Junior Honors Tutorial – Shakespeare and Film

This honors course would concentrate on intensive study of the issues of adaptation and appropriation in various kinds of films based on plays by Shakespeare. It is a course that provides a more advanced and intensive study of Shakespearean films that is possible in English 366, a large-enrollment course for non-majors on this topic. Students who did not take that course can use this seminar as a more-intensive introduction to the material, while those who did take it could benefit from the most advance level of this course, and there would be little overlap in the films selected or the reading assigned. Using two recent books on this topic, we would concentrate on the work of several major kinds of interpretation of Shakespeare that have appeared recently on film. The class would study four plays as a group before branching out into more diverse investigations of films selected by the students. These films would ultimately be the subjects of research papers, and the latter part of the course would stress techniques of research.

The four beginning films, chosen in part to emphasize various styles of adaptations, are Julie Taymor’s TITUS, a brilliant staging based on an earlier theatrical production, Kenneth Branagh’s ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL, an adventurous musical version of the comedy that shifts its setting to 1939, Michael Almerayda’s HAMLET, a grim modern American setting of the tragedy, together with Akita Kurosawa’s version, THE BAD SLEEP WELL, a more extreme rewriting of the play that also places it in the modern corporate world. Students would be expected to read these plays and to have a good command of their styles, ideas, and theatrical effects. The other play I would consider including is THE TEMPEST, especially if the new version filmed in Hawai`i with Helen Mirren is available. It is due for release in 2010. We already have two very imaginative versions of the play, neither very close to the original as it is usually mounted in theatres, one by Derek Jarman, a celebration of gay themes, another by Peter Greenaway,  a lavish, mannered transmutation of the play into a meditation on the power of words.
The diverse styles of these films, and their very different kinds of relationships to the original texts of Shakespeare’s play, will allow us to explore some the problems associated with terms like “appropriation” and “adaptation.” To what extent do the films seek to use Shakespeare’s prestige to give allure to these productions? Some plays are well known as monuments of the canon, while others are obscure. Some seem to be close to the original, maintaining much original dialogue for example. Others are so remote that they are close to parody, offering radically different approaches that seem to satirize aspects of Shakespeare’s original. I am currently teaching a graduate course that examines issues of adaptation and appropriation in the plays of Marlowe, Shakespeare, Davenant, and Dryden. The questions that emerge in these early examples of imitation, parody, adaptation, and appropriation are actually quite close to those that are raised in discussions of Shakespearean films.

The required reading list includes the texts of the selected plays and the following critical works:

SHAKESPEARE AND FILM, ed. Samuel Crowl (Norton, 2008). This introductory book includes valuable chapters on basic filmic techniques as well as good accounts of major directors who have defined the history of Shakespeare on film, including Olivier, Wells, Kozintsev, Kurosawa, Branagh, and Zeffirelli.

SHAKESPEARE ON FILM, by Judith Buchanan (Pearson/Longman, 2005). This volume has useful accounts of early films based on Shakespeare, including some silent films that are now available on DVD. It also has useful chapters on Kurosawa’s three Shakespearean films, recent American Shakespearean “spin-offs” such as O (a high-school basketball setting of OTHELLO), and FORBIDDEN PLANET (a sci-fi TEMPEST). There are useful accounts of Branagh’s films and of the various versions of THE TEMPEST, a very difficult play to stage and, now, one full of interesting interpretive landmines.

Students will be asked to create weekly reports on different aspects of the films and readings assigned for everyone to read. In the second part of the seminar, students will report to the class on an additional films based on one of the common texts. This report should include selections from the film discussed for the class to examine. In the final part of the course, students will concentrate on individually-chosen projects involving Shakespearean films.