Kenneth Branagh and William Shakespeare offer us a story of romance, laughter and trickery in Much Ado About Nothing written in the late 1500s. However, each author presents us with different interpretations and readings of the text. While the original is on the page and the adaptation on the screen, the real differences are more subtle than this; with the authors choosing to promote and emphasise contrasting elements of the text. In comparison to Shakespeare’s original, Branagh’s cinematic adaptation portrays a lighthearted atmosphere which celebrates the effervescence of romantic love. While the original is indeed filled with happy moments of romance and dry wit, it is these elements which seemingly illuminate from Branagh’s enriched adaptation. He ignores the less appetising scenery of the original and replaces it with the stunning rural landscape of Tuscany. He omits some of Shakespeare’s more ornate and complex language and diminishes the darker aspects of the text. While some critics have claimed that the adaptation fails to appropriately represent the text in a pure form, it is clear that Kenneth Branagh aims to focus on the romantic-comedy genre of the text and hence create a production that honours the dominant motif of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing – the tale of two couples struggling against their emotions in the turbulence of romance.
Branagh portrays his Much Ado About Nothing as a splendorous affair. The opening scene of his cinematic adaptation welcomes the audience with a bucolic panorama of historic Tuscany. While the original play is set in the port city of Messina, Branagh chooses to replace this setting with the carefree atmosphere of a rural Tuscan villa. This choice of locale distinguishes Branagh’s approach from Shakespeare’s at the very beginning of the text and sets the tone for the remainder of the production. The image of an ebullient society basking the warmth of happiness and the Tuscan sunshine is as pleasing to the eye as it is to our heart. This introduction immediately establishes the difference between the original and the cinematic adaptation; Shakespeare tells a dark comedic story of love and revenge, while Branagh tells us a story of the frivolity of love and the games of trickery. In the adaptation, Branagh again uses the power of cinema to further enhance the play’s dramatic elements. He employs a dynamic array of music to compliment what is shown on the screen. Whether it is the mellow guitar accompanying Beatrice’s opening song, the dark soundtrack that follows Don John in the cellar of the Tuscan villa, or the triumphant fanfare of the orchestra that crescendoes in the final dance scene of the play; none of these musical devices are elements that Shakespeare could use. While not all of these soundtracks celebrate the effervescence of romantic love, they do imbue the adaptation with a sense of vitality that enhances the experience for the audience and reflects the genre of romantic comedy.
Kenneth Branagh effectively uses the camera to enhance the overall experience for the audience. Employing his directive prowess to capture the emotion on his characters’ faces, we are able to palpably feel the perils and joys of the couples’ romance. The opening scenes offer us a shot shared by Hero and her cousin Beatrice which immediately illustrates the difference between them; the pallor of Hero’s virginal face juxtaposed with the worn and tanned visage of Beatrice. This style of characterisation is what Branagh had access to, and Shakespeare did not; instead, Shakespeare, as a playwright, used his eloquent prose to express Beatrice’s experience and Hero’s naï¿½vety to his audience.
The ways in which the authors portray Claudio in the two productions is equally as different but conversely, end with a contrasting result. In the original, Shakespeare constructs a character who is not designed to be admired. Claudio’s interest in Leonato’s heirs, his explosive outburst at the aborted wedding, and his remorseless acceptance of Hero’s ‘death’, are all composed by Shakespeare to elicit a negative response from the audience. We are, however, presented with an alternative view of Claudio by Branagh in his 1993 adaptation. Branagh shows us his own reading of Claudio; a man who genuinely falls in love with Hero, a man who is stricken with grief and sorrow as he learns of his false accusations, and a man for whom the audience should feel sympathy. Both representations of the character of Claudio are valid and merely represent the individual author’s reading of the text. Contrasted with this, both authors deliver the audience with the same design of Don John; Branagh nurtures him into the role of the one-dimensional criminal as Shakespeare originally intended.
Unlike Shakespeare’s text play, in Branagh’s cinematic production, we are offered a range of visual delights which are used to help the audience better understand the subtle undertones of the original plot. The Masquerade scene of Branagh’s adaptation is cleverly and ironically constructed to reveal more as the characters disguise themselves behind their masks. Don John conceals himself behind a bright crimson mask suggesting to represent his jealousy and hatred for the society that surrounds him. Claudio remains hidden beneath the mask of a cherub, revealing what he attempts to hide throughout the play; his naivety and his inexperience in love. Branagh selects these more subtle representations of what remains below the surface in preference of Shakespeare’s approach; to create a more dastardly Don John and a more misogynistic Claudio through his use of language. Through this, we can see why Branagh’s adaptation appears to celebrate life, love and laughter more than we see in Shakespeare’s original. Where the original has used verbal dexterity to express the darker elements of the text, the adaptation has used visual displays.
As we analyse both productions of Much Ado About Nothing; original and adaptation, we can see just a glimpse of the diverse readings that this text can elicit. As the play transcends from the page to the screen, we witness cinematic expression that honours the spirit of the original text.