If Shakespeare Had the Chance to Write Screenplays

I used to tell my young students a story. There was a king who was killed by his evil and jealous brother so that he could take over the throne. The king’s son, the prince who should be the next king, is deceived by the uncle. Some student would inevitably interrupt me and call out “That’s The Lion King!” Well, yes, it is, but it’s also Hamlet. We would talk about it further. Nala is Ophelia, Timon and Pumbaa are like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and Rafiki is Horatio. Plus ghosts.

Of course, The Lion King is about lions and is both tragic and comedic – and almost everybody dies at the end of Hamlet.

William Shakespeare has been adapted in many ways for the screen. There are a lot of filmed versions of the plays. I think that if he had lived in our age, Will would have written for TV and the movies. He liked being popular, the money is good and I bet he could knock out series episodes easily. Since he’s not here, other writers have adapted his wonderful and copyright-free plots and characters frequently.

I saw the film Forbidden Planet when I was a kid. When I was in college, I realized it was Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Prospero becomes Dr. Morbius and Prospero’s daughter Miranda becomes Altaira. The shipwrecked sailors are replaced by astronauts arriving on the planet.

My teacher in high school made it clear that West Side Story was Romeo and Juliet updated to gangs in New York City but with music and dancing. Would William have been surprised by it? Probably not, but he may have been surprised to see Warm Bodies (2013) where his plot gets the zombie treatment and “Juliet” falls in love with the wrong (dead) boy. Spoiler: reversing Will’s plot, Romeo is brought back to life thanks to her love in this version. Tragedy becomes “comedy” (in the Shakespearean sense).

The 2001 Othello update simply called O replaces warriors and the beautiful Desdemona with prep school students and basketball.

It’s harder to identify The Tempest as a source for HBO’s The White Lotus but Shakespeare does have some influence on this satire of the hospitality industry.

The romantic comedy She’s the Man is based on Twelfth Night. Both follow the confusing love-story plot.

And the film 10 Things I Hate About You is loosely based on Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew and uses many of the play’s character names and a modern spin on the plot. Both center on two very different sisters. Will has the younger Bianca unable to marry until her strong-willed sister, Katherine “the shrew” is wed. In the 1999 film, Bianca can’t date until Kat does. I haven’t seen the film Deliver Us From Eva but I heard it is also based on the Shrew.

“Teen films” in particular seem to use Shakespeare quite a lot. It’s a bit of a stretch but 2004’s Mean Girls borrows some things from Julius Caesar and Macbeth including some of Bard’s language and themes. And it does have Gretchen’s Julius Caesar rant.

Of course, it’s not just Shakespeare that gets used for new screenplays. The teen favorite film Clueless is loosely based on Jane Austen’s Emma. I’m not sure Jane would immediately recognize Cher as Emma but the film’s plot parallels the novel’s but with modern twists.

One of my favorite recent takes on classics is the very imaginatively filmed Apple TV+’s Dickinson series which uses elements of Emily Dickinson’s life and lots of her poetry and wildly mixes period piece settings, characters, and costumes with modern music and references. It surprised me and I was quite taken with all 30 episodes.

The Euphoria of Expressionism

I haven’t watched the HBO series Euphoria but I keep seeing raves about it on social media. It is an American adaptation of the Israeli show of the same name. The second season hit this year. The reviews I had seen initially described it as a “teen” show since it follows a troubled 17-year-old who is “a drug addict just out of rehab and likely to end up back in rehab, and her high school friends.

It gets a majority of positive reviews, with praise for its cinematography, plot, score, and performances. The subject matter is mature and somewhat controversial for its nudity and sexual content. Some critics found the nudity and sexual content excessive considering the characters’ ages.

From the German Expressionist silent film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

What caught my attention this past week was the video (below) discussing the visual style of German Expressionism and its influence on later films and TV including Euphoria.

