Academic journal article Shakespeare Bulletin

Reviving Viola: Comic and Tragic Teen Film Adaptations of Twelfth Night

Academic journal article Shakespeare Bulletin

Reviving Viola: Comic and Tragic Teen Film Adaptations of Twelfth Night

Article excerpt

Early in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, Viola, disguised as the male page Cesario, realizes that she has unintentionally caused Olivia to fall in love with her, discovering in soliloquy, "I am the man" (2.2.25). (1) She goes on to observe that by donning male garb, she has become a "poor monster" (2.2.34), a creature both male and female, who is confusing to herself and others. Andy Fickman's conventional studio comedy She's the Man (2006) and Lea Pool's subversive indie tragedy Lost and Delirious (2001) provide us with two modern-day Violas who experience similar moments of identity crisis, albeit in ways that are worlds away from Shakespeare's text. In She's the Man, Viola (Amanda Bynes) is dressed as a girl when she hears Olivia's confession that she has a "huge thing" for Sebastian (Viola's male alter ego). Shocked, Viola stares wide-eyed at herself in a bathroom mirror, smiles absently, touches her face lightly, and then comes back to reality with a jerk and a nervous "Oh boy." In Lost and Delirious, Paulie (the Viola character, played by Piper Perabo) also stares at her reflection in a mirror as she contemplates her divided self. Dressed in a black tank top and jeans, she sweeps her long hair back from her face, imagining what she would look like as a boy. She takes the mirror from the wall and stares furiously at herself before smashing it to pieces.

It is emblematic of contemporary cinema's engagement with Shakespeare that these Violas confront their confused and confusing gender identities in wordless silence instead of in soliloquy. Although these two films are based on Shakespeare, they take many liberties with their source material, and neither uses anything resembling a full text. Instead, they use Twelfth Night, and Viola in particular, to explore the challenges faced by contemporary adolescent girls, especially the ways in which they relate to their femininity. Bynes's Viola disguises herself as her twin brother Sebastian to resolve her frustrations at being barred from playing competitive soccer as a girl. In Lost and Delirious, Viola's counterpart Paulie is involved in a doomed love affair with her best friend and roommate, and she tries to become more masculine in an effort to win the girl's affection. By focusing their narratives on young women, and by dealing with issues of identity, sexuality, self-esteem, and empowerment, these films place themselves within current discourses on the "imperiled" teenage girl. Mary Pipher's bestselling 1994 book Reviving Ophelia brought these discourses to the forefront of contemporary culture. She writes, "As I looked at the culture that girls enter as they come of age, I was struck by what a girl-poisoning culture it was ... America today limits girls' development, truncates their wholeness and leaves many of them traumatized" (12). Although Pipher takes Shakespeare's Ophelia as her symbol for the twentieth-century troubled teenager, her descriptions could well apply to the twenty-first-century Violas of these two films: "Wholeness is shattered by the chaos of adolescence. Girls become fragmented, their selves split into mysterious contradictions" (20). The mirror scenes from She's the Man and Lost and Delirious echo Pipher's words: Viola finds her split role as Viola/Sebastian difficult to reconcile and damaging to others, while Paulie literally enacts the fragmentation of her image by shattering the mirror.

Although the two films both make Viola a reflection of the contemporary teenage girl, they take very different approaches to adapting Shakespeare and to presenting issues of gender and sexuality. She's the Man sticks fairly close to the general narrative structure and characters of the play even as it modernizes the language and updates the setting to an American high school. The film puts an emphasis on comedy, glossing over the darker tones of Shakespeare's play to focus on happy heterosexual union in its final scene. Despite the "Girl Power" message offered by Viola's triumph over the sexist mores of her boarding school world, Fickman's film ultimately presents a conservative reading of Shakespeare's play by having Viola embrace traditional femininity at the end. …

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