Much Review About Nothing

There is a certain degree of irony in this review of Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing which is just that; the reviewer complains at length about the bare-bones nature of the production and the lack of interpretation over mere presentation (i.e., modern dress without modern sensibilities).

I seriously doubt the reviewer would have had quite the same issues with the setting simplicity if this had been a staged production rather than a filmed production, and it is important to remember that Shakespeare’s plays were written for the stage, not the screen.

As to modern interpretation and sensibilities, I largely think this is impossible without a complete rewrite of the play into another project all-together and most particularly in the case of the comedies. Take, for example, the movie 10 Things I Hate About You as a modern interpretation of The Taming of the Shrew.

The tragedies so better lend themselves to simple modern reinvention by simply changing the uniforms of the many and varied soldiery or political figures. As an example, I give you House of Cards, which to me is a retelling of Richard III with a soupcon of Othello for flavour.

And let’s face it, Much Ado About Nothing is one of the more frivolous and playful of Shakespeare’s comedies…it is play for the sake of play. It offers no deep meaning but instead centres on the silliness of love; a topic that will remain universal for all time.

Which brings me to the biggest challenge I have with this review.

The reviewer seems to assume that Whedon meant for this to be anything more than a lark…but Whedon being Whedon, a lark that he filmed with very good friends who happen to be very good actors.

I know as little as the reviewer, but I have every reason to believe the choice of modern dress was simply the reality of not having racks of Renaissance costumes lying around the house. The choice of black & white cinematography was perhaps an homage to the screwball comedies of yesteryear, of which this play is truly one and possibly the most yester of yesteryears.

As you can probably tell, I liked the movie…I had few expectations other than laughter and those were met. I also liked Kenneth Branagh’s version, which really only differed in multiple sets, colour film and period costume.


Adapt or die


Recently, I’ve read a couple of screenplays based on novels, and with this albeit low number of examples, let me start by saying thank goodness I have yet to find a book I wish to adapt for screen. The process, it would seem, is tedious and fraught with perils.

Odds are, especially if you are just starting out as a writer, you’ve chosen to adapt a specific book because you love it.

You love the way it is written. You love the story it tells. You love the characters. You may even love the paper on which it’s printed or its cover art.

Congratulations. You’re doomed.

I say this not to be mean but to point out that the book was written as a book for very specific reasons. The format and structure of a novel is incredibly different from that of a film.

At its simplest, you have the space in a novel to indulge yourself in narrative and character introspection. More simply put, you can describe a setting or reaction in such detail that if linearly translated to a screenplay, it would result in ten minutes of film focused exclusively on waves rolling across a beach or on the angle of an eyebrow raised over the left eye of your heroine.

Even simpler, novels are verbal, ironically, while films are visual.

And unless you’re planning on running a voice over throughout your movie—please say no—I have no idea what your characters are thinking. I can try to guess from their facial expressions, but it is a guess and will have as much to do with how easy it was to find a parking place in the megaplex as it does with the actor’s talent.

The novel could afford to be 500 or 1000 pages. Your screenplay can’t.

I love Kenneth Branagh. I love Shakespeare. Branagh did a very linear interpretation of Hamlet for film. I was bored. Mel Gibson’s Hamlet? Held my attention and was entertaining. [Compare the two “alas, poor Yorick” scenes linked here.]

The difference? A very sharp editorial knife.

So, I am going to ask you to take the thing you love and hack it. Cut it with broad strokes and wild abandon. This is no place for finesse.

This isn’t about trimming paragraphs. It is about slashing subplots or entire chapters. It is about burning away all of the decorative niceties until you reach the essence that turns your crank.

Be cruel. Be ruthless. Be honest.

Take that Sistine Chapel and reduce it to the handful of bricks that make you sweaty; that keep you coming back time after time.

It will feel like murder. In some ways, it is. But it’s murder for the greater good, because once you’ve hit that core, you can begin to rebuild. You can start to rescue some of the elements you set aside earlier or add new ones that are truly unique to your vision.

What is that core? I don’t know. That’s for you to decide.

Maybe it was the setting. Perhaps it was the relationship between two characters.

Whatever it is, find it and make that your story. That is what you love. That is why you keep coming back for more.

Honour that and you’ll have a screenplay worth turning into a movie.

(Image is property of owner and is used here without permission. I’m adaptable that way.)

No “new”s

Where do you get your ideas? It’s a common question and my answer tends to stun people, if only for its honesty. I steal them.

I don’t plagiarize. That would be wrong. But I seriously doubt that I could tell a truly original story if I tried. It’s not that I lack faith in my abilities, but rather that I simply don’t think there are any truly original stories to tell.

Every story I develop in the future is, on some level, based on one or more stories I have read, heard or seen throughout my life. And I’m okay with that, because what makes my story mine and not those is me, my unique spin on the age-old tales.

I was in a screenwriting workshop years ago and the instructor had us do an exercise where we all watched the same scene from the movie After Hours (a brilliant piece of psychotic filmmaking if ever there was one). When the scene was over—maybe 3 minutes of Griffen Dunne and Rosana Arquette in a coffee shop at night—he had each of us write what happened next.

When we read our scenes to the class what we quickly discovered was that we had 8 different movies, one from each workshopper. Eight people working from the same starting point, 8 movies.

Everybody steals. Always have.

Shakespeare stole his plotlines. Romeo & Juliet was a total rip-off of West Side Story.

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea and Finding Nemo? Same lead character name and they were underwater.

These are not coincidences, my friends.

So cut yourself some slack. You will bring something of yourself to your re-interpretation of other stories and you will mix and match them in ways that no one else would.

Hell, Laurence Olivier, Kenneth Branagh and Mel Gibson each filmed Hamlet and none of them truly matches the play that Shakespeare wrote. They may be the same starting point, but they are not the same movie. (The links are all to the To Be or Not To Be speech)

And if you’ve given your work to someone else to critique, and the first thing they give back to you is “This is a little too much like…”, STOP READING THEIR ADVICE because most of the rest of it is likely ill-conceived or just plain stupid.

Other people have taken photos of bees on flowers, but no one took the photo I took of that particular bee on that particular flower.

If you wrote a story when you were 20 and then wrote a story with the same plot when you were 40, I can pretty much guarantee that those would end up being two very different stories.

So relax. Tell your story, no matter where it comes from. Because in the end, you will make it your story.

PS. If you want a great book that further proves this point, check out Peter Desberg and Jeffrey Davis’s Show Me The Funny. More on this book in a future post.

PPS. After Hours was a rip-off–sorry, modern day interpretation–of Homer’s The Odyssey, which was also the premise of Oh Brother, Where Are’t Thou.