German Expressionism in films was a movement that used distorted sets and sharp contrasts of light and dark. The movement was initially confined to Germany due to the isolation the country experienced during World War I. In 1916, the government had banned foreign films so with supply down, demand went up for german films. . The demand from theaters to generate films led to an increase in domestic film production from 24 films in 1914 to 130 films in 1918. In American films, it was influential in what in a later movement we call “film noir.” In all instances, it is highly stylized, sometimes surreal, and not a style we often see used today. (Though there are “neo-noir” films.)

Many film historians consider German silent cinema to be far ahead of Hollywood films of that time when it comes to innovations and style. Alfred Hitchcock was influenced by the movement from the very beginning. In 1924, he worked as an assistant director and art director at Babelsberg Studios near Berlin on the film The Blackguard. His set designs for that film are expressionistic. It is also seen in his directing, especially in some of his early, less well-known films. In his third film, The Lodger, Hitchcock used styles that the studio did not want used, such as Expressionist set designs, high contrast lighting, and trick camera work. One example of the latter is a shot of a man walking across a glass floor that is shot from below,

Another classic German Expressionist film is Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (German: Nosferatu – Eine Symphonie des Grauens), an early vampire film that is an unauthorized and unofficial adaptation of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula. This 1922 silent horror film is directed by F. W. Murnau.

Count Orlok’s shadow on a staircase in Nosferatu

Though not all Expressionist films are horror, most have at least elements of the thriller and suspense, either physical or mental. One later American example is The Night of the Hunter. This 1955 American thriller film is directed by Charles Laughton. The critical reaction to the film at its release was so strong that it is the only film Laughton directed. It stars Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, and Lillian Gish. It is the story of a corrupt minister-turned-serial killer who attempts to charm an unsuspecting widow and steal money hidden by her executed husband.

Expressionist lighting by Laughton puts Gish in silhouette and Mitchum lit in the background

It is a dark film based on a real serial killer. It was a commercial and critical flop at its release, but in the decades since its release, the film has been listed as one of the best American films. It often makes the list close to Citizen Kane, another classic that has an Expressionist style in many ways. The director of photography on The Night of the Hunter was Stanley Cortez, who also shot Orson Welles’ followup to Kane, the 1942 film The Magnificent Ambersons.

Euphoria is not the only example we see today. The new Joel Coen interpretation of The Tragedy of Macbeth and Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley have definite Expressionist elements.

Euphoria is Expressionist in its style of sets and cinematography, but not in its plot.

Here is the short video that inspired me to look back on Expressionism. And it might get me to check out Euphoria.

A short film by Thomas Flight that shows Expressionist influences

The Many Saints of Newark

I was not a regular viewer of The Sopranos when it was the big show to watch on HBO. I saw episodes but I have this aversion to most mob movies and shows. I can’t really explain it. The glorification of crime and violence? Maybe. But I did enjoy it when I saw a neighborhood or location that I know in an episode.

I suspect that is a common thing for all of you.  It happens for books too. I recall reading Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint and being delighted that he was riding the #94 bus on Stuyvesant Avenue in Irvington, NJ just like I had done many times. His books were full of references to the Newark area that I knew intimately.

I met Roth very briefly once when his childhood home on Summit St. was being marked as a historic site. He lived there for his first 17 years. That dedication day, I walked over from my job at the nearby NJIT campus and he was standing outside. It was early and the press hadn’t really descended on him. I deliberately did not say or ask him anything literary. We talked about the Weequahic Diner.

The trailer for the prequel to The Sopranos story came out this month. The Many Saints of Newark will be in theaters and streaming on HBOMax starting October 1.

The film is directed by Alan Taylor and written by David Chase and Lawrence Konner. It is a prequel to Chase’s HBO series The Sopranos. The film stars Alessandro Nivola, Leslie Odom Jr., Jon Bernthal, Corey Stoll, Ray Liotta, and Vera Farmiga. But I suspect that a lot of attention will go to Michael Gandolfini who plays young Tony (Anthony) Soprano. I’ve seen him in The Deuce but this is clearly his big role. He is the son of Marcy and James Gandolfini, so there will be plenty of critics who say he only got the part because his father played Tony on HBO. We’ll see.

