Editorial: Adaptation as Re-reading, Line by Line
By Elsie M. Walker
Volume 41, Number 2
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A pivotal scene of the recent film Margaret (2011) revolves around the interpretation of two well-known lines from
King Lear. Like a haiku, the seventeen syllables represent extreme poetic density:
As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods;
They kill us for their sport. (4.1.37-38)
The lines are delivered by Gloucester after he has been blinded by Cornwall and Regan. In his despair, he perceives injustice on a macrocosmic scale. Later, with the death of Cordelia, the play seems to bear out Gloucester’s understanding of the gods as delighting in misery. Such is the extreme cruelty of
Lear that Jan Kott read it as a precursor to the absurd nihilism of Samuel Beckett’s
Endgame, an interpretation that inspired Peter Brook’s film adaptation of the play in 1971.
Along with understanding Gloucester’s despair, however, we might also consider that the above lines are thrown into relief by what he experiences with his son Edgar. Despite his father having failed him, Edgar takes care of the blinded Gloucester when he is most in need. So, at the precise point when Gloucester is most doubting of divine benevolence, he has yet to experience the greatest human compassion. Gloucester’s lines can therefore be read in at least two ways: as reflective of the wide applicability of his despair, and/or as reflective of the limitations within how he perceives the world.
Gloucester’s lines resonate throughout Margaret, especially in relation to the central character (Lisa) who must acknowledge her limited understanding of the world. Lisa (Anna Paquin) is an adolescent who believes herself older than she is. She projects self-entitlement and, at times, over-confidence. However, her involvement in a tragic accident forces her to understand her own limitations, as well as that which is irreconcilable within the world. The experience is traumatic, but it also prompts her to become part of humanity in the biggest sense. In turn, the film ultimately prompts us to see that our own lives can always be bigger than ourselves.
About midway through the film, an entire scene focuses on Gloucester’s two lines. The scene begins with a high school teacher named John (Matthew Broderick) reading them aloud before asking his class “what do you make of that?” (We come to learn this is a disingenuous invitation for contributions since he has already made his mind up about what the lines can mean.) Lisa refuses to contribute an interpretation because the meaning is “self-evident,” and another student supports her assessment by simply paraphrasing the lines as “human beings don’t mean anymore to the Gods than flies do to little boys who like to torture them for fun.” Another student points out that
Gloucester, rather than Shakespeare, speaks the lines—a point that John calls “valid,” although he later speaks of the lines reflecting the playwright’s beliefs about human suffering. Then another, more assured student named David chimes in: “maybe Shakespeare isn’t saying the gods don’t care about us. Maybe he’s saying there’s a higher consciousness that we can’t see, that the gods’ perception of reality is so much more developed than ours that compared to their perception our perceptions are like comparing flies to boys.” This interpretation works if we perceive the limitations of Gloucester’s perspective, especially if we understand his interpreting the world through his own pain. But John immediately rejects this reading, and reverts back to an idea of authorial intention: “I really don’t think that that is what [Shakespeare’s] getting at—what I think he’s getting at here is a very dark view of the arbitrary nature of human suffering.”
What follows is an escalating argument between John and David, a kind of tennis match followed by other students’ eyes moving back and forth between them. David expands on his reading by another suggestive formulation: “maybe [Shakespeare’s] comparing human consciousness to divine consciousness and [stating] that even though it seems to us that human suffering is just arbitrary that’s just because we are limited by our own viewpoint.” At this point, a relatively tight close-up on David privileges his words and he seems most sure. By contrast, John is visibly uncomfortable as he responds, “Okay, I, uh, I still don’t think that that’s what he’s saying.” David refuses to be deterred, and elaborates even more: “if you
say they kill us for their sport when our perception of the gods is so meager that we can’t even tell
what they’re doing, then how we can be so arrogant as to think that they’d even
bother to kill us for their sport?” At this point, John is struck almost silent—he shakes his head, shrugs in response to the avalanche of argument, and can only say “I don’t know.”
The moment where John acknowledges not knowing is his most truthful in the scene. However, he cannot rest with it. After David re-enters the discussion yet again, John finally raises his voice: “that’s not what Shakespeare meant!” he almost shouts, “scholarly opinion is pretty consistent that he’s trying to say something about human suffering.” “Scholarly opinion?” scoffs David, who then asks him “what are you saying?: a thousand Frenchman can’t be wrong?” John then retaliates by invoking a spurious notion of authorial intent, and making an unsubstantiated claim that his own reading is textually supported: “no, David, you’re
wrong, that’s not what Shakespeare meant, he says it somewhere else in the play but I don’t want to get hung up on this because that’s not what Shakespeare meant!” This repetitive remonstration closes the argument. In the uncomfortable silence that follows, David looks around at the other students with incredulity, while John sucks from a juicebox straw and takes a bite from his sandwich. John’s retreat to what could be a child’s lunch signifies his immature limitations at the precise point when he claims most authority. At the same time, David’s reading of Gloucester’s lines reveals a capacity for thinking beyond the individual that is crucial to the entire film.
