The Bard Shakes Loose Shakespeare lives: The plays are as contemporary now as when they were written, which may be why they are being revised and reinterpreted in new movies.

January 28, 1996|By STEPHEN HUNTER | STEPHEN HUNTER,SUN FILM CRITIC

To: Jane Austen, "Steventon," Hampshire, England.

L From: Morrie Greene, Creative Arts Agency, Hollywood, Calif.

Re: Career Moves

Jane, baby:

Sorry, princess, it's over, 15-minutewise. You may get an Oscar but we've stopped getting callbacks on your projects, plus "Mansfield Park" has just gone into turnaround at Metro. Have you thought of trying to crack the How-to Market? Ciao!

To: William Shakespeare, Stratford-on-Avon, England.

From: Morrie Greene, CAA, Hollywood, Calif.

Re: Career Moves

Willie, pal:

Welcome back to the bigs, baby. Get out here pronto. There's money lying around on the streets. Your only competition is idiots.

Well, all right, such wires probably would never have been sent, not even by CAA when Mike Ovitz was running the place. But it is true that after a year of Jane Austen, climaxing in the arrival of a ravishing "Pride and Prejudice" to cable TV and probably an Oscar or two for "Sense and Sensibility," another Englishman is being seen in the best places these days.

No, not Hugh Grant, with or without Divine intervention. The Bard, as in Shakespeare. In fact, it's raining Shakespeare, at least in Baltimore.

That's because not only has Oliver Parker's version of "Othello" just opened, but on Feb. 16 everybody's favorite villain, "Richard III," comes to town in a stunning new raiment starring Ian McKellen as the original Tricky Dick. On Feb. 8, Johns Hopkins University begins a four-film series of Shakespeare productions, chosen with an eye toward demonstrating the various possibilities of interpretation today.

The Hopkins' films are Laurence Olivier's "Henry V," a fairly conventional and rousing appeal to patriotic pieties in 1944, with Olivier starring both before and behind the camera (Feb. 8, 7 p.m. in the Baltimore Museum of Art); Franco Zeffirelli's romantic teen spin on "Romeo and Juliet" from 1968 (Feb. 22); Peter Brooks' "King Lear," from 1970, said to be a "Lear" as Beckett might have mounted it (March 14); and finally, Roman Polanski's "Macbeth," which was a mega-violent 1972 release with Lord and Lady Macbeth being played by young and attractive performers, rather than the usual doddering oldsters (April 18).

Is this a pattern or a random blip? Or is the world becoming more English Lit-friendly these days?

The answers are mixed. In the case of Jane Austen, I think the world is becoming English Lit-friendly. In the case of Shakespeare, however, another agenda prevails.

Jane Austen can still be Jane Austen. That is, the world of Jane Austen can unreel in reasonably straight-forward recapitulation, reasonably literal adaptations of novels into movies. No one would ever set "Sense and Sensibility" aboard a destroyer in the Pacific in 1944.

What compels Austen to our attention today -- more, of course, than the genius of the work itself -- is her consistent creation of powerfully imagined young female characters caught up in thorny moral dilemmas (usually involving young men), who must struggle for happiness but always find it after much travail. That plays as well in the late 20th century as it did in the early 19th century, possibly even a little better.

Thus it is that only one of the four Austen projects of 1995-1996 was revisionist in spirit, and that was "Clueless," based on Austen's early novel "Emma" -- and in an odd way it wasn't that divergent. Playing in Beverly Hills, amid wealthy yuppie children with pagers who drove Jeeps and beamers, it still retained Austen's values: The importance of truth and friendship, the necessity of loyalty and empathy, the fundamental belief that honesty to self was the foundation of survival in that cursed arena known as Society. The other three ("Persuasion" is the thus unnamed one, and it's still playing in Baltimore, at the Gordon in Owings Mills) were dead-on versions, not fanciful permutations.

By contrast, no such straightforward version of Shakespeare can exist. Shakespeare isn't enough, where Austen is enough. With Shakespeare, you gotta get a gimmick, some new twist that will empower the production for contemporary standards.

Obviously, there are some technical reasons for this. Austen, written in clear, bold English and plotted sometimes almost programatically for moral instruction, is much more accessible to 20th-century minds, particularly movie-culture minds. And she it is still read entirely for pleasure today. Shakespeare, in that blisteringly brilliant iambic pentameter that takes an educated ear to penetrate, is not as reader-friendly to 20th-century minds.

Malignancy

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