| November 25, 2019 05:29 PM
Shakespeare, but make it less sassy: That’s the sorely unappealing formula for Netflix’s The King, a recent film that borrows clout from the Bard while aiming to be a gritty, modern-language epic.
If you’ve ever wondered what would happen if Shakespeare was a screenwriter for Game of Thrones, you’re in luck.
The King was never meant to be a faithful adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henriad, but where it chooses to diverge from the Bard, The King isn’t updated. It’s worse. If only it had a glimmer of Shakespeare’s humor.
Shakespeare enthusiasts predicted this result a few years ago when the project had recently been announced.
“We’ve written Henry IV and Henry V as a period film, but with our own dialogue,” screenwriter Joel Edgerton told IndieWire in 2016. “For lack of a better word, [it’s] Game Of Thrones meets Shakespeare only in that, you can watch Game Of Thrones and understand what’s going on.”
Edgerton’s next comment did him no favors with Shakespeareans.
“I feel like, with complete deference to Shakespeare, there is something that happens when even the most intelligent people watch Shakespeare,” Edgerton said. “They feel stupid because he does the kind of roundabout version of telling you simple things. So, we just wanted to let the audience understand exactly what’s going on, and not just some people, but everybody.”
Austin Tichenor, a managing partner of the Reduced Shakespeare Company, says Edgerton’s comment revealed how little he understands Shakespeare.
“What I love about Shakespeare is he was a populist,” Tichenor told the Washington Examiner. “So, I admire, on the one hand Joel Edgerton and his director wanting to create a popular film and trying to make people not scared of Shakespeare. But, that’s like saying ‘don’t think of pink elephants’ by saying Shakespeare is hard to understand. It’s self-fulfilling. He’s not hard to understand when excellent actors and good directors are interpreting the story in a clear and accessible way.”
The premise that Shakespeare is unpalatable shows through in the film, which replaces Shakespeare’s language with modern vernacular and even a few F-bombs. But Edgerton was wrong about the part of Shakespeare that needs updating.
“It sounds more like he feels stupid, and so he, therefore, thinks everybody feels stupid, and that’s not the case,” Tichenor says. “Yes, there are bad productions of Shakespeare where it’s incomprehensible because the actors aren’t clear or the direction isn’t clear, and yes, he is hard to read and understand. But when performed by actors of Joel Edgerton’s experience and quality and intelligence, and Timothée Chalamet … Shakespeare can be absolutely clear.”
Its muddled view of language isn’t the film’s only problem. Besides doing its best to coherently piece together parts of Shakespeare’s Henry IV and Henry V, The King drastically changes many Shakespearean trademarks, particularly the character of Sir John Falstaff. In the film, Falstaff (played by Edgerton) is a weary former fighter who helps King Henry plan the Battle of Agincourt.
In Shakespeare’s plays, Falstaff is, as Tichenor says, “a colorful, life-affirming character.” He’s a cowardly knight, a drunkard, and a source of comic relief. The New York Times called him “Shakespeare’s Hot Mess.”
But Falstaff can’t be funny in The King since the gritty film has no place for jokes. It is devoid of Shakespeare’s humor, cutting out moments of levity in favor of Chalamet’s brooding face.
At times, The King tries to be humorous, but instead of relying on Shakespeare, it cracks jokes at his expense. Tichenor says its attempts at meta-humor fall flat. For example, instead of delivering the famous Crispin’s Day speech — ”We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” — King Henry demands, “You expect of me a speech?” At one point, King Henry’s admission that he finds someone’s monologue hard to follow seems like a reference to Shakespeare himself, Tichenor says, though “it doesn’t really land as a joke.”
Even as The King delivers a well-acted, well-staged film, it seems too long at two hours and 20 minutes, and it grows weary even of itself. Where the film tries to improve upon Shakespeare, it misses an important element of what made the Bard great.
If you’re feeling Game of Thrones withdrawal, The King might be just what you need as you wait for George R.R. Martin to plot his next book. But if you’re a Shakespeare fan, you’ll miss his humor and his witticisms. Tichenor’s advice? Watch The Hollow Crown instead. When there are other options, The King just doesn’t cut it.
“Shakespeare wrote a lot of comedy and humor into his plays,” Tichenor said. “Those jokes in the tragedies and the histories land arguably even better because they’re in a slightly serious context. This movie could have used a lot of Shakespeare’s language and his wit.”