe in
your script and not just in a reaction against other things.
All kinds of good work is out there. And good work is good work.
Any words of wisdom for struggling
Yeah, I like working with writers.
I have enormous sympathy for screenwriters. They're the most
abused people on the food chain. They truly are. Yet from my
background, the only thing I base my decisions on is the screenplay.
So the play's the thing.
In my view, the play is the thing.
Only in a very few cases can a genius director or genius actors
make up for what's not on the page. They can't replace the words.
I definitely think the play's the thing. Hence, four hours proving
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