Adapting Shakespeare is hard. He wrote some of the greatest works of fiction that mankind has ever produced. Imagine if it was your job to take one of those works and bring something new to it, alter its medium, and maintain an admirable level of quality. It’s not impossible, as works by Kurosawa, Godard, and Branagh, and even Disney (among others) can attest, but there lies at its heart one extremely difficult question. What do you do with the language? On one hand, it’s some of the best ever written, whether it be from a tragedy and instilled with meaning or a clever quip from a comedy; on the other, if you are making a film, ideas of medium specificity within art would tell you to find visual meaning and gags and distance the work from the more traditionally theatrical understanding of dialogue.
I won’t go as far as to say that Joss Whedon, creator of imaginative, influential, and great television (Buffy The Vampire Slayer is his “greatest” work but Dollhouse is my favorite), is a modern-day Shakespeare for film/TV (he’s not), but the recognizable, humorous, and clever dialogue that Whedon does better than most other writers is certainly in line with a Shakespearian tradition, so the idea of Whedon taking on one of The Bard’s comedy’s ought to be quite a delight. Unfortunately, the idea of it is more delightful than the execution, at least this time around.
Whedon decided to keep Shakespeare’s dialogue while setting the play in the modern day. Initially, this one might think that this kind of juxtaposition sticks out like a sore thumb—nobody talks like that today, you might say; but then, nobody actually talked like that 400 years ago, either. This is artful, poetic language, artificial by design, as it has always been. That’s why Whedon’s decision to utilize black-and-white is a great one. It emphasizes the artifice of a work that, in many ways, was never realistic in the first place. Take a 400 year old text, update it for the present, and then take it back several decades; it emphasizes Shakespeare’s timelessness and eliminates the realism that a film devoid of fantastical/surreal/sci-fi elements often comes with. Whedon’s problem with adapting the language is not how forced it sounds but how limiting it is to stick to the page when so many ideas bustling at the seams demand further exploration.
For those of you unfamiliar, here’s the gist of it: Beatrice (Amy Acker) and Benedick (Alexis Denisof) are too good for love but spend the play arguing themselves into the hearts of one another, despite being too proud to admit it. Meanwhile Claudio (Fran Kranz) quickly falls for Beatrice’s cousin, Hero (Jillian Morgese), and decides to tie the knot, but as rumors of her adultery start to fly, he second guesses himself. Things move forward mostly because of eavesdropping and characters setting up one another.
Despite the difficulty of the dialogue, Whedon’s cast does a great job of making things easily comprehensible. The delivery and inflection on a line is usually enough to clarify meaning, but if not, exaggerated, close-up facial expressions do the trick. Those exaggerated facial expressions are one of the film’s great virtues, as Whedon brings through quite a lot of visual humor, which also makes use of the open-plan architecture for easy—or in a couple scenes, ridiculously difficult—eavesdropping.
But again, faithfulness also takes away from the film. Whedon begins the film with a wordless scene of Beatrice and Benedick in bed together, providing a motive for their love but also confronting one of the play’s major themes—the virtuousness of virginity. However, it never goes beyond a confrontation. It presents a great opportunity for Whedon to slip in his own dialogue and, more importantly, establish visual motifs and include other wordless scenes like this one to emphasize his interpretation and challenge gender roles—a major theme of Shakespeare’s play and of Whedon’s television work. More relevant with every passing year is the double-standard regarding sexual promiscuity of men and women, and that means that, with Whedon’s bold opening scene and the rest of the play, this was a great, missed opportunity to comment on it, to contrast Morgese’s charming Hero with Acker’s sharp-tongued Beatrice and Kranz’ naïve Claudio with Denisof’s self-conscious Benedick.
Instead, Whedon sticks too closely to Shakespeare’s text. There are plenty of clever visual gags, but few are as insightful as the differences from the source demand the film to be. The constant use of mirrors and windows emphasizes themes of manipulation and obscured understanding, but little new is brought to the table. We are left with humor and the gift of Shakespeare’s language, intelligently interpreted and put on screen. But we are left largely without the freshness that the modern setting suggests or the audacity that the prologue brings. I can’t think of someone better equipped than Whedon to adapt Much Ado About Nothing, but instead of two weeks, it might take two months. With more time, the caveats of Whedon’s interpretation could better show through, the film could shake off its theatrical restraints, and visuals could become additives instead of just clever emphasis. Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing is surprisingly cinematic, but it still demands more. Frustratingly, it occasionally shows more, but not enough to fully deliver. Instead of a strong Shakespeare adaptation, he leaves us with a passable, merely entertaining one.