Robin Buss salutes Sir Ian McKellen's free adaptation of Shakespeare
I'm dead against anybody studying Shakespeare," Sir Ian McKellen said, when I asked him whether he would advise students to look at the text before seeing his film of Richard III: the plays were meant to be acted and heard, he insisted, not treated as literature.
However, he had just mentioned attending a special screening for schools in Birmingham where the teachers were very enthusiastic - and even their pupils had been quite forthcoming about the film, once they had overcome their reluctance to confess that they might actually have enjoyed something by Shakespeare. In short, he felt sure that this Richard III would make a valuable educational resource.
Initially, one is bound to have doubts, even so. The version of the play (scripted by McKellen and director Richard Loncraine) originated in Richard Eyre's National Theatre production, which brought the action of the tragedy forward some 450 years, to an imaginary 1930s England.
"The play is not a documentary about the man on whose life it is based, " McKellen writes in the introduction to his screenplay; but the fact remains that, in schools or colleges, Shakespeare's work is likely to be used as the starting point for enquiries into the medieval background and its interpretation in Tudor times - the play as history and as propaganda - all of which is muddled by transposing the action into an entirely different historical context (and associating it, even marginally, with 1930s Fascism).
Moreover, the costumes and sets, which on stage might pass as incidental to character, dialogue and action, are crucial on film. If anything, it is the words that are in danger of being swamped.
The doubts are legitimate, but may well not persist beyond Act I, Scene 2, where the arch dissembler confronts Lady Anne beside the corpse of her husband, Edward Prince of Wales, whom he has recently murdered, and woos her into accepting his ring. On the printed page, nothing could seem psychologically less plausible than this conversion from widow to future wife, yet McKellen and Kristin Scott-Thomas play it with such conviction that they bring out both the power of Richard's hypocrisy and an element of black humour in the scene.
McKellen insists that the play is as much melodrama as tragedy, but this version of it finds some unexpected moments of comedy. Though the historical context may be lost (Loncraine sets the discussion between Richard and Anne in a hospital mortuary), the text comes alive in a way that makes Shakespeare's most one-dimensional villain credible, and his relationship to the other characters easy to comprehend.
Here is the value of Loncraine and McKellen's film if (despite McKellen), one wishes to study the play. Unlike some earlier screen adaptations of Shakespeare, this does not pretend to be anything except one possible reading, a translation of Shakespeare into a modern feature film, eminently watchable, visually stunning, powerfully acted and using Shakespeare's words.
A group of students coming from the film to the printed text would already be familiar with the plot, the characters and the most memorable speeches. They would have no difficulty, if necessary, in repositioning these in the context of Shakespeare's or Richard's time.
In addition to that, the film is a precious resource for media studies. Anyone who considers using it, either for that purpose or with a literature class, should get hold, not only of the Film Education guide, but also of McKellen's annotated screenplay, which has an introduction on the genesis of the film and detailed notes on locations, characters, the interpretation of particular lines and the reasons for decisions made by the adaptors, which help to illuminate the meaning of the text. Together with the film itself - one of the most daring and memorable screen versions of Shakespeare's work - this screenplay is an object lesson in literary adaptations.
Film Education (41-42 Berners Street, London W1P 3AA, tel. 0171-637 99329935) has produced a study guide for students at GCSE and A level and, to accompany it, a 30-minute television film, being broadcast at 5.30am on BBC2 on May 8 (repeated on May 15, 22 and 29). Ian McKellen's annotated screenplay is published by Doubleday at Pounds 8.99.