Love Between Giant Hams: Branagh, Whedon, and Much Ado About Nothing -The Toast

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For better and for worse, we’re living in an age of remakes, reboots, and re-imaginings. We absolutely should comment about the shortage of original material, but we can’t let the products of the remake machine go to waste. Everything we produce reflects something of our time and quality back at us, something we should understand and take with us. Remakes are necessary things that give us new lights and angles where we can examine stories. Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, a love story between two giant hams, and a play usually produced with the express purpose of providing a venue for giant hams to fall in gigantic bantering love with each other, gives us a great opportunity to look at the art of the remake.

Much Ado is a rich, quotable comedy, with Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 adaptation the long-standing Definitive Film Version that you can absolutely use to bluff your way through a classy Shakespeare-quoting life. Yet (long may Branagh’s version reign), seeing Whedon’s version revealed a new depth to this play I had seen and read so many times in so many forms. Whedon’s version completely remakes the play from the ground up, and his version poses a question that I hadn’t even thought to ask: in watching Much Ado, do we want a great story, or a great performance?

Full disclosure: I love Kenneth Branagh. I love his version of Much Ado. I love his Hamlet. I love his Thor. I love that he so loved the world, he gave it Tom Hiddleston when he had the chance to trap that rainbow-made-flesh in a crystal and keep it in the chamber of secrets beneath his house.

I love that someone slipped him a giant roll of money and said, “Please take Chris Pine and this Jack Ryan movie off our hands,” and then he shrugged, cast himself as the villain, and come December I will be morally obliged to cackle my way through the end result, whose 2-minute trailer contained no dialogue that couldn’t also appear in the far more compelling gay porn version (also starring Chris Pine, or turned into a lesbian thriller starring The Good Wife’s Archie Panjabi and Keira Knightley, not that I’ve thought about this). What follows is an objective breakdown of two films I care for very much, but I had to clarify my personal stakes in the game of Branagh, which he always wins unless it’s against Emma Thompson. Let’s go.

Speaking of goddesses: here’s Emma Thompson.

Branagh’s Much Ado doesn’t open with this shot of her, but it opens with her beautiful elocution running over some inspirational misandry. This opening poem-song uses the word “nonny” a couple of times, so it’s a good SHAKESPEARE, BITCH kind of introduction.

Beatrice reads aloud from the meta companion to the festival of banter and slut-shaming she and her fellow denizens in the Land of the Peasant Blouses will live for the next week (110 minutes), but what she’s reading aloud tells us nothing about the characters present, their relationships to each other, or why Denzel and his leather pants can ride into this villa with some friends and fuck up their bucolic splendor. However, it does sketch out the very basic theme of the story about to unfold: men were deceivers ever, so hey nonny nonny! Too blasé? Whatever. Tuscan villa.

If you’ve seen Branagh’s Much Ado, you’re hearing the music. You’ve fallen over laughing and immediately sat back up again because these are some smug as hell guys riding somewhere. You’re thinking of all the butts.

We aren’t even offered a look at the full line of officers first: no, first we have to see each of these hams up-close and how awesome Branagh thinks he looks on his horse, and then they all cheer—because the war is over? Because Italy? Because Denzel? (Because Denzel.) It’s absolutely a performance of triumph. They don’t look like they’ve been away from their homes fighting for their lives and property, and that’s fine. Between Beatrice’s adorable introduction and the officers’ fun, flawless arrival at Leonato’s house, Branagh’s version immediately promises a comic romp in a too-beautiful setting with too-beautiful people spouting too-perfect dialogue at each other, and he promises that we’re going to eat it up.

Right away, Whedon narrows the scope on his adaptation to focus on people. It doesn’t matter in these early moments if the audience can identify immediately who they are; what matters in this moment isn’t who they are, but the story unfolding between them. The audience doesn’t know what town they’re in, who these people are, how long they’ve known each other—like the characters, all the audience has are these few silent moments to piece together a relationship and prepare for the next part of the story to come.

