I am forever indebted to my university host department, Department of English and Modern European Languages, University of Lucknow, for making me relay the treasure trove of cinema through a perfectly curated Films and Literature Paper in my Masters Third Semester.
For an avid cinephile like me, who had already started exploring world class titles and obscure gems since the dawn of the 2010s decade, it was a dream come true. Just like getting the betokened opportunity to read some of the best books that I always wished to add to my bibliography post high school, vis a vis the excellent and eclectic curricula designed by the department, this paper fused works based on literary classics in their many cinematic forms and structures. You have to keep in mind that I read most of the original texts before watching them.
What a joy it was to stay back after regular classes as the library room became a mini theater and variety of titles held us captive from late noon to evening hours, even in the middle of winter weeks. Then to behold the wonder of the city in its evening glory while returning home,
with lights bedecking the river and beauty of the hours arresting the aura, was something extraordinary.
Hence I take this chance to touch briefly upon some of the best works I saw along with my friends and fellow students, encapsulating the overall experience that I will cherish. Those were truly some of the best days of my life circa 2014.
Also since I have written much about pivotal titles like DEVI, BHUMIKA, PATHER PANCHALI, TOM AND VIV, HAZAAR CHAURASI KI MAA and KHAMOSH PANI earlier, all watched as part of this FILMS AND LITERATURE paper, they will not be included in the collective ensemble here.
So we start with works based on Shakespeare.
The first instance that comes to mind is 2000’s HAMLET starring and directed by CAMPBELL SCOTT, so compelling as the prosecuting lawyer in THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE. He is very compelling here too, dangling somewhere between the mystique of a possessed soul and inuring madness, driven to the edge by senior prefects who only see his inexperience and youth as drawbacks. Also noteworthy is the colour blind casting that appropriately brings it home to the new millennium, given its release date. Hence, this is a contemporary adaptation that works effectively in its verbose segments in particular.
To say that nothing quite captures the intensity of the Bard’s most haunting play MACBETH than sepia tones and Orson Welles’ signature brand of painstaking fidelity to the text would not be wrong. I was a bit distracted during this screening owing to the teeming class which gave up on it due to its ‘literal’ adaptation of the text but I intend to revisit it sometime in the near future again. Lady Macbeth’s cry of despair still rings in my ears though as does Welles’ characteristic imposing posture, here made to cower and muse in face of self-doubt, like Rodin’s Thinker. This employment of a post- War noirish mood is the most evocative to portray its ‘gloom and doom’ archetype, imitating the history of violence that defined an unraveling generation.
The privilege of having watched THRONE OF BLOOD, Akira Kurosawa’s seminal Japanese adaptation of Macbeth, is etched in my mind. Once again, the sepia toned palette is hauntingly captured by the ace director, along with the traditional make up and cinematographic use of smoke. They all integrate with the interior desolation of its protagonists. Be it the blanche faced ghost who Macbeth encounters in the forest enveloped in billowing smoke, Lady Macbeth’s possession by guilt courtesy her washing of hands down to the final capitulation to an eventual fate where Macbeth is attacked by incoming spray of arrows by an opposing army are images I particularly remember, highlighting the play’s standouts too.
Also included in this prestigious list is Vishal Bharadwaj’s adaptation in the form of 2004’s MAQBOOL. Starring heavyweights as Irfann Khan, Tabu and the irrepressible Pankaj Kapur, in a dynamic performance for the ages, this is adapted beautifully to its local ethos, creating an imprint for the Bard’s universal appeal. It’s a worthy addition to the canon, exploring its moral lapses adjunct with the underworld setting. It’s a slow boil revelation of guilt and comeuppance. The idea of Nasseeruddin Shah and Om Puri playing corrupt cops, updating the fixed position of the soothsayers in the plot, is a particular masterclass.
Finally, the ubiquity of this play finds another exciting and extremely well executed portrayal in SHAKESPEARE RETOLD, a 2005 BBC series modernizing his plays within current settings. Starring James McAvoy as Macbeth, this one is set in the culinary world of Michelin star restaurants and interpersonal war of temperaments. As irreverent as it sounds, it is naturally attuned to the sense of competition underlining any profession. Human hubris hence works to extract its post-modern beats to the core here. It’s a must watch owing to the originality injected to a landmark, clocking in at one and a half hours.
