Near the end of a laid-back chat in Mark Maron’s WTF podcast, actor Peter Dinklage let his irritation suddenly run free over the planned live action remake of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The casting of a Latino actor as the female lead did not warm him to the project. It was still an excuse to rehash an archaic story, for no better reason than to cash in on its legendary status. “Have I done nothing to advance the cause from my soap box?”, he jokes, 56 minutes in. I agree. You can rewrite and re-cast all you want to make it more palatable, but you’re still telling Snow White. Why not spend that energy on new stories?
Quentin Tarantino with a G-rating
A young woman doing menial labor for room and board in a house of seven single men of short stature did not raise eyebrows during the time of the brothers Grimm. But otherwise, this grim fairytale has managed to give stepmoms the world over a bad name since 1812. Attempted child murder by poisoning, cannibalism, and death by torture for revenge: Quentin Tarantino with a G-rating.
As a society we silently accept many behaviors for centuries until a dissenting minority view reaches critical mass and becomes mainstream. When I was in high school (Netherlands, 1980s) some teachers smoked in front of the class. Fifteen years ago, I would step from a movie auditorium into a lobby foggy with tobacco smoke. A different world
Just because the human species hasn’t purified itself of the capacity for rape and genocide, pessimistic scientists may think that homo sapiens hasn’t morally advanced much at all. Is that why we keep seeing new stage, film and tv adaptations of Shakespeare? We do have contemporary Macbeths, the producers will argue. His character and crimes translate well to the present. Admittedly, yes.
Three weddings and a fake funeral
Much of the bard’s canon however has its root in a radically different world from today, despite many plays being only loosely tied to a certain era or locality. Shakespeare did not write about ordinary Londoners of the early 17thcentury, but he certainly was one himself. You cannot disconnect the moral of his stories to the morals of the Elizabethan society. Much Ado About Nothing, in several screen adaptations, remains one his most popular comedies. Aside: the difference between comedy and tragedy in Shakespeare lies not in the number of laughs, but in body count versus wedding count. Three weddings and one fake funeral, in the present case.
The angelic, innocent lady Hero is wooed by the not-so gallant Claudio, who cruelly humiliates her on their wedding day for being promiscuous, a malicious ploy hatched by the jealous Don John. Claudio leaves the poor girl for dead. After learning the truth about the betrayal his disgraced prospective father-in-law forgives him, on the condition that Claudio marry the latter’s niece, sight unseen. “I’ll hold my mind, were she an Ethiop”, he proudly promises. (Act 5, scene 4).
O God, that I were a man!
The 1984 BBC adaptation kept this incontestably racist comment. Nine years later, in Kenneth Branagh’s exuberant adaptation the reference to skin color was no longer there. You can call it censorship or falsification to cut or modify a line because it is offensive when written today. You can stick to the original text verbatim. But that doesn’t of itself communicate what the author intended to convey 400 years ago. To the audience of the times, for a nobleman to balk at the thought of marrying a Black woman would not be offensive. But in a modern adaptation, standing next to Denzel Washington as prince Don Pedro, the line would make no sense at all.
We don’t have to approve of all the rough edges and cultural baggage that comes with otherwise timeless works of art. In a modern adaptation of Much Ado, you can’t afford to stay neutral vis-à-vis the stifling paternalism and sexual bigotry. Is that also what Shakespeare found important? Perhaps. The bright and combative lady Beatrice is the true heroine of the story, more than a match for her suitor Benedict and willing to defend her abused cousin with her bare hands. O God, that I were a man!
Shakespeare is in the public domain, so you can scrap, add, and tinker as you like it. You can thus create new works of art with greater, more contemporary relevance. But there comes a point when it is turned into something the author had never intended. That’s also fine. Just don’t call it Shakespeare anymore.
All things considered I would survive the next years just fine, artistically, without any updated Macbeths or Hamlets. Even Jane Austen can wait — unless it’s as funny and original as Lost in Austen. There’s plenty of great stories by modern playwrights and screenwriters still to be told, who deserve an audience and a paycheck more than our beloved long departed masters.