The film is set in the 1960s and 1970s in Newark, New Jersey. The 1967 riots in the city – which I recall all too well since I was living in the neighboring Irvington and my grandparents still lived in Newark – are a backdrop to the film. It was a turning point for the city, and the turn was downward. There was a “white flight” from the city after 1967. The film looks particularly at the tensions between the Italian-American and African-American communities.

I’m no Sopranos expert but I don’t remember Tony’s childhood being a major part of the stories. But it is a good choice for the prequel because Anthony is growing up in a very charged time in Newark and America’s history. Anthony and I would be about the same age then.

I don’t know much about Jersey gangsters, but in the film, there is a move on the powerful DiMeo crime family in the city. Anthony idolizes his uncle, Dickie Moltisanti, who influences the teenager in ways that clearly foreshadow his own mob boss Tony Soprano life.

posterThough the film is all about Newark, like most films, the locations are in many places, including some that stand-in for the Newark of 50 years ago. They started shooting in Brooklyn back in spring 2019 and then moved to Newark that summer.

Newark’s Branford Place was a focal point fixed to look more 1960s. There are lots of places I recognize just from production stills and the trailer. They remade the old Adams Theatre marquee, and redid the sign for Hobby’s Delicatessen to look as it had looked before. My parents took me to see Ben Hur when I was quite young at the Adams Theatre. I went to Hobby’s for lunch in my time at NJIT many years later.

Adams theater

I was doing some work the summer of 2019 in Paterson and caught them filming scenes at a recreated Satriale’s Pork Store there.

People obsessed with The Sopranos do “tours” of many of the locations. When James Gandolfini died, people left flowers on the driveway of the house used as Tony’s home which is near where I live now. So, Sopranos locations seem to have been a part of my youth and adult lives.

Here are some of the locations used that people tour.

The Sopranos home: Aspen Drive, North Caldwell
Christopher’s new house: Baldwin Ct, Fairfield.
Green Grove Convalescent Home is Green Hill Senior Living and Rehabilitation, Pleasant Valley Way, W. Orange.
Janice & Richie’s house: Westmount Dr., Livingston.
Livia Soprano’s house: Gould Street, Verona.
Johnny Sack’s house: Fox Run, North Caldwell.
Kearny Boat Launch: Bellville Pike at Passaic Ave.
Pizzaland: Belleville Turnpike, North Arlington.
Satriale’s Pork Store: 101 Kearny Avenue, Kearny.
Skyway Diner: Central Ave. & 2nd St., Kearny.
Harsimus Cemetery: Newark Ave., Jersey City
Bada Bing strip club: Satin Dolls, Route 17, Lodi.

I still see people taking photos and wanting to sit in the booth at Holsten’s Restaurant where the final scene of the final episode of The Sopranos was shot. It’s on Broad Street in Bloomfield.

Mr. Softee

It doesn’t have to be a place that takes me back. I saw a shot of Anthony inside a Mr. Softee ice cream truck and immediately I hear its annoying constantly playing “music” as it wandered my hometown streets and showed up at our neighborhood park and at baseball games. I was a Good Humor ice cream truck customer, but the truck triggers memories.

The film’s title, The Many Saints of Newark, is a reference to the translation of the family name of Anthony’s uncle, Moltisanti. It translates as “many saints” which is surely a bit of Chase’s ironic, dark humor.

Will I see the movie? Sure, probably streaming on HBO. I won’t do any tours but I do like seeing those places on film. It is an odd kind of appeal since I can see those places in person any day. Somehow, seeing these places on a screen or a printed page somehow elevates them. Art imitates life.

Cinéma Vérité in Less Than a Minute

On December 28, 1895, the Lumiere brothers – Auguste and Louis – hosted the world’s first commercial movie screening with a paying audience. It was held at the Grand Café in Paris.

Their film, “La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière à Lyon” (“the exit from the Lumière factory in Lyon” – commonly known in English as “Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory”) was only 46 seconds long.

