It seems that modern Hollywood filmmakers are as much in love with Shakespeare's plays as were the 16th century audiences who first enjoyed them. Recent updates of Hamlet (1996) and Romeo and Juliet (1996), both highly successful movies, bear this out, as well as the two best film versions of Richard III; Sir Laurence Olivier's 1954 "period piece", and Ian McKellan's more modern interpretation (1995).
In McKellan's Richard III, we see Britain in the late 1930s, at the end of a savage civil war between the House of York and the House of Lancaster. This version works for a number of reasons: 1) it is made for a modern audience; 2) the social and historical events are part of the audience's collective memory; and 3) the film's conclusion has a stronger dramatic impact.
1. Presentation of the play
"Image is everything", says the commercial, and with movies being almost entirely dependent on the visual element, the phrase rings truer than ever. Olivier's version, along with being a "period piece", is done very much in the classic style; the stage is static, almost as if it were a play and not a movie. The sets are colorful and spacious, but they also have a simplistic feel, as though most of the budget went into the costumes (again, very much in the classic style). The movie brings us almost immediately to the throne room of King Edward IV, recently victorious in England's brutal civil war between the House of York and the House of Lancaster; the "Wars of the Roses". After all but Richard have exited, we hear Richard's opening soliloquy in its' entirety. The setting is very much what we call a "period piece"; the costumes, s...
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...miling face as he is consumed by the flames.
In the text of the play itself, Richard's death occurs offstage, although I'm sure that when it is performed, the final duel is seen onstage in all its' glory. McKellan's updating gives us a suitably melodramatic finish, which will no doubt prompt a standing ovation
There is no doubt that Lawrence Olivier's version does a better job of sticking with the letter of the play, bringing us all the richness of the Elizabethan dialogue and costume, allowing us to experience the events as they happened.
But McKellan's version, while radically different in presentation and style, is true to the spirit of the play, bringing the intrigue and violence to life in a way undreamed of in Olivier's time. The point I am trying to make is that the new version really is very good, and appeals to modern audiences.
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