Yes, Shakespeare adaptations suck. In my opinion, of course. My opinion has formed over the past 15 years of studying and performing Shakespeare. Feel free to disregard everything I’m about to write from here on out. I am, in fact, a pretentious and superstitious theatre person who will throw salt over her shoulder when someone mentions the Scottish play (Macb*th) in a theatre. I take my Shakespeare seriously and it pains me to watch an adaptation only to think it is awful. The category of adaptations is wide, but for the sake of brevity, I am only including direct play-to-film adaptations.
Adaptations are incredibly common in the film industry. Book-to film, television-to-film, true story-to-film—there’s a reason why “Best Adapted Screenplay” is its own category at the Academy Awards. The issue with adapting a theatre script for film is that plays and screenplays have vastly different structure.
In playwriting, dialogue is the most important component. The original cast or workshop cast of a play has a major influence on written actions. Many scripts do not have parentheticals until after the first production. Parentheticals are added prior to publishing, usually in collaboration with the original director and/cast.
In Shakespeare’s day, actors only received the bits of the play with their own lines. Whole scripts were not common practice until much later. Famous pieces of stage directions, such as “Ext. Pursued by a bear” from The Winter’s Tale, were important enough to write down. Original stage directions are lost to history, but important entrances and exits are part of the dialogue.
In screenwriting, the dialogue is less important than everything else going on in the script. Scene description sets the mood for the entire scene. A screenwriter has much more control over how actors move than a playwright does. In both cases, an actor will build onto written character, but a screenwriter might write that a character blinks twice, whereas a playwright will not. You cannot see blinking on stage.
Written differences aside, the reason that plays, specifically Shakespeare’s plays, do not translate well to screen is the difference in the audience. Plays are written to be performed live. The audience is a part of the show. Even a quiet, demure audience contributes the sounds of their breathing and their energy to a performance. Live theatre will never be the same twice.
Each time you watch a film, it is exactly the same. Extra scenes and directors’ cuts also remain the same, though different from the original film. On screen, what we see as an audience is the result of cutting and pasting scenes to perfection. Shakespeare film adaptations throw their characters into elaborate settings, with numerous costume changes, reaching for another film category. Shakespeare’s comedies can never be true rom-com. I don’t care which hotties of the day you throw in them.
Even with the most talented actors, onscreen, Shakespeare’s plays feel contrived and dry. Recent adaptions have everything: budget, actors, sets, costumes, but they still miss the mark. What’s missing? The spirit. The energy of live theatre. Nothing can replace live theatre, but live theatre is simply not accessible for everyone. Film adaptations make Shakespeare accessible for many, which I can appreciate. There are a few adaptions that I will happily watch.
If you’ve ever watched an adaptation of Shakespeare, or any other play (August Osage County, anyone?) and wondered why it was so dry and awkward, now you know. Plays require something of their audience. Playwrights know their works will never reach perfection or completion. A play is never finished, it is only ever printed.
Need more Shakespeare in your life? Check out this Round-Up of Films Inspired by Shakespeare. If you feel also feel a bit wary of direct to film adaptations, read this list of questionable choices in big screen Shakespeare and feel validated in your opinion.