FIRST FOLIO! Cinematic Shakespeare Cage Match! Welles vs. Kurosawa

Click here to view Macbeth in the SPL catalogWithout a doubt, William Shakespeare has been the most adapted author in cinema history. The Guinness Book of World Records even says so! And if they’re the authority on “Farthest Distance Walked Balancing a Lawn Mower on the Chin*” then it’s indisputable. What is in dispute is which filmmaker was the greatest adapter of Shakespeare’s works. You’ll get ample opportunity to sample some of the 500-plus Shakespeare-related films in existence during SPL’s First Folio program, where library locations will be hosting 18 screenings, including three separate showings of Gnomeo and Juliet.

For what it’s worth (not much), my money comes down to revered auteurs Orson Welles and Akira Kurosawa. Both filmmakers made three films apiece indebted to Shakespeare. Welles tackled the Bard first with his atmospheric, stage-bound Macbeth in 1948 (playing at the University Branch Monday, March 28). Coincidentally, Kurosawa’s first adaption was of the same play, although his version, released in 1957, was set in feudal Japan and was titled Spider Web Castle, later renamed for English audiences as Throne of Blood. Orson was first but Akira came with two better titles. Plus, his version has Toshiro Mifune being attacked by a relentless assault of arrows. Advantage: Kurosawa.

Click here to view Throne of Blood in the SPL catalogWelles’ later adaptations were made following his banishment from Hollywood. He would work on the films piecemeal for several years, capitalizing on his personal fame for paychecks in less respected films and on television so as to secure a little more funding for his passion projects. Nowhere is that tenuous lack of resources more explicit than in his Othello, which famously sets a scene in a bathhouse since Welles had no money for wardrobe. Just get everybody naked! Meanwhile, Kurosawa’s next adaptation, the indictment of corporate corruption, The Bad Sleep Well, was so loose an adaptation of Hamlet that it barely qualifies as Shakespeare. Although, again, Kurosawa kills it with the title change. But this time, advantage: Welles.

The final Shakespeare adaptation with Orson Welles in the director/screenwriter/actor chair was the Falstaff amalgam Chimes at Midnight. The film is a wonderful example of how malleable Shakespeare’s work truly is, as Welles manages to blend elements from five different plays to create a larger-than-life portrait of a relatively minor character. Chimes at Midnight has been notoriously difficult to track down due to rights issues but Janus Films and the Criterion Collection are currently working on a restoration that should see the light of day soon.

Click here to view Ran in the SPL catalogTwenty years after Chimes at Midnight, in the year of Welles’ death, Kurosawa released his final masterpiece, the jidaigeki version of King Lear, entitled Ran. (Ran returns to Seattle screens March 25-31 at SIFF Cinema Uptown.) Ran is a colorful epic that shows how Shakespeare’s themes translate across cultures and epochs. It is a film full of portentous melodrama and haunting images.

How does one compare two masterpieces? Both Chimes at Midnight and Ran are amazing films from titans of cinema, both directors filtering their own obsessions through the most influential writer of all time. Luckily, we get to live in a world large enough for both. Advantage: us.

*Chayne Hultgren walked 93 feet 2 inches while balancing a lawn mower on his chin in 2013.

~posted by Mike

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