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The Great Screenwriters: Part 1 – Shakespeare, The First Screenwriter

By Martin Keady · January 19, 2016

William Shakespeare

The Great Screenwriters is a new monthly series from TSL that takes an in-depth look at greatest writers for the screen – from Hecht to Mamet, from Trumbo to Cody. These are the men and women that any aspiring screenwriter ought to know about. 

Part 1 goes back to the beginning to take a look at the man who was arguably the very first screenwriter of all – William Shakespeare. And, yes we know – Shakespeare never wrote for the pictures. Yet while his life predates the birth of cinema, his work laid a foundation that continues to influence the craft in profound ways. More on that below –

André Bazin is probably the greatest film critic, and certainly the most influential.  By co-founding and then editing the legendary French film magazine, Cahiers du cinema (Notebooks on cinema), he became the spiritual godfather of the fabled nouvelle vague, the French “new wave” of directors, including Truffaut, Godard and Rivette, who revolutionised cinema in the early 1960s with their extraordinary editing, use of real locations and autobiographical subject matter (which prompted the idea that the director of a film was its “auteur”, or “author”). Many of these great directors began their involvement with cinema by writing for Bazin.

However, Bazin’s overall impact on cinema is even more important than his specific nurturing of the creators of the nouvelle vague.  In his collected essays, which were entitled Qu’est-ce que le cinéma? (What is Cinema?) and published after his death in 1958 when he was only 40, Bazin tried to provide a philosophical underpinning of cinema analogous to the kind that Aristotle had provided for drama in his Poetics. In addition to his analysis of cinematic techniques, for example deep focus photography, his “big idea” was that cinema had always existed in the human imagination, long before the technological advances in photography at the end of the 19th century that finally allowed the creation of real moving pictures.  Bazin maintained that just as man had always dreamed of flight (an idea that was only realised at the start of the 20th century with the first manned flight by the Wright Brothers), so he had always seen “moving pictures” in nature of one sort or another (for example, the shadows created on cave walls by fires) and dreamt of using them to tell stories.

If Bazin was right and mankind has always dreamt of creating “movies”, then it is equally true that there are some great writers who wrote long before the invention of cinema (and screenwriting) who were effectively proto-screenwriters, in that they imagined or even foresaw a type of advanced storytelling that principally consisted of using images, or pictures, to tell the story. And foremost among those proto-screenwriters – in fact, the very first screenwriter – is William Shakespeare.

Of course, Shakespeare wrote for the theatre and not the screen, but it is possible to detect his sense of the fundamental limitations of the stage in some of his finest writing.  The obvious example is the opening of Henry V, which was written in about 1601 and probably used to open the new Globe Theatre after Shakespeare and his fellow players had fled Shoreditch and a vengeful, puritanical landlord.  The first lines of the play, delivered by a Chorus, famously convey Shakespeare’s yearning for something bigger, something more epic, than a wooden “cockpit”, with which to tell his epic story of one of England’s greatest kings:

“O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention

A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,
Assume the port of Mars; and at his heels,
Leash’d in like hounds, should famine, sword and fire
Crouch for employment. But pardon, and gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt

O, pardon! since a crooked figure may
Attest in little place a million;
And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,
On your imaginary forces work.” 

Shakespeare’s phrase, “a muse of fire” is almost a working definition of cinema, which, like the first cave fires around which the first humans told the first stories, would illuminate (almost set on fire) the human imagination.

In his great filmic adaptation of Henry V, made in 1944, which was the first of his trilogy of Shakespearean screen adaptations, Laurence Olivier used Shakespeare’s starting point in The Globe and then literally took the story out of the theatre and into “the vasty fields of France”.  As he always admitted, Olivier simply had to follow Shakespeare’s “cues” to allow him to adapt the play and make the transition from stage to screen.

This sense of Shakespeare struggling, like all the greatest artists from Da Vinci to David Bowie, with the limitations of his medium is obviously most dramatically evident here at the start of Henry V, but it is also suggested in other plays.  For example, when Shakespeare wrote his most famous stage direction of all – “Exit pursued by bear”, in The Winter’s Tale – it is not too fanciful to imagine him considering the use of a real bear (perhaps borrowed from one of the bearpits that were located next to the theatres on the River Thames) to make the threat of ursine attack utterly real.  (It is only now, in the early 21st century, that Alejandro Iñárritu has been able to use the wonders of CGI to portray such an attack in The Revenant.)

The great Shakespearean film-makers of the 20th and 21st centuries have been able to make real Shakespeare’s vision of stories told by a “muse of fire”.  Some of the very earliest films were adaptations of Shakespeare.  For example, the British Film Institute records that the first Shakespeare film ever made was in 1899, and was “a simple photographic record of a small part of Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree’s stage production of King John”.  Since those early efforts at bringing Shakespeare to the silver screen (many of which are now lost), a veritable army of Shakespearean adapters have created great Shakespeare films from his plays.

Among the finest Shakespeare films are Olivier’s adaptations of Henry V, Hamlet and Richard III; Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood and Ran (cinematic adaptations of Macbeth and King Lear respectively); the great Soviet Shakespearean Grigori Kozintsev’s films of Hamlet and King Lear (which subtly but powerfully compare Soviet Russia with Elizabethan England, another great police state); Peter Brook’s masterpiece, King Lear; and more recently, Baz Luhrmann’s stunning reworking of Romeo and Juliet (which updates medieval Verona to modern-day Verona beach, complete with handguns, ecstasy tablets and a newscaster as Chorus).

In all these films, the directors sought to expand the original stage plays for the screen, using the resources of cinema both to enlarge upon and focus in on the stories and characters in the plays.  It was Kozintsev who famously said that the real advantage of filming Shakespeare was not that you could show men on horseback but that you could show their eyes (and thus their souls) in close-up, as he himself did to thrilling effect in his Hamlet and Lear.  Similarly, Kurosawa’s Shakespearean adaptations, particularly Ran, are painted on an epic canvas, with whole armies on the screen when on stage there would only be one or two spear-carriers. 

Perhaps the finest example of cinema’s ability to illustrate and even amplify the meaning of Shakespeare’s writing is the end of Peter Brook’s King Lear.  Filmed in 1971, it was originally conceived of as a cinematic record of his extraordinary early 1960s production of the play, with Paul Scofield as Lear.  However, Brook was not content merely to record his stage version of the play; he completely remade his Lear for the screen. Thus, at the end, when Lear imagines seeing the dead Cordelia breathe again, Brook actually uses a point-of-view shot to show the viewer what Lear sees: Cordelia miraculously brought back to life, if only for an instant, before she disappears again.  In this way, Brook succeeded in creating an ending to his film that was arguably even bleaker than the original ending of the play.

There are many ways in which Shakespeare is a great screenwriter (as proved by the fact that there have been more than 400 screen adaptations of his plays around the world, and virtually every one of his plays has been filmed at least once): the immortal stories (often borrowed from novels or earlier plays, but radically reimagined by him); the eternal characters; and the strong visual sense, evident in lines such as Macbeth’s “Is this a dagger I see before me?”, in a medium (theatre) that is usually auditory rather than visual in impact.  But above all, it is in his straining at the limitations of the stage – imagining an entirely new art-form, more than 300 years before it was actually invented – that he is truly deserving of the title, “The First Screenwriter”.