My name is Doug Wykstra, and this is some of the stuff I've read and watched.
Everyone knows that comedy is based on timing, but most people only think of a few of the times in question when they hear that.
First, there are the measured moments of silence between when actors say their lines, and the amount of time a script takes between putting a Chekov gun on the mantle and having it go off. This is what most people think about when they talk about good timing in comedies.
But also, there is the time people go to see the comedy. This is where people start to get uncomfortable about how subjective comedy can be from moment to moment. Lots of movies play really well in a crowded theater, and don’t play so well when you’re watching them on TV alone at night. Judd-Apatow-produced comedies in particular seem to thrive off this crowd-fed enthusiasm; I remember seeing Superbad at 2PM on Tuesday in a theater with 5 other people and thinking it was a pretty effective cringe comedy with some good punchlines. Four days later I went with five friends to a 7PM weekend showing, and the crowded theater made the whole experience transcendent. I’ve never laughed so loudly at a movie before or since.
Finally, there is the timing regarding release. This is an important and underrated component of timing. For example, Big Trouble, a fine little comedy whose climax involves a nuclear bomb being smuggled aboard a passenger airline, was originally scheduled to be released the week after September 11. It was released four months later instead, but people were still not ready to laugh at planes mixed with explosions. Jokes nearly always require context (if only the context offered by a common language), so some jokes are necessarily going to have a certain half-life.
Like, say you waited over 400 years before turning a script into a movie. Not many jokes would survive, right?
All of Shakespeare’s comedies are necessarily problematic in the third sense of timing, and Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing is no exception. How could it be? Anyone who’s read a decently-footnoted text of any of Shakepeare’s plays know how much gets lost in the time warp, to the point where his dick jokes don’t always get across without some serious mugging from the actors. But people might have had reason to hope there would be something special about Whedon’s. Much Ado About Nothing, after all, would be the play most in Whedon’s wheelhouse, an ensemble comedy with a hang-out vibe and sharp, unexpected turns into drama. The movie certainly looks pretty and classy with its black and white cinematography and modern upper-class milieu, and is competently acted (with a few caveats, explored below, that are universal to modern interpretations and not necessarily the actors’ fault). So yes, it’s a bit of a letdown to find that this is, like most Shakespeare adaptations and nearly all Shakespeare comedy adaptations, merely good. But I suspect this is inherent to Shakespearean comedy, for a few reasons, listed below, that seem to be insurmountable problems for any cinematic version of Elizabethan comedy.
1. Rhythm vs Content
Why do we still watch Shakespeare, and feel compelled to make adaptations of his work? What grants him continued relevance? Chaucer is at least as important to the development of modern English, but you don’t see producers tripping over each other to make The Miller’s Tale into the raunchy teen comedy it was meant to be (come for the farts! Stay for the accidental ass-to-mouth and third-degree burns!).
Ask an expert, and most critics will tell you that Shakespeare’s longevity lies not merely in his influence but his language. The density of his average conversation rivals that of poems written at the time, and he has the ability to be clever and emotionally true at the same time, something that writers of even Whedon’s caliber struggle with today. For a decently-advanced student of English literature, reading Shakespeare can become thrilling, the literary equivalent of watching those guys with the pogo stick shoes bounce around a parking lot- people don’t normally reach these heights, and it feels like there’s no way Shakespeare can keep this up, but he does. He just keeps hitting those highs. So of course, modern productions of Shakespeare try to keep the language front and center.
Just kidding, of course. Actors race through that shit faster than anyone can actually follow it, depending entirely on inflection and blocking to convey their point. The audience might not realize that Benedict and Claudio are trading witty dialogue while making fun of each other, so let’s have them start horsing around and putting each other into headlocks! Rather than force them to listen to any of Shakespeare’s romantic verse, let’s have the male character speed through his lines in a halting tone while blinking, frequently looking at the ground, and gesturing with his palms up! Aww, he likes her or something!
The problem is one of rhythm versus content. Directors can either fit the play into a sort of screwball rhythm that audiences are familiar with (which also helps them keep the film under 2 hours), or they can draw a lot of attention to a spoken form of English that is exceedingly difficult for the majority of the audience to understand. Guess which one they pick. Though it doesn’t really help the second problem…
2. The Actors Never Go Lower than 11
Shakespeare’s plays can often seem a bit bipolar to the average modern viewer. Scenes of high tragedy are often interspersed with a clown running around onstage waggling his giant fake cock at the audience, and when they’re condensed down to movie length the shuttling between tones (something probably done in Shakespeare’s time to satisfy the nobles in the stands and the groundlings who wanted to hear more cock jokes) gets all the more pronounced. Actors often have to go from coolly amused to wild with despair to ecstatic with joy within the space of twenty minutes or so, and the director has to make this look like some type of understandable human psychology, but oh, the characters also have to sell the dialogue with their inflection and gestures and blocking, and the whole process inevitably leads to actors lurching from extreme to extreme, like they think those comedy/tragedy masks on the front of every drama anthology represent the two shapes your face has to take in any given scene of Shakespeare. But hey, it’s okay, because they can always add in
3. Completely Silent Scenes Meant to “Flesh Out the Story”
Whedon’s Much Ado is by far the biggest offender in this area, giving us a scene revealing that Beatrice and Benedict had a one-night stand at some point in the past, which is disastrous because (a) the sexual tension between the two characters is, if anything, heightened by the contemporary dread extramarital relations inspired in people (at least from an “official” perspective) and making the characters former lovers does nothing to illuminate the nature of their bickering, which is plenty illuminated by the way Amy Acker’s Beatrice keeps asking about who Benedict spends time with these days, and (b) the main plot revolves around Hero’s chastity, so having two people going at it in a world where a woman having sex is such a big deal that her father might wish her dead right in front of her, well, this creates anachronisms where the original text had none. But even silent bits that don’t violate the spirit of the original are generally needless, self-indulgent, and more focused on the director getting his personal interpretation across rather than faithfully reporting the page- in other words, getting between the audience and the play. But that’s rather a problem with the whole cinematic-adaptation angle, because movies of Shakespeare have a larger problem…
4. Perfectly Preserving Every Major Issue Films Have with Theatrical Adaptations
If you’ve seen enough movies based on plays, you can tell when you see others. The characters are always a bit too wordy and gesticular, the movie takes place either in one place, or returns to the same 3-4 places again and again, or alternates between a series of emptier-than-is-totally-natural sets. Musical scores and sex or violence that no character makes any verbal reference to are obvious attempts to “spice up” what on the stage would be considered plenty exciting, especially with the characters right there in the same room. And Shakespeare plays have it worse than most modern adaptations, because Shakespeare often had his characters speak directly to the audience, something modern audiences are more squeamish about. (Shakespearean homage: I made up one word in this paragraph. See if you can spot it) There are even more problems with Shakespearean adaptations than I’ve gotten into here, so I’ll just end with the most damaging:
5. Failing to Follow Shakespeare’s Example by Replacing All the Female Actors With Young Boys
Because women aren’t funny. And young boys are sexy.
Okay! With that, I think I’ve written enough horrifying things to generate some real controversy! Bring on the page hits and Slate.com think-pieces!