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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Even when adapting Shakespeare, there’s room for a little creative liberty

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One of my favorite running jokes from A.V. Club commenters is the bit where someone selectively edits a sentence, a paragraph, or even an entire review in order to fashion a ludicrous blurb. (Recent example: “[A]t its heart, The Martian is an unapologetically stirring celebration of…Matt Damon…going down…on…Jessica Chastain.” —Mike D’Angelo, The A.V. Club.) Critics actually do sometimes see their “own words” abused in ads, albeit not quite that dramatically, and maybe that’s a good thing. If nothing else, it serves as a useful reminder that any film adaptation, no matter how ostensibly faithful, will inevitably be transformed by whoever’s adapting it. This can happen in countless ways, from an actor’s offbeat delivery of a line to an editor’s subtle emphasis on a particular character or detail. But sometimes it’s as basic as which dialogue from the source material gets spoken in the movie and which doesn’t. A writer—and especially a writer-director, able to strengthen ideas visually on set—can easily reconceive a speech or scene without rewriting a single word. Even if the original author was William Shakespeare.

What brought this to mind was my review last week of Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho, which includes (to its detriment, in my opinion) some passages from Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays, rendered in modern English. Thinking about that element inspired me to re-watch some of my favorite scenes from Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 adaptation of Henry V, which I hadn’t seen in quite some time. I was particularly struck by the “three traitors” scene (Act 2, Scene 2), and wound up consulting the play in order to see whether Branagh—who wrote the script, and would later helm a four-hour Hamlet adaptation that uses the “entire text” (to the extent that such a thing exists)—had reshaped it in any way. As it turns out, he had, in a very specific direction that had all but completely escaped me on previous viewings. Shakespeare may well have intended to create a similar impression, but Branagh took deliberate steps to strengthen it, both in choosing which lines to cut and in his staging of the action. The result isn’t as radical as, say, setting Richard III in an imaginary fascist 1930s England, but a few small trims make a significant difference.


As an actor, Branagh is having an obscene amount of fun here. The scene has Henry spend a few minutes feigning camaraderie with Cambridge, Scroop, and Grey before dropping the bomb that he’s aware of their treason, and Branagh really cranks up the smiling sadism, over-enunciating certain words (“capital crimes”) and putting a lightly sarcastic spin on others (“their dear care and tender preservation of our person”). Once the mask drops, he’s fury incarnate, to the point where Henry visibly almost loses it when responding to their plea for mercy. Branagh had previously played the role onstage and knew exactly what he wanted to do with it; his performance throughout the film has the dynamic range of a Pixies or Nirvana song, alternating between soft and loud. (My favorite moment in this scene is his voice seeming to drop a full octave for the barked order, “Bear them hence.”) He received Oscar nominations that year for Best Actor (losing to fellow Brit Daniel Day-Lewis) and Best Director; given that he wasn’t even 30 at the time, it’s easy to see why he was regarded as the heir to Laurence Olivier, though that hasn’t quite panned out.

What’s really fascinating, though, is what Branagh opted to do behind the camera. While there are three traitors, one of them, Scroop (Stephen Simms), gets singled out as especially loathsome even before Henry appears on the scene. Exeter (Brian Blessed), discussing the situation with Bedford and Westmoreland (by way of some rather clunky exposition, frankly), expresses disgust that “the man that was his bedfellow” could have sold out his king. “Bedfellow” bounced off my ear back in ’89, but this time I did some research and learned that it’s an open question among scholars whether that word—which Shakespeare took from his own source for Henry V, Raphael Holinshed—is meant to suggest that Henry and Scroop had been lovers. Certainly, they were extremely close once… but that close? Adult men sharing a bed didn’t necessarily imply sex in Elizabethan England, and Shakespeare’s famous phrase “strange bedfellows,” coined for The Tempest, has no sexual undertone whatsoever. It’s not just possible but likely that nothing more than a very close friendship was intended. That would be betrayal enough.

Branagh, however, favors the lustier interpretation, and does everything he can to emphasize it. During the discussion about whether or not to release a man who’d recently insulted the king in a drunken fit, Henry removes his glove and tenderly brushes a finger across Scroop’s face; a few seconds later, he reaches down and clasps Scroop’s hand, even though he’s directly addressing Cambridge and Grey as well. More blatantly, his tirade spoken directly to Scroop (which is heavily trimmed—of 49 lines on the page, only 17 are spoken in the film) is staged horizontally, with Henry throwing Scroop onto a table and essentially lying down on top of him. Their faces are inches apart, Scroop’s face held in Henry’s hands. More facial caressing ensues. I’m not sure how I ever failed to recognize the subtext here, as it could scarcely be more obvious. And yet there’s no trace of it in the dialogue, unless you count Exeter’s use of “bedfellow.” On paper, Henry is merely aggrieved that someone he’d trusted so completely conspired to have him killed, noting that he’ll henceforth feel suspicious of everyone. On screen, he looks more like a man who’s just found out that his beloved cheated on him, and is now convinced he’ll never love again.

Even without the physical gestures and the near dry-humping, however, Branagh would still have managed to get the idea across, by means of the cuts he made to the text. For example, here’s a passage that Branagh decided to omit:

My Lord of Cambridge here,
You know how apt our love was to accord
To furnish him with all appurtenants
Belonging to his honor; and this man
Hath, for a few crowns, lightly conspired,
And sworn unto the practices of France,
To kill us here in Hampton: to the which
This knight, no less for bounty bound to us
Than Cambridge is, hath likewise sworn.


In the play, Henry rails about all three men (“this knight” in the penultimate line above refers to Grey, if that’s not clear), though he saves Scroop for last and kicks his wounded outrage into high gear when addressing him. Branagh chose to cut directly from “these English monsters” to Scroop alone, ignoring the other two. More significantly, he also cut a lengthy diatribe about the nature of treason, which makes Henry’s sorrow feel much more personal. Shakespeare frames the traitors’ act as a crime against England, even having Henry insist that he’s not angry about the threat to his own life:

Touching our person seek we no revenge;
But we our kingdom’s safety must so tender,
Whose ruin you have sought, that to her laws
We do deliver you.


That sentence falls smack in the middle of Henry’s closing rant (which is otherwise left intact), between, “You would have sold your king to slaughter” and, “Get you therefore hence, poor miserable wretches, to your death.” There’s no good reason to cut it on the grounds of redundancy, or even of pace. It’s not in the film because removing it creates the impression that Henry does seek revenge touching his person, on someone who’s literally touched his person. And the coup de grâce is Exeter’s formal arrest of the three men. In the play, he first arrests Cambridge, then Scroop, then Grey. Not only does Branagh change the order so that Scroop comes last, he has Exeter slap the dude’s face, like a jilted woman’s angry uncle. Cambridge and Grey are incidental here, present on a technicality. Branagh took an element of the scene to which Shakespeare devoted perhaps a third of his energy and made it the primary focus, without altering a word. At least he didn’t have Henry say, “Now…the wind…will cut…passage through…their cheeks…to kill us here in Hampton.”