September 25, 2011, by Peter Kirwan

Shakespeare on Film: An Encyclopedia by Marcus Pitcaithly

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In a year when Shakespearean film is very much back in the mainstream, Marcus Pitcaithly’s new volume, Shakespeare on Film: An Encyclopedia is especially timely. Pitcaithly’s assiduous volume is the most comprehensive survey of Shakespearean film yet undertaken. Running from Beerbohm Tree’s 1889 King John to Marianne Elliott’s 2009 All’s Well that Ends Well, the encyclopedia covers every Shakespearean film or adaptation released in cinemas, on the condition that it is at least largely based (textually or thematically) on a play – thus, of backstage dramas, Shakespeare in Love is included, but Stage Beauty, Me and Orson Welles and The Libertine are not.

That this pedantic reviewer failed to find any missing items according to Pitcaithly’s criteria is credit to the volume’s thoroughness. I’m less sure if some of the items mentioned – e.g. Bob Komar’s 2006 Measure for Measure – ever did reach the big screen rather than going direct to video, but details of distribution are not Pitcaithly’s explicit concern. What the volume does offer is an entertaining and detailed introduction to every relevant screen version that will prove an invaluable resource for scholars and enthusiasts alike.

Despite the book’s title, this is not so much an information-gathering exercise as an opportunity for Pitcaithly to offer his own judicious reviews of the films. The value of his immersion in this field is immediately apparent: his introduction to Omkara (2006), for example, locates the film within the context of Vishal Bharadwaj’s other work and reputation within Indian cinema; he is able to discuss the collected work of the "usually unimpressive" Cromwell Films; and there are an impressive number of "lost" films discussed for cinematic completists.

As such, the strong personal voice of the writer is an advantage throughout. Rather than bland description, Pitcaithly is frank about which films he likes and which he doesn’t, while still according all a fair hearing. Thus, he takes time to go through the important flaws of Zeffirelli’s The Taming of the Shrew while offering a remarkably positive appraisal of Brian Blessed’s King Lear. He is transparent when he has not seen one of the films in question and carefully qualifies reported reviews (as in his description of Kishore Sahu’s 1954 Hamlet).

As a miscellany, the book is a delight. Pitcaithly’s engaging tone and attention to detail make him an ideal guide for this whistle-stop tour. He is equally well-versed in both the Shakespearean text, frequently noting his disappointment at serious omissions, and also in the language of cinema, reflecting on the quality of cinematography and the intertextuality of film references.

For pedagogical purposes, the book is sorely lacking one important feature – an index by title, and a correlating one by play. The reader who wishes to trace, say, all the film versions of Romeo and Juliet, is required to trawl manually through over 300 pages of analysis. Ideally, for a volume this size, all entries should be individually numbered, allowing for a simple keying system.

The final entry, the NT Live broadcast of All’s Well that Ends Well, raises a final interesting methodological question. TV adaptations are excluded, a limitation understandable in a project of this size. However, the book’s ethos of including anything that has been shown in a cinema is complicated by the new trend for broadcasting live stage productions in cinemas. Even if the book were to be updated by a year, it would be required to include a half-dozen stage productions from the Globe, the National’s Hamlet and the Donmar’s King Lear, and no doubt many more as this new form takes off. These productions do not adhere to basic filmic conventions: they are the stage productions, covered (with greater or lesser skill) by HD cameras, but still performed to a live stage audience. Is it really more valuable to include these films than to include, say, the versions of the RSC’s Hamlet or the Chichester Macbeth that were specially filmed for TV and are, in those senses, far more “filmic” than the NT Live broadcasts?

While the ongoing blurring of forms of dissemination for screen Shakespeare means that a project of this nature will always leave open ends such as these, one could not ask for more from this volume as a single-author overview of cinematic Shakespeare. It’s currently available from the author, but hopefully will be picked up and distributed by a publisher before long.

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