Film: Shakespeare in Love, screenplay by Tom Stoppard (1993)

Novel: No Bed For Bacon, by Caryl Brahms & S.J.Simon (1941)

 

There is no suggestion on either the book, or the dvd of the film that the one is an adaptation of the other, but on seeing the film for the first time I was instantly reminded of the book.

            Without delving into how a film might come to remind me of a book, without being an adaptation, it is worth looking at this pairing, for the similarities and differences that the two stories present us with. I’ll begin with a similarity, for both have, in what might be called their second scenes, Will Shakespeare himself, scribbling his name, with various spellings, and crossing it out again. Stoppard’s script is online at http://www.imsdb.com/scripts/Shakespeare-in-Love.html

 

The book has a remarkably similar scene:

            ‘In a cold dark little room over against the back of the Theatre, Sir Francis Bacon was talking eloquently. Opposite him a melancholy figure sat tracing its signature on a pad.

                                    Shaksper

                                    Shakspere

                                     Shekspar

            He always practised tracing his signature when he was bored. He was always hoping that one of these days he would come to a firm decision upon which of them he liked the best. He looked at them. He considered. He shook his head.’ – (Brahms & Simon, Hogarth,1988.p13)

 

Finding such similarity so early in the film perhaps leads one to look for it later on, and to assume that an adaptation has been made. Academics had already pointed out the variations in Shakespeare’s spelling of his name though, so it is perhaps not to be wondered at that comics might make a joke of it. In fact much of the Shakespeare myth, not least that of who he actually was, and whether he did in fact write the plays that bear his variously spelt name, has passed into popular culture. As I write (2011) another feature film (Anonymous) examining the identity of the playwright has been released.

            The two stories that I am looking at are building then, on a common cultural theme. What they do with that theme is different, but with striking similarities. Stoppard’s script is tied more firmly to Shakespeare, who is not even eponymous in Brahms & Simon’s tale. In fact it is Bacon, and his bed, that top their bill. Queen Elizabeth is common to both stories, but acts almost as a deus ex-machina in the film, whereas she is a central character in the novel.

            The shift of focus is instructive, reminding us that a story, or rather the set of propositions that set us off on a story, can be used for many things. There may be more than one way to skin a cat, but there are also more than cats to be skinned. A number of propositions is common to film and book. Theatre manager, Henslowe, is in debt, and his theatre in jeopardy. Shakespeare is yet to become famous. An upper class lass wants to be an actor. Queen Elizabeth is the arbiter of taste.

            The diverse stories built on these foundations take us in slightly different directions. Brahms and Simon have a more overtly comic story to tell, and fix Shakespeare to his comic plays, especially Twelfth night. They are also more interested in the history of the period, with Essex’s rebellion and Bacon’s pursuit of Elizabeth’s old bed. Stoppard centres the film on Shakespeare, and on the development of Romeo and Juliet. The shift from a comic to a tragic theme suiting the more personal story that the film tells: of Shakespeare’s love affair with the disguised girl. In the film she masquerades as Thomas Kent. In the book, as master Pyck. The murder of Kit Marlowe  is woven into the fabric of the film, and tied to Shakespeare’s illegitimate love affair with her, but is absent from the book. Whatever her name, this is the strongest and most persistent of the story threads to run through both offerings. Again we find precedents for the idea in Shakespeare’s work, and nowhere more so than in Twelfth Night, which though referenced in the book, is not in the film.

            Telling similar stories in different media is not adaptation, but comparisons of the two, as well as providing a source of surprise, can also give us insights into the specific ways in which those different carry out their storytelling.  

            Both stories have Queen Elizabeth’s puddle, and the book uses it as a running gag, with Raleigh sacrificing his magnificent cloak. The film makes a short aside of it, a reference that is not developed, but one that the writer is confident we will understand. Both forms demand at least a cursory knowledge of history, and of Shakespeare, and the deeper that knowledge, the more references will be noticed, and the funnier they will be. It is the way that the background, of Elizabethan London, is dealt with that emphasises the difference between the forms of storytelling.

            The film can use its sets and locations as just that; can show the main protagonists in a foreground behind which the turmoil of the Elizabethan city carries on. The book, with its single thread of words unravelling across the page, must turn aside, however intermittently, from the foreground to create the background. Here is a difference worth understanding about both forms. Films can show us many things at once, and we must be observant enough to spot them as they pass. Books can tell us only one thing at a time, and it is the ordering of those sequences that gives the power to the telling.

            No Bed For Bacon had been the subject of a musical adaptation by Ned Sherrin, and made a short feature in the Daily Mail in the summer of 1993, in which Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber was quoted as describing it as ‘really awful’. My paperback copy of the book lists, on the back cover, Sir Andrew as a fan of Brahms & Simon – but does not mention a film adaptation! There is no hint on the dvd that the producers of the film knew about the earlier story, and that in itself means that the film is not an adaptation. An adaptation is an overt re-working of a previous creation, knowingly undertaken, and openly offered as such. It need not follow the original closely, as we have seen with ‘Went the Day Well’, nor need it have the same agendas, as we saw with ‘First Blood’, but it must pay due acknowledgment to its source. That Shakespeare in Love does not do this means that it would not be seen as an adaptation, even if it were derived from the novel, but as something else.

            This is not a sly way of accusing anyone of plagiarism, people arrive at the same place by many routes, co-incidental and otherwise. A story may have been suggested by another story, yet not have been a conscious adaptation of it. The point about adaptation is the self-consciousness of the attempt. An adaptation stands up to be compared. It is a new telling of something previously told. That is what enables us to look at the changes, if there are any, and to consider what they tell us about the respective storytellers, and the contexts of their stories. Where tellings are merely reminiscent, one of the other, the comparisons we make must rest on entirely different criteria. Both tellers, in such a case, must be presumed to be starting from scratch. With an adaptation the adapter is always aware of, and has an attitude towards the original, and must make decisions in relation to it in the creation of his story.

            This alone, I suspect, inclines our default setting to the belief that adaptations are somehow inferior, rather than merely different. In fact, and I hope several of the adaptations I have looked at in this series will bear this out, this is not inherently true. Adaptations might enrich and deepen the stories they re-tell, whereas ‘non-adaptations’ that seem strikingly similar can only be regarded as being richer, or deeper, but without any causal relation.

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