No writer has inspired more film adaptations than Shakespeare — from faithful-to-the-word classics to wildly creative re-imaginings, adapting the Bard's work has fascinated and challenged filmmakers for as long as film has existed as an artistic medium.
With the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death taking place on May 3, 2016, the British Film Institute decided to honour the playwright with a programme displaying the incredible breadth of adaptations his works have inspired around the world. BFI Presents: Shakespeare on Film is a tribute to the man who many claim as the greatest writer in the English language.
Adrian Wootton is the Chief Executive of Film London and the British Film Commission and has travelled to Toronto as part of those organizations' partnership with TIFF, who will present Shakespeare on Film to Toronto audiences. Wootton, who curated the series (which features 16 features and seven short films), will present at two TIFF events. You can catch these amazing Shakespearian adaptations, both iconic and contemporary, until early July at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto.
The first, at 6:30pm on June 15, will include an overview of the history of adapting Shakespeare for the screen, as well as the presentation of seven inventive short films inspired by various Shakespearian works. The second event, at 6:30pm on June 16, will be a presentation of Wootton's new documentary feature All the World's a Screen: Shakespeare on Film, produced and co-written with director David Thompson.
Mr. Wootton speaks to Open Book about the enduring appeal of Shakespeare's work for filmmakers, which of the bard's plays are the toughest to successfully adapt and why, and his own all-time favourite adaptations.
Shakespeare adaptations have remained popular with filmmakers even as trends and technologies in filmmaking have changed drastically. What, in your opinion, is the enduring appeal of Shakespeare for filmmakers?
Shakespeare's characters, his stories and themes (of family, love, politics, war, ambition, betrayal, religious conflict and comedy) still resonate and relate to contemporary audiences. Irrespective of the cultural context, people can still empathise with the struggles, successes, romance and tragedy of the lives depicted by Shakespeare.
Tell us about how All The World's a Screen came about and what motivated your involvement.
I’ve loved Shakespeare from a very early age. I grew up near his birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon and saw plays performed at The Royal Shakespeare Theatre whilst also seeing the great films made from his work on TV and in the cinema. Later I studied his work at University whilst studying English and Film and developed a lifelong fascination with how filmmakers adapted his plays. Later, I presented the cinematic versions of his plays at the cinemas and festivals I curated.
In 2012, after I had been involved with producing and writing a documentary about Charles Dickens and film (which was also shown in Toronto), I talked with the BBC about making another film exploring Shakespeare’s cinematic legacy in order to coincide with the 400th Anniversary celebrations. Anthony Wall, the series editor of the BBC’s Arena documentary series, was enthusiastic about the idea and the Arts Commissioner agreed that it was a good project to fit in with their commemoration plans. We began our preparations in the spring of 2015, and I worked with director David Thompson to write and produce the film which was finished in early April 2016.
The short films presented in the New Shakespeare Shorts are a very different kind of Shakespeare on screen than many viewers are used to. What were you looking for in these creative shorts?
When it came to Film London’s plans to celebrate Shakespeare’s quatercentenary we wanted to make sure we focused not just on film history, but also on creating new opportunities for emerging filmmakers to engage with Shakespeare’s work and make something that was contemporary, and relevant to them, their experiences and their creative aspirations. In terms of the ‘Shakespeare’s Sister’ short films, we worked with the British Council to launch a call for applications encouraging all-female filmmaking teams to apply for funding as a way to address the film industry’s gender disparity while also making two new exciting Shakespeare-inspired short films. The results are excellent: WYRDOES, which draws from ‘Macbeth’ and Marianna and Adrienne, which is inspired by ‘Pericles, Prince of Tyre’.
At the same time, the Film London Artists Moving Image (FLAMIN) team worked with King’s College and an animation production company to select five artist filmmakers who would each make a short animation inspired by particular plays or sequences from Shakespeare. The results — Neck and Neck, Love and Idleness, The Waking Dream, Let Me Not Be Mad, and Ophelia 2.0 represent a suite of arresting, fresh and funny films that demonstrate the endless possibilities to be found in using Shakespeare as source material.
The comedies, tragedies, and histories have all been adapted countless times by filmmakers around the world. Do you feel any one category is more challenging than the others in terms of adaptation?
In terms of film, I believe the comedies are the most difficult to translate and make engaging and genuinely funny for modern audiences. When it does work — say with Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing (1993) — it's a remarkable achievement. I think it's also difficult to transplant the jokes into a non English language context, which perhaps explains why relatively few have ever been made when it comes to international cinema.
Do you have an all-time favourite (or favourites) screen adaptation from Shakespeare's works?
I have a great many favourites, but if pushed I would single out Olivier's Henry V (1944) for being the first genuinely cinematic Shakespeare movie, Kurosawa's Throne of Blood (1957) for proving Shakespeare could flourish brilliantly in a completely different cultural context and Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet (1996) for bringing Shakespeare back to mass popular audiences.
How do you foresee the future of the Shakespearian adaptations? Do you think the option to film re-imagined versions of the plays (West Side Story, O, Ran, etc.) will continue to be popular?
From everything I have seen and from the experience Film London has had making new Shakespeare films I have absolutely no doubt that writers, directors and producers will continue to return to Shakespeare as a brilliant source of stories, ideas and emotions. Simply put, his work is a treasure trove of creative inspiration — be it for movies, TV shows, animations or web series — that can be explored for every conceivable genre or context. That’s what makes Shakespeare so unique — the DNA of his storytelling is a gift to the world that keeps on giving.
Adrian Wootton is the Chief Executive of Film London and the British Film Commission. In 2012, he received an Honorary Doctorate from Norwich University of the Arts and was appointed Visiting Professor of Film & Media, in addition to receiving an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from the University of East Anglia in 2015. Wootton regularly broadcasts and reviews films for Radio 4 and contributes articles to various newspapers and magazines, including The Guardian and Sight & Sound. He lectures nationally and internationally, and curates film programmes and retrospectives for numerous organizations, including BFI Southbank. Wootton is the former Acting Director of the British Film Institute, former Director of the London Film Festival and the National Film Theatre, and a member of the British Academy of Film & Television Arts.