Until this opening, did any of us realize how much of a genuine human element could exist between Beatrice and Benedick? They’ve lived for centuries as opposing blocks of monologue, but here Whedon brings them into a too-small room with each of them baring too much of themselves. Benedick’s silent departure, Beatrice’s wide-eyed disbelief that he’d actually leave—all of it makes a hurt that will feed the animosity and affection to come.

When I mentioned earlier that Shakespeare’s Much Ado was a love story between two hams—that was only a little facetious. We talk about Branagh emphasizing performance in Much Ado, but that isn’t just because Branagh is himself a giant ham kept alive by the squawking of his own voice (that’s an added bonus). When Branagh plays up the performance aspect of Beatrice and Benedick’s relationship and courtship, he stays closer to the original text of the play. Branagh sets Beatrice and Benedick’s first scene in a courtyard, the two of them circling each other as they bicker in front of the other characters. Branagh portrays this as a public display of antagonism because the rest of their relationship feeds and thrives on their obsession with its public perception. When Beatrice and Benedick are separated, they wonder how to present themselves to the other; when they meet, they dissect their behavior and tease each other about how they’re perceived by the other characters. When they finally confess their true feeling to each other, the feelings are a glance on the real question between them: how will you publicly declare yourself to me?

In Whedon’s adaptation, the opening battle of wits happens separate from the other characters—the audience sees that this is something between Beatrice and Benedick, but not anyone else. Brought into this space and made into a moment that exists just between them, it achieves the same purpose as its Branagh counterpart but it embraces its cinematic style. While Branagh’s version seeks to emphasize the format of the play, one of standout and disjointed moments, Whedon tries to sculpt a narrative in his version. That isn’t to say that Branagh’s version has no narrative, but his version provides very little sense of an overarching personal narrative linking the characters together in a meaningful way.

When Whedon was making the publicity rounds promoting the film before its release this past summer, a lot was made of the fact to film the movie in his own house. For many fans, it was the chance to see the lair he called home and the site of his mimosa-soaked literary brunches that eventually brought out his spin on Shakespeare for an audience wider than “my friend Nathan Fillion.”

So in looking at the stronger sense of story and personal relationships Whedon creates in his version, we realize how the setting does much of the heavy lifting in making Much Ado seem like a story between actual human people. It isn’t that Whedon brought the characters into his home, but he brought the characters into someone’s home. If filming in his house started as a gimmick and a way to save overhead, the end result shows that using a home brought out the genuine connections between characters that other adaptations haven’t been able to emphasize. We see this especially in how Whedon’s version presents the characters of Beatrice, her cousin Hero, and Leonato, who in other versions seem family only in name.

Whedon makes Beatrice, Hero and Leonato the core characters of the story, and all it took to emphasize this was to have them talk around a kitchen island or linger at the dinner table before another scene. There’s easy, familiar banter between the three of them that, in other versions, becomes buried when the Benedick rolls into town and his “merry war” with Beatrice steamrolls everything in the vicinity. Whedon’s version allows his audience to become emotionally invested in the characters, something incredibly necessary when the play’s climax involves betrayal on so many levels.

It’s difficult to get the same sense of character in Branagh’s version, with the best British stage actors of two generations and Denzel Washington frolicking through an actual Tuscan villa. For better and for worse, an audience can never quite lose itself in the story, or lose the sense that they’re watching extraordinary performances in an extraordinary space—and that’s the point. While Whedon’s version actively works to create a story from the half-dozen different threads running through the story, Branagh’s version embraces everything that makes Much Ado such a good but weird comedy for our tastes.

