When it comes to adaptive work of a classic piece of art, be it a novel, play, or another film, there’s usually expectations to fulfill, especially with works well regarded by the public. Characters must behave a certain way, certain story beats must happen and a director must find the delicate balance between familiarity and originality. The works of William Shakespeare have some of the most amount liberty given to them. The plays are sufficiently old and so ingrained in culture that most adaptations are expected to feature some sort of extreme twist on the text. When putting on any sort of production, be it for the stage or screen, the question should always be “why do this story now?” This is especially prudent for stories that have been told so many times already.
Kenneth Branagh is but one of the thousands of artists put his own spin on the Bard’s work, but few have gained his level of success in doing so. Branagh has directed and starred in several film adaptations of Shakespeare’s work and one of his most well regarded is the comedic Much Ado About Nothing. Featuring an all-star cast, it did incredibly well at the box office and was the de facto screen adaptation for the longest time. Joss Whedon, round the time he was working on The Avengers, created his own adaptation of the play that released not too long after the superhero blockbuster. A radically different take on the material, it served as an example of just how differently directors can approach the same text.
Branagh’s Much Ado is a fairly standard adaptation. It’s still set in Italy, the characters still fill the same roles i.e. Don Pedro is still a prince. What Branagh does in his adaptation is simply up the scale. Shakespeare’s plays were written for a bare stage and few if any tech elements. Branagh simply takes the work to its next logical step. He films on location in Italy with lavish costumes and grand sets. The grander scope gives more weight to the characters and their actions and gives an air of dignity and class to a story that ultimately is a silly comedy. It’s clear love letter to the Romantic movement in art. Not that comedy can’t have beautiful and thought provoking writing, Shakespeare’s comedies alone are proof of that. Despite the antiquated locations and costumes, the movie doesn’t feel like a dreary period piece. Yes it clearly doesn’t take place in our modern time but it still features modern actors being led by a modern director. This blend makes the film not feel like a simple product of its time and instead gives it a timeless feel. If there was a single word to describe Branagh’s work here, it’s fun. It’s a light comedy with beautiful visuals which only elevate Shakespeare’s writing. It’s a strong example of how to translate a work from the stage to the screen. Branagh takes full advantage of the fact that it’s a film and is able to get shots of beautiful landscapes that just can’t be done on stage.
Whedon’s Much Ado is about as different as you can get. It’s set in modern day, in an American house, and filmed in black and white. The characters aren’t aristocrats they’re simply rich suburban socialites. If Branagh’s version was a rustic countryside holiday, Whedon’s is a laidback cocktail party. The cast mostly consists of performers from Whedon’s other works who take a much more casual tone to the dialogue. It was made cheaply and it shows. Not that cheapness is inherently bad, great art is often produced with little to no budget at all, but it is noteworthy in this case as the Branagh film relished so much in its grandness.
The core difference between comes down to execution of concept. Whedon’s version of the story has the unique setting going for it, but the movie doesn’t really benefit from this setting. This is a trap that often befalls people adapting the works of Shakespeare or other classic plays. There’s often this desire to go crazy and set Hamlet in space, or Twelfth Night in a bar, but these types of productions often fall short because the creative team didn’t have a clear reason for doing so. This doesn’t mean it can’t be done. Forbidden Planet at its core is a loose adaptation of The Tempest set in space, albeit with several plot elements heavily reworked. The key is that the governing idea must be represented and ingrained throughout. If the director is always thinking back to the governing idea then acting, sets, lights, sound, and all other elements are able to gel well together. Whedon’s Much Ado isn’t an awful film, but without a solid reason for its artistic choices, it just feels like a case of making a movie for the sake of making a movie. Then again, maybe there’s some merit to making a film for the sole purpose of having fun. It is entertainment after all and the cast seemed to have fun making it.
Branagh’s Much Ado, despite not changing much with regards to setting and time period, actually manages to feel much more coherent and its own entity. It gladly embraces the Romantic tradition where emotions govern all and beauty is found in the past and in nature. The world Branagh constructs is one of joy and bliss that has a timeless quality. You could watch it anytime and walk away feeling joyful. Funnily enough, with Whedon’s adaptation focusing so much on being set in modern day and not much else, it feels even more dated and a product of its time when characters use 2012 MP3 players for music. Again this isn’t supposed to be a dig at the Whedon version. The cast is still full of some talented actors and Whedon clearly had a passion for the text, and the play itself is good so it has an advantage from the get go. Time will tell how audiences look back on it though. Will it become a classic like the Branagh film or fade into obscurity?
Whedon has recently come under fire for his behavior on the set of Justice League, with his actions being described as “gross and unprofessional” from multiple people involved including Cyborg actor Ray Fisher. We don’t know the extent of what happened or exact specifics yet, but it’s likely this is a story that will continue to develop. Some have cited his contempt for working on the material given to him as his reshoots and edits did not jive at all with the previous director Zack Snyder’s efforts. One can see echoes of his lack of cohesion on Much Ado with the struggles of gelling with Snyder’s work. There have also been more egregious examples of his behavior given, with Gal Gadot speaking out about her refusal to film a sexualized scene that Whedon was pushing for. Ray Fisher promises there are more stories to tell from the set and time will tell how the situation will play out. This isn’t the first time Whedon has been called out for his behavior. Hopefully this time he is properly held accountable for his actions.