Occasionally filmmakers do break out of those narrow parameters, and some of the best screen adaptations of Shakespeare have seen more uncompromising sorts ignoring the rulebook altogether. To make Chimes at Midnight, Orson Welles mischievously took from Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, Richard II, Henry V, and The Merry Wives of Windsor only the parts that involve the bloated noble character John Falstaff. Most filmmakers trim Shakespeare’s words for their adaptations, but none have been as bold as Welles, who dissected five of the Bard’s plays and made the jigsaw pieces fit together his own new way.
Others have gone further, merely borrowing the bones of Shakespeare’s stories and then fleshing them out as they saw fit. The Lion King (based on Hamlet), Forbidden Planet (The Tempest), and Ran (King Lear) have all taken this course, but there’s perhaps no finer example of a film choosing this path than Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood. This austere translation of Macbeth rips out the original dialogue and streamlines the plot, while relocating the action to feudal Japan for a spooked rumination on the corrupting allure of power. Macbeth becomes the ruthless, manic General Washizu, while the drama is heightened through the influence of Noh theatre.
Throne of Blood is simply one of the great cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare, and at no point in its almost two-hour running time will you even hear a line of Shakespearean dialogue. It’s confident and singular where Kurzel’s version of Macbeth is conflicted and fated to recall adaptations that have gone before. The two films highlight a gaping difference in approach.
There are classics, such as Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V and Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Julius Caesar, that hew close to the source and prove the value in adapting Shakespeare in what’s considered to be the conventional way. Then there are adaptations, like Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet and Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, that – in trying to be both fresh and traditional, both auteur-driven and true to the original text – play, for all their qualities, like creative struggles between two distinctive and opposing voices.
The exceptional likes of Throne of Blood and Chimes at Midnight, meanwhile, make the argument for throwing out the manual more often. Orson Welles – creator not just of Chimes but of the stage’s revolutionary Voodoo Macbeth and Fascist Julius Caesar – understood better than most that Shakespeare is as flexible as any writer, and can be tackled as such. Throughout their careers, Welles and Akira Kurosawa played with Shakespeare like putty, and in the process created landmark interpretations of the man’s work. More filmmakers looking to adapt Shakespeare ought to be mindful of the fact that challenging convention, though controversial, can actually reveal the Bard’s plays anew.