Monday, August 9, 2010

A chorus' lines

One of the challenges of adapting Henry V to film lies in reconciling Shakespeare's Chorus with the seemingly limitless capabilities of film. The Chorus appears repeatedly, outside the "diegesis," or "world of the film's story," to remind the audience that what is being presented is only a feeble imitation of the actual historical events — due, apparently, to the shortcomings of the current players and of theater itself — and to practically apologize for the current production's inability to faithfully depict those events. Film, however, is capable of showing virtually anything, and showing it in a way that its audience will accept as "realistic." The filmmaker, then, needs to find a way to keep the Chorus' claims, explanations, and apologies from contradicting what is shown on-screen. The filmmakers responsible for the two most reknowned attempts at this filmic conversion — Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh — succeed in doing so, though each in a different way:
  • Olivier spreads the artifice of the stage across the unlimited expanse of film
  • Branagh confines film's ability for realism to the small space of the stage
A Chorus' Lines was written in 2000 as a project for a web site I was trying to start but which never took off. I am re-presenting it here with a few new annotations and screen captures. The article is in several parts — aside from the main essay, there are several appendices which explore slightly tangential material in more detail. The text of Shakespeare's play is also included, color-coded to show what each filmmaker included in his adaptation.