Baz Luhrmann always knows how to redefine established tropes and his signature style mingles with the spirit of rock, hip hop stylings and a post-modern fealty to seeing things anew in ROMEO+JULIET(1996)
A riot of colours, textures get incorporated to update this tragic romance moulded by hate between two factions. Here it is a California drenched in restive tempers as also the thrall of first love. Claire Danes and Leonardo Di Caprio mix worlds of passion and innocence with the realization of reaching an early grave, all with the sparkplug glow of their combined screen presence. Also watch out for Lost star Harold Perrineau in one of his earliest major roles here. I’m sure purists had their eyebrows raised to this one. But it’s thoroughly enjoyable for audiences.
From his plays, the trajectory moves towards fictional imaginings of the Bard’s own persona.
In SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE, a blockbuster, Joseph Fiennes, so memorable now as Commander Waterford on THE HANDMAID’S TALE, is everything we don’t imagine him to be. He’s rakish, sensual, outrightly attractive and a hopeless romantic. But this tale is all soul, pluck and ‘romantic’ owing to Gwyneth Paltrow’s expertise in melding those worlds together. This love story gains from her gender bending courage above anything. Recreating his plays, the social setting of Elizabethan England and especially the Globe Theatre as a hub of entertainment cutting across class divides, it boasts of an excellent supporting arc by Dame Judi Dench as Queen Elizabeth, Geoffrey Rush and others.
This one is a treat for the senses and revels in its period essence. Also the tingling contestation regarding the Bard’s authorship of plays is first launched here.
It’s ANONYMOUS (2011) that dares to contest the Bard’s legacy with aplomb and storytelling that manages to demystify those claims with a socio-political urgency. Besides that central conceit and the buck of ownership of those iconic texts passing to several names, especially an Earl (Rhys Ifans) , Christopher Marlowe and Ben Johnson, all contemporaries of Shakespeare’s age, he is presented as an arrogant and lecherous male archetype, massaging his charms on those in his gambit. A lot is also unveiled on the part of Queen Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave) and her younger life.
Elizabethan England, particularly, is recreated very well, with its stinking streets, smoke filled skies and dark characteristics intact, as we know it from history. ANONYMOUS is best suited to those with a neutral mindset because it is bound to avert purists. It makes a compelling case for its revisionist take on historical figures, informed by modern day scholarly interest in re-establishing facts. Roland Emmerich, the man behind box office juggernauts like INDEPENDENCE DAY, GODZILLA, THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW and 2012, sets himself on a justified course of reinvention. I really appreciated it.
Before the 2013 adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s always enduring THE GREAT GATSBY by Baz Luhrmann became one of my favourites ( I read the beloved book few years ago than that and suffice to say, its one of my favourites too ) , there was a 1974 version.
Shot in the lighting and style of the day, it’s not very grand in its staging but has an all-star cast comprising of Mia Farrow as Daisy, Sam Waterston as Nick, Bruce Dern as Tom and the eternally charming Robert Redford as ,well, nobody else but Jay Gatsby.
All I remember are the swooning looks exchanged between reunited lovers Jay and Daisy, Nick getting off a boat, the silhouette of partying crowds behind tents and the considerably dim lighting that kind of defuses the supposed grandeur of Gatsby’s social life. It doesn’t really constitute for an appropriate period look. Its best part is the background score set to the instrumental theme of that classic standard WHAT’LL I DO? which is apt from the protagonist’s point of view.
If you ask me why I love the recent one then I’ll say it’s because the 2013 version truly captures the emotional breadth and soul of the novella and given its era of creation benefits from the technical experience marvelously.
Finally for this article, I must mention the movie adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s almost autobiographical A FAREWELL TO ARMS( the film released in 1957). An epic tale of a soldier’s duty in times of war, it’s an old-fashioned yarn befitting the grand 50s era that tips its hat to love and other relationships as also the promise to escape to safety, buoyed by the power of the four letter word.
My, I got to see such names as ROCK HUDSON, JENNIFER JONES on screen as also Italian New Wave auteur Vittoria De Sica in his acting shoes while Elaine Stritch ( who I had come to love from her turn on 30 Rock during this era) sure made my day, enacting the part of an empathetic nurse.
A counterpoint to this is the more down to earth autobiographical imprints of IN LOVE AND WAR(1996)
Helmed by Richard Attenborough, whose influence had reached its peak by the 1990s with his directing prowess in CHAPLIN and pivotal starring turn in JURASSIC PARK, this lays open the cracks in the bond between Mr. Hemingway(Chris O’ Donnell) and his love(Sandra Bullock), the woman who initially served him as a nurse back in Italy when he was a soldier. His ego doesn’t accommodate her sense of dignity and this makes way for a painful personal rupture of two souls who could’ve been together in a post-War world.