Where Whedon scales down Shakespeare’s ridiculous and bombastic characters into more human dimensions, Branagh sends a camera off on a helicopter to film the entire cast and dozens of extras frolicking through a cascade of petals while an invisible chorus sings into infinity. Benedick, hearing that Beatrice loves him, frolics in a fountain while the heart of the universe blares the score and signifies a quick entr’acte sandwich break for those watching at home. The aforementioned cast of those greatest British stage actors—none of them speak their dialogue, but yell at every possible opportunity. All of that could be too brash, but that’s where this particular setting comes in: none of these things need to be contained on a stage or someone’s actual living room. Branagh never keeps his cast inside when they could be outside delivering a monologue in a hedge maze, laughing uproariously while they host a modest party for 300 people, or attending a wedding disaster where Robert Sean Leonard flips over a half-dozen pews to show that he’s real mad about stuff.

This talk about great performance or great story comes to a head in the play’s climactic scene: the disaster wedding where Hero is accused of betraying Claudio because she “knows the heat of a luxurious bed.” (Please feel free to nominate in the comments other Shakespearean insults that we can adopt as contemporary compliments because this can’t be the only one.)

The two wedding scenes embrace the two filmmakers’ different approaches to the source material, and it’s here that the audience can see the full effects of their chosen paths in adapting the text for the screen. The wedding in Whedon’s version plays out like a genuinely trashed wedding: the music stops and the players ugly cry at each other for long, uncomfortable minutes. Whedon keeps the more melodramatic elements of the scene (Leonato yelling at his heartbroken daughter, “Hence from her! Let her die!”) so their intensity in a down-to-earth comedy of bitchy, beautiful people makes for an experience in this scene that can’t easily be shaken. The intensity of the scene and the darker ones that follow wouldn’t have been nearly as effective if we hadn’t been drawn into the story of this family early on and allowed to feel like this is the betrayal—not of Hero cheating on Claudio, but mild-mannered Leonato turning on his daughter when she most needed him.

If the version of the wedding in Branagh’s adaptation is difficult to watch, it’s not because of emotional investment in the characters. Rather, because Branagh’s version so focused on the intensity of performance, the bar for how many incredible things can be unleashed on the scene has been set that much higher. Where Whedon’s version has crying, fainting, and yelling, Branagh’s version has all that and Claudio flips a few pews. Claudio twists Hero’s arm and then shoves her so hard she flies over a bench. The score fiddles on as Hero wails and faints into her family’s arms, only to have her father drag her by the hair and throw her into the grass before he slaps her across the face (and, of course, screams into her face, “Let her die!”) How does anyone look away from a scene with so much chaos and genuine violence coming from every angle? It only works because Branagh’s version has been built from the beginning on a larger, almost unbelievable scale where everyone laughs louder, pushes harder, and wails bitterly before everything is made okay again.

Even though I posed the question “great performance or great story” early on in this piece, I hope I’ve shown that it’s not ultimately about one or the other, but about multiple versions with different strengths working together to show audiences something that other versions neglected. Here, we’ve seen Branagh’s version better emphasizes the performative aspects of the original story with a combination of stage acting in hyper-cinematic presentation, while Whedon’s version lifts out of the play a story between the characters that other adaptations hadn’t even thought of presenting before. For purest insanity in closing party scenes, though, Branagh wins hands down because seriously what is even going on here.

These alternate versions that complement each other absolutely applies to every new re-imagining shuffling its way into movie theaters and TV every year. There are no losers when juxtaposing multiple versions of one work. There are no losers when creating multiple versions of one work because, ideally, this is the kind of discussion every reboot or remake should generate in its own canon/fandom. Implying there’s “one” “true” version of something doesn’t take into account everything that another version has to contribute to characters and story, and when we cut out the possibility of other versions, we deprive ourselves of better understanding what we like and why we like it.

Further Reading/Viewing:

Much Ado About Nothing full text (scene-by-scene | one-page)

1993 film (dir: Kenneth Branagh) (Amazon | Netflix | iTunes)

2012 film (dir: Joss Whedon) (Amazon | iTunes)

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