This three-minute scene plays out many themes of our journal, especially in terms of post-structuralist thinking: the importance of understanding the inevitable subjectivity of interpretation, the danger of assuming direct access to authorial intent, the possibilities that are freed up by focusing on words in context, the animation of the text through the reader’s receptiveness, the deadening threat in silencing interrogative aspects of a text, and the potentially unending life of a text that invites numerous forms of interpretation.
Margaret encourages us to reinterpret two lines from
Lear, and the whole film could be read as circling the implications of this process. The
mise-en-scène of the classroom scene is dominated by grey hues and flat daylight, but just seventeen familiar syllables spark a lively debate that transforms the mundane space. The lines prompt readings that reveal characters and reframe the film’s major themes. Gloucester’s words resonate within the film’s full context of exploring the relativity of truth, the danger of assuming knowledge, the importance of realizing one’s smallness in the world, and the acknowledgement that painful experience can lead to positive transformation. Much as Gloucester’s lines can be interpreted in contrary ways, the film itself deals with trauma in both tragic and hopeful terms. That just two lines from
Lear work on so many levels here should give us pause: the scene from
Margaret is but one example of a miniature process of adaptation. Yet how those lines are discussed ripple through the entire film experience of two and a half hours.
Margaret thus inspires me to re-understand the possibilities of adaptation studies, just as the articles of this issue open up new conversations about many Shakespeare films.
Hugh H. Davis begins this issue with a study of Derek Jarman’s film adaptation of
The Tempest (1979). Davis rightly observes that the film deserves more full scholarly attention than it has yet received, notwithstanding an important article by Diana Harris and MacDonald Jackson (published in
LFQ in 1997), among several others. Davis contributes to existing scholarship on the film by exploring how it mysteriously represents itself as a product of Prospero’s subconscious, how it mixes time periods long before that became a postmodern fashion in film adaptations of Shakespeare, how it foregrounds Jarman’s own fascination with the play’s theme of forgiveness, how it interprets individual characters (especially the character of Prospero being modeled on John Dee, sorcerer and astrologer for Queen Elizabeth I), and how its celebrated “Stormy Weather” sequence is both comedic and tragic in its associations.
Elizabeth Klett analyzes two contemporary adaptations of
Hamlet: one directed by Michael Almereyda (in 2000), and the other by Gregory Doran (in 2009). She specifically explores how each film handles the play’s theme of surveillance by self-consciously representing processes of looking. For instance, she considers how both films recontextualize eavesdropping scenes by using onscreen cameras. Ultimately, she argues that both films use onscreen camerawork to reinforce the play’s emphasis on the “failure of surveillance to reveal coherence, wholeness, and truth.” She also analyzes precise surveillance practices within the films in relation to concepts of power, desire, searching, subversiveness, oppression, distortion, and fragmentation.
Jeff W. Marker’s analysis of Orson Welles’s film of Macbeth (1948) is an allegorical reading of its resonance in the era of McCarthyism. As Marker notes, just three months after principal photography for the film was finished, the Hollywood Ten were questioned by the HUAC committee. In this context, he reads Welles’s adaptation as a volatile representation of how “the American consciousness” was manipulated during the Anticommunist Era. Marker’s reading of Welles’s
Macbeth involves making connections between it and the auteur’s other left-wing productions and performances, his close ties with Bertolt Brecht, his clashes with conservatives (with the FBI even suspecting him of being a Communist), and his outspokenness about Anticommunism “smokescreening” the real terror of Fascism. Marker gives particular attention to the resemblance between J. Edgar Hoover (a figure closely connected to the anticommunist movement) and the invented character of the Holy Man in Welles’s
Macbeth, a seemingly Christian man who is in fact highly manipulative. Marker also compares the hollow victory of the end of Welles’s
Macbeth with the actual findings of HUAC. Ultimately he offers us a strong reading of the film’s subversiveness and his article is an important contribution to its afterlife.
