Oh, cripes, everyone’s in formal dress! You told me this was a costume party!
Ahhh, Shakespeare. Name me any other 16th-century writer who has managed to influence modern fantasy and science fiction. Take his fairy extravaganza, A Midsummer Night’s Dream: urban fantasy riffs endlessly on the machinations of various fairy courts, and most owe a debt to Shakespeare in the way their fairy politics and rivalries play out. Emma Bull, Charles de Lint and Mercedes Lackey, to name but a few, have all produced notable work in the genre.
And one of the great classic science fiction films, Forbidden Planet, is a retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, with Robbie the Robot standing in for both Ariel and Caliban. The retread works admirably, even if Forbidden Planet’s writers did decide to punish Dr. Morbius (the Prospero figure) for meddling with alien technology. Shakespeare, by contrast, lets Prospero practice magic without any Calvinist penalties and gives him a happy ending. Interesting to consider that audiences in 1610 were a bit less distrustful of magic/technology than they were in 1956.
Here, for your edification, are the two earliest surviving films of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest, separated in time from us by one hundred and one hundred and one years respectively.
Vitagraph’s Midsummer, from 1909, is a brief if reasonably faithful adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, with one notable exception: The king of the Fairy Court, Oberon, has been replaced by a character simply named “Penelope.” Why? Who the heck knows, though I suspect somebody at Vitagraph felt that Oberon and Titania’s marital squabbles were a bit nasty for the tastes of the American moviegoer.
A couple of balustrades in a park somewhere in Brooklyn define the court of Duke Theseus, where the quarrel between rival lovers Lysander and Demetrius is already in progress. For those of you who didn’t get the Cliff Notes in high school, both of them want to marry Hermia, short brunette. Hermia loves Lysander, but her father wants her to marry Demetrius. Meanwhile, Demetrius’s ex-girlfriend, Helena (tall and blonde) is still hanging around mooning over him. Hermia and Lysander decide to run off to the woods and, er, sort of elope. They stupidly let Helena in on their secret, forgetting that she has such low self-esteem that she’ll do anything to get some attention from Demetrius, including spilling the beans to him about Hermia and Lysander running away together. They hasten off to the fairy-haunted forest, Demetrius chases after them, and Helena chases after Demetrius.
Change of scene: a bunch of Athenian working yokels are putting on a play to celebrate Duke Theseus’ coming marriage. Bottom the Weaver, in complete turn-of-the-century vaudeville clown makeup, wants all the good roles for himself and is told he can only play the hero in their little thespian effort. The troupe decide to go into the woods that night to rehearse, to avoid being spied on by any rival groups, because they’re certain they have a hit! And they do; Pyramus and Thisbe is one of the funniest parodies ever written, but, sadly, you won’t see much of it in this film.
And now we’re in the woods, and we see the fairy queen Titania and... Penelope?... arguing over a briefly glimpsed mortal boy. In the original story King Oberon wants the kid to be his page, but why Penelope would get involved in a custody battle is left up to your imagination. She decides to play a really mean trick on her BFF Titania, as opposed to King Oberon’s subtly cruel revenge, and summons Puck to do the whole bit with the flower whose juice, squeezed in someone’s eye, will make that person madly dote upon the next live thing it sees. You know. And Puck gets to messing around and anoints the eyes of the four mortal lovers who by this time are lost in the woods, so that the kids get all mixed up. He spots the yokels rehearsing and, just for laughs, transforms Bottom into an ass-headed man. Yokels scream and run away, Bottom goes wandering off very much annoyed, visibly working a string under his chin that makes his animal-mouth open and close as he talks. He stumbles on Queen Titania, who wakes up, sees him and falls instantly in love with him. She drags him off to her Bower o’ Love, but what they do there is never even implied, of course. It’s 1909.
Penelope discovers that Puck went a little overboard with the pranks and steps in to correct everything. She and Titania go off arm in arm, presumably to settle on some Greek island together. It’s all innocent fun! The lovers, all straightened out now, go off to a happy ending at Thesus’ court. Bottom, restored to his clown makeup, goes running home to the other yokels and that’s where the film stops, wham—apparently the last reel has gone missing. So we never get to see Titania and Penelope flit around blessing the marriage beds of the lovers, and it’s just as well, eh? The dark psychosexual undercurrents in Midsummer are gnarly enough without adding a further dimension to them.
On to The Tempest! This one’s a Clarendon production from 1908, very brief but full of verve. Here’s banished sorcerer and rightful Duke of Milan Prospero, being lowered into a boat with his toddler daughter and his Book of Spells. Here he is landing on a desert island, carrying around the baby and perhaps wondering whether he can summon up a convenience store where he can buy a case of Pampers. Here he is, stumbling over the brutish Caliban and ensorceling him. Here he is, liberating the fairy spirit Ariel from a cloven pine (actually it’s an oak). Here’s the infant daughter Miranda all grown up, doing her hair while a lustful Caliban creeps up on her. Here’s Ariel intervening, changing herself into a monkey to attack and terrify Caliban! Only the monkey won’t cooperate, apparently as scared of Caliban as he’s pretending to be of it, and it just huddles there until, presumably, the director yelled “CUT! Lose the monkey!”
Next we see the titular Tempest that Prospero has summoned to punish all his enemies, who most unwisely decided to go on a cruise all together. Here’s a neat special effects compound shot, as good as anything in The Wonderful World of Jules Verne and pretty darned impressive for 1908, with footage of real waves behind a stage set of rocks and a little model ship reeling to and fro until its mainmast goes overboard. Miranda expostulates, and Prospero agrees to save everyone after all. Here’s an even more amazing effects shot: Ferdinand, only son of Prospero’s enemy, has swum ashore and comes wading out of the surf in full Renaissance costume, still wearing his velvet flat cap with its poofy feather, not even damp. Ferdinand and Miranda meet, fall instantly in love, and Prospero makes a half-hearted stab at separating them but in the end realizes that young hormones can’t be stopped. He forgives everyone and resurrects the ship. This is a somewhat less impressive affect, with people climbing on board by stepping over a plywood prow. Caliban seems to be begging to go along too as the film runs out.
Both these films can be found on the Image Entertainment DVD Silent Shakespeare, along with a number of other ancient adaptations of Shakespeare. It’s well worth owning for the historical content, though there are no extras with any kind of information about the films or the processes by which they were preserved and rediscovered. The acting is fairly bad—Helena expressing grief by flinging the back of her hand to her forehead, for example, as she carefully steps around the sleeping Lysander, whom she hasn’t yet noticed. Still, you have to be impressed by the concise way in which the plots have been edited down, getting a lot of coherent story in a ten-minute film. In a way, they anticipate the Reduced Shakespeare Company.
And it’s the stuff that dreams are made of, after all... the stock in trade of every writer of fantasy and science fiction.