Much Ado About Nothing (1993 & 2012)

This one’s a two-fer!

Shakespeare is tricky by any standards. Many universally human traits brought out by timeless situations are easily lost in translation from a long-gone language into modern culture. Fortunately, Billy the Bard still inspires story-tellers the world over. It continually surprises me that such a wide range of demographics appreciate his plays, though it shouldn’t, considering his original audience: the rich had plush seats up high with a stunning view of the entire stage while the commoners, who had to stand on the floor down in front got to hear all the bawdy jokes, i.e. something for everyone.

As filmmakers often attempt to adapt a classic play for the screen, it’s interesting how a scholarly approach and a layman’s view can be two sides of the same coin. When it comes to sifting through antiquated vernacular to interpret its meaning, just as much is overlooked by over-analyzing as by lack of context. With this in mind, both a classically-trained European thespian and an American Sci-Fi scriptwriter/ director have different yet complementary versions of what is widely considered William Shakespeare’s funniest comedy. Kenneth Branagh’s pre-millennium period piece and Joss Whedon’s post-millennium modern retelling (inspired by a wine-and-cheese reading party with friends) will turn anyone into a fan of Shakespeare.

Stranger Than Fiction (2006)

I hate it when a trailer for a great movie is all wrong. Who edits these? No one would ever be interested based on this random montage of clips. And that other one gives too much away. The one I’m imagining could work for the theater, TV, or radio. This would be my ideal splicing:

Narrator: This is a story about a man named Harold Crick and his wristwatch. Harold Crick was a man of infinite numbers, endless calculations and remarkably few words. And his wristwatch said even less…

*             *             *

Queen Latifah: I’m Penny Escher. I’m the assistant your publishers hired.

Emma Thompson (the Narrator): The spy.

Queen Latifah: The assistant. I provide the same services as a secretary.

Emma: I don’t need a secretary.

QL: Then I will have to find some other way of occupying my time.

Emma: Like watching me like a vulture in case I get distracted, because they—the publishers—think I have writer’s block, isn’t that right?

QL: Do you have writer’s block?

*             *             *

Narrator: And although this was an extraordinary day—a day to be remembered for the rest of Harold’s life—Harold just thought it was a Wednesday.

Will Ferrell: “Harold thought it was Wednesday.” Did you hear it?

Lady at bus stop: Who’s Harold?
Will: I am.

Lady: Don’t worry, Harold. It’s Wednesday.

*             *             *

Will: Dave, I’m being followed.
Tony Hale: How are you being followed? You aren’t moving.

*             *             *

Linda Hunt: Mr. Crick, you have a voice speaking to you?

Will Ferrell: No, not TO me—ABOUT me. I’m somehow involved in some sort of story, like I’m a character in my own life. But the problem is that the voice comes and goes, like there are other parts of the story not being told to me. And I need to find out what those other parts are before it’s too late.

*             *             *

Emma Thompson: Is there any way to see the people who aren’t going to get better? …I’d like to see, if at all possible, the ones who aren’t going to make it. You know, the dead-for-sure ones.

ER nurse: I’m sorry, are you suffering from anything?

Emma: Just writer’s block.

*             *             *

Dustin Hoffman: “Little did he know.” That means there’s something he doesn’t know, which means there’s something you don’t know, did you know that?

*             *             *

Emma Thompson: I’m not in the business of saving lives; in fact, just the opposite.

*             *             *

Will Ferrell: Ten seconds ago you said you wouldn’t help me.

Dustin Hoffman: It’s been a very revealing ten seconds, Harold.

*             *             *

Queen Latifah: I will gladly and quietly help you kill Harold Crick.

*             *             *

Dustin Hoffman: …The last thing to determine conclusively is whether you’re in a comedy or a tragedy. To quote Italo Calvino, “The ultimate meaning to which all stories refer has two faces: the continuity of life, the inevitability of death.” Tragedy, you die. Comedy, you get hitched.

*             *             *

Maggie Gyllenhaal: Listen, I’m a big supporter of fixing potholes and erecting swing sets and building shelters. I am MORE than happy to pay those taxes. I’m just not such a big fan of the percentage that the government uses for national defense, corporate bailouts and campaign discretionary funds. So I didn’t pay those taxes. I think I sent a letter to that effect with my return.

Will Farrell: Would it be the letter that begins, “Dear Imperialist Swine”?

*             *             *

Dustin Hoffman: Have you met anyone recently who might loath the very core of you?

Will: I just started auditing a woman who told me to get bent.

Dustin: Well, that sounds like a comedy. Try to develop that.

*             *             *

Maggie Gyllenhaal: Go home, Harold.

Will: OK… You made those cookies for me, didn’t you? You were just trying to be nice and I blew it. This may sound like gibberish to you but I think I’m in a tragedy.

*             *             *

Kristin Chenoweth: So can you tell us the title of the book you haven’t written, yet?

Emma Thompson: I’m calling it Death and Taxes.

*             *             *

Will: I may already be dead, just not typed.

*             *             *

Will: Karen Eiffel, my name is Harold Crick; I believe you’re writing a story about me.

Emma: Is this a joke?

*             *             *

Emma: …It’s a book about a man who doesn’t know he’s about to die and then dies. But if the man does know he’s going to die and dies anyway, dies willingly, knowing he could stop it then… I mean, isn’t that the type of man you want to keep alive?

 

Alone in Berlin (2016)

Based on a book by an author given access to old Nazi files, this film depicts of a brave couple, who simultaneously rediscover themselves—and each other—as they enter a new phase of marriage. The couple’s grief over losing their son to the war leaves then disillusioned with the promises of the Hitler’s regime. The two become one team, who circulates messages of resistance to Nazi power. Rather than churning out yet another heavy-handed treatment that risks turning the entire era into a cliché, the context of this film is a time when people were not only under duress to turn a blind eye to national atrocities but hadn’t grown up in a culture where people—particularly the working class, women, etc.—had ever been allowed personal opinion.

Production initially lost traction due to lack of funding so the decision was made to film in English. Though the supporting cast is mostly German, the main characters are played by non-German European actors, which ended up giving a sense of collective responsibility. It feels more like a call to action meant to inspire viewers to consider their own roles in life, rather than inviting them to be spectators of a bygone event. At no point does the story lag or do the actors overact, which would be easy to do. Its ultimate triumph is in the integrity and courage of two seemingly insignificant individuals, who chose to stand alone together.