The title sums it up very well. It is a single static shot. You see a concierge at the end of the day’s work opening the factory gates and the workers exiting to the street. A few men have bicycles. A dog bounds out. A horse-drawn wagon comes at the end of the film.

It does not seem extraordinary today but it was exactly that at the time – beyond ordinary.

“Lumiere” means light and it’s a perfect name for these early filmmakers who were “painting with light” and exploring what might be done with this new invention. (Disney’s Beauty and the Beast has a brought-to-life candlestick named Lumiere.)

The brothers were manufacturers of photography equipment. Their Cinématographe motion picture system was used to make their first short films which they produced between 1895 and 1905.

They had screened their short film earlier that year (March 22) in Paris for an audience of about 200 who were members of the “Society for the Development of the National Industry,” That was probably the first presentation of films on a screen for a large audience. The December 28 screening with about 40 paying visitors and invited relations is generally regarded as the launch of commercial cinema. Earlier filmmaking efforts, including Thomas Edison in America, focused on individual viewing of films rather than projection.

Those first 10 films were 17 meters of film stock and when hand-cranked on a projector correctly would be about 50 seconds.

Though the Lumiere brothers are important to film history, they weren’t really the ones who moved filmmaking into a commercial enterprise. Like Edison at first, they said that “the cinema is an invention without any future.” They moved on to experimenting with color photography. They would not sell their camera to other early filmmakers, such as Georges Méliès. They certainly did not see cinema as a possible new art form. It would take others, like  Méliès in France, to begin to film fictional stories and add their own special effects.

No Humbug on the Eve, Mr. Scrooge

“Bah,” said Scrooge, “Humbug.”
― Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol over the course of a few weeks to get it published before Christmas 1843.

It is the story of a mean old man, Ebenezer Scrooge, who when confronted by his past and present life and a glimpse of what his future might be finds gratitude, kindness and the “Christmas spirit.”

The different film versions always get a run at this time of the year.  Alistair Sim’s Scrooge is considered to be the classic one.

In England, the film was released as Scrooge but as A Christmas Carol in the United States in 1951.

I will admit that my favorite version of the story as a child was the 1962 animated version starring Jim Backus as the voice of Mister Magoo.

Mister Magoos Christmas Carol 1962 from ROCKET SKY 3D ANIMATION SCHOOL on Vimeo.

This animated version is framed as Magoo performing a Broadway stage musical version of Dickens’ story.

“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.”
― Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

Hunting the Halloween Blue Moon

We had our Harvest Moon at the start of October, and tomorrow we will have our second Full Moon of the month. This Full Moon is often called the Hunter Moon because it occurs during hunting seasons in many places and because a Full Moon offered better light for hunters.

But this particular Full Moon has some other oddities.

Back on the 16th, we had the year’s closest and largest New Moon. This Full Moon will be the year’s farthest and smallest one. It’s also a Blue Moon and appears near red Mars which makes for a nice Halloween Blue Full Moon.

Halloween was traditionally called All Hallows’ Eve because it occurs on the evening before the Christian holy day of All Hallows’ Day or All Saints Day (November 1). That’s why Halloween is celebrated on October 31.

This pandemic year has changed Halloween trick-or-treat traditions as going door to door is probably not a good idea. In my town, they will have an event at the community park where kids can come with their parents by car and drive around the big parking lot, stopping at candy and treat stations. That doesn’t sound very appealing to kids.

There has been a movement to change Halloween to the last Saturday of October in the past so as not to conflict with school and work. Of course, this year a lot of schooling is at home as parents are working from home or not working at all. This year Halloween coincidentally does fall on the last Saturday. By the way, that movement for a Saturday Halloween was started, unsurprisingly,  by the Halloween and Costume Association.

The next time we’ll see an October 31st Halloween Full Moon is in 2039, so you should plan to get your werewolf costume this year.

Werewolf, Full Moon, and Blue Moon all together send my thoughts immediately to the film, American Werewolf in London. I love this scary and also funny film by John Landis about two American college students on a walking tour of Britain who are attacked by a werewolf that none of the locals will even admit exists.

Be careful out there tomorrow night.