Despite the many contemporary critical movements away from auteur-focused analyses, Marker’s analysis of Welles’s
Macbeth in relation to the director’s own predilections works, not least because the auteur maintained reasonable control over the low-budget production. The next article, Donovan Sherman’s study of
Anonymous, is concerned with authorship in another way: the film adopts the “anti-Straffordian” argument that the Earl of Oxford wrote Shakespeare’s works in secret. The film has been “largely ignored” by Shakespeare scholars, but Sherman argues that it deserves attention for being “inadvertently radical” as it explores what it means to author a text, especially one that is performed by others in productions that are themselves subject to innumerable contextual factors. Shakespeare himself is portrayed as comically oblivious to what it means to truly write text, and his lascivious bodily presence within the film is at odds with the character of Oxford who is portrayed as above bodily desire (even to the extent that the film resists showing him in the physical act of writing). The binary between corporeal presentness (embodied by Shakespeare) and transcendent words (connected to Oxford’s subjectivity) breaks down, especially when Oxford literally joins in a performance of his “own” play,
Henry V, thus participating in the “theatrical impulses of the present” as it re-embodies history. The attempt to disembody literature and decontextualize history in
Anonymous thus becomes its own critique.
Greg Colón Semenza closes our issue with an article anchored in adaptations of Shakespeare but that also has broad applicability. Semenza notes that the reflexivity of film adaptations is often traced back to the “superior” sourcetext that represents the antecedent “reality.” By contrast, Semenza explores how forms of self-reflexivity change across media (especially forms of print, theater, and film). As Semenza argues, some adaptations use their own self-reflexive moments to critique and provide “a substitute for the authority and relevance of the source text.” He specifically refers to two Shakespeare films that are “myth-shattering” in this way. First, he writes of
Scotland, PA (2001), an adaptation of Macbeth that lightly mocks and desacralizes Shakespeare by making much of it seem absurd in a contemporary context. Second, he discusses
Chimes at Midnight (1965), an adaptation revolving around Shakespeare’s Falstaff with text from five Shakespeare plays. Semenza argues that though reverence for Shakespeare is consistently manifest throughout the film, it also challenges the “internal divisions over the questions of war’s ethicality and purposefulness” within Shakespeare’s work with its own “explicit ideological commitment to pacifism.” Semenza’s article also deals with two other adaptations of literature in some depth: James Whale’s
Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and an adaptation of The Scarlet Letter (Easy A, 2010), further examples that self-consciously represent their own processes of adaptation and in themselves resist the limits of fidelity-based analysis.
Each of our authors treats the Shakespeare film as a “writerly text,” one that has prompted them to produce rather than simply consume meanings. Like the film of
Margaret, our writers open up possibilities for re-approaching Shakespeare adaptations. Unlike the teacher John who wants to end a conversation, and much like the student David who keeps making suggestions, they prompt us to keep talking.
My emphases here reflect the way in which these words are spoken in the film by the actor playing David (Jake O’Connor).
Ironically, John then returns to his chair to recommence the reading of the play with the line “Poor Tom’s a-cold,” one that belongs to Edgar. The line does not directly follow on from Gloucester’s two lines in either the quarto or folio version of Lear, though the irony of John speaking a line that emphasizes the vulnerable presence of Edgar should be noted. For it is Edgar’s presence on stage with Gloucester as he speaks of “flies to wanton boys” that throws his despairing perception of the world into relief. When John (Broderick) reads the lines himself, he places emphasis on the word “we,” subtly suggesting that he can only see as Gloucester does.
The theatrical version of Margaret is 150 minutes, but the extended cut is 186 minutes.
Whether or not Welles intended this allegorical reading is beside the point here. Though Marker provides considerable justification for his reading in relation to Welles’s well-known political leanings, his reading of the film becomes part of what Jonathan Miller would refer to as its “afterlife.” (See Subsequent Performances 19-76, where Miller discusses how all Shakespeare plays are ever-expanding through their afterlives.)
See Barthes’s S/Z for his full explanation of these concepts.
Barthes, Roland. S/Z: An Essay. Trans. Richard Miller. New York: Hill and Wang, 1974. Print.
Harris, Diana, and MacDonald Jackson. “Stormy Weather: Derek Jarman’s The Tempest.”
Literature/Film Quarterly 25:2 (1997): 90-98. Print.
Kott, Jan. “King Lear, or Endgame.” Shakespeare our Contemporary. London: Methuen, 1964. 101-37. Print.
King Lear. Dir. Peter Brook. Perf. Paul Scofield, Irene Worth, Cyril Cusack, and Susan Engel. Filmways Pictures/Royal Shakespeare Company, 1971. Film.
Margaret. Dir. Kenneth Lonergan. Perf. Anna Paquin, J. Smith-Cameron, Mark Ruffalo, and Jeannie Berlin. Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2012. Film.
Miller, Jonathan. Subsequent Performances. New York: Elisabeth Sufton/Viking, 1986. Print.
Shakespeare, William. The Complete Works. Ed. Stanley W. Wells, Gary Taylor, John Jowett, and Bill Montgomery. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1986. Print.
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