Classic Demolition: Why Shakespeare Is Not Exactly "Our Contemporary," or, "Dude, Where's My Hankie?"

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Like Peter Shaffer's Mozart, I may be a vulgar man, but I do not lust after vulgar entertainments. Though my thesis here is not centrally about Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ronald Joffe, the adaptation of The Scarlet Letter Joffe directed is a convenient paradigm for what Hollywood has done to a classic text, beautifully photographed, ornamented with splendid art direction, and, as the credits announce, "loosely adapted." You may recall, it stars Gary Oldman as a hunky Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale, Robert Duvall (who has seen far better roles) as a psychotic Chillingworth who has gone native and is given to scalping lustful Puritans. and Demi Moore as a strangely liberated Hester Prynne. This is not a retelling of the story Hawthorne would recognize.

The movie would have more accurately been titled "The Harlot Letter, or, Hester Fucked," for that is what Joffe's soft pornographic treatment is really about; that is its true content. What happens to Hester also happens to Hawthorne. Later on Hester is nearly raped by a randy Puritan named Brewster, but Hawthorne has been utterly raped.

I mention The Scarlet Letter of 1995 only because it is so campy and outrageous. It is not at all about language and literature, as will be clear when one revisits the scene in which Hester is so moved by the "passion" of Mr. Dimmesdale's sermon, which is fragmented and incoherent, no doubt because screenwriter Douglas Day Stewart would not have a clue about how to write a "passionate" sermon, particularly if it touched upon religion and morality: the fil in is primarily about infidelity (in more than one sense), revenge, and humping, and secondarily about witchcraft. intolerance, and colonial abuse.

Stanley Kauffmann, a critic of taste far too ratified for the movies, really, even though he has reviewed them for decades for The New Republic, has often protested the absurdity of attempting to adapt classic novels or plays to the cinema. If a literary or dramatic work has achieved a high level of near perfection in one medium, the best a film could hope to achieve is merely an approximate parallel statement that would be bound to fall short of the original achievement. Hollywood would do better to fix its sights on lesser works, such as the novels of Margaret Mitchell, Stephen King, or Mickey Spillane, or, a few notches better, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, or James M. Cain. Hollywood should have the decency to let Nathaniel Hawthorne rest in peace.

My thesis concerns not Hawthorne, however. so much as Shakespeare, whose plays were obviously written to be performed. In fact, the dialogue and poetry should work just as well on either stage or screen, if the actors are sufficiently gifted, and, in fact, Shakespeare has not fared too badly through the first century of cinema, despite the extravagant treatments of Derek Jarman, Baz Luhrmann. and Julie Taymor. All of these directors took liberties with the text, but all of them remained relatively faithful to Shakespeare's language. The more recent trend, however, has been to update Shakespeare in such a way that the original language has been thoroughly changed, corrupted, and dismissed, which brings me back to my theme: cinematic rape and pillaging. Jan Kott entitled his groundbreaking book Shakespeare Our Contemporary, but in many ways the Bard is not really "our contemporary." Two examples may suffice:

Othello (2002) Directed by Geoffrey Sax, adapted by Andrew Davies for LTW and WGBH Boston, in association with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Cast: Eamonn Walker (John Othello), Keeley Hawes (Dessie Brabent), Ben Jago (Christopher Eccleston), Christopher Fox (PC Adey), Allan Cutts (PC Stiller), Patrick Myers (PC Gaunt), Del Synnott (PC Alan Roderick), Andrew Charleson (Tommy Rogers), Bill Paterson (Sinclair Carver), Nicholas Gecks (Home Secretary), Richard Coyle (Michael Cass), Carl McCrystal (Geoffrey), Tim Faraday (Chief Superintendent), Michelle Newell (Alma Carver), Rachael Stirling (Lulu), John Harding (Prime Minister), Gerrard McArthur (Jim Gordon), Joss Ackland (James Brabant), Anna Niland (Estelle). …