A common response when I mention silent film versions of Shakespeare is confusion. A look that says "but how would that even work?", usually followed by a question as to how they "do the speeches". And it's not just my friends. I'm really enjoying Daniel Rosenthal's book "100 Shakespeare Films" at the moment, but of the 100 films he discusses, there are only 5 that date from cinema's first 30 years. Yet there were 300 or so films from the silent era that were based on the works of Shakespeare.
I think part of the reason I notice this is that it's not a question that ever occurred to me, at least not until I started talking to others about it and, I guess, it's an understandable response. Shakespeare is after all known as England's greatest ever writer. And yet, for all the great speeches there are also a host of great images. Shakespeare is not just "To be or not to be", it's also about a man holding his former jester' skull; it's not just about "Now is the winter of our discontent" but also about the hunchbacked king"; "When shall we three meet again" only comes into fullness when paired with a vision of a dagger and, of course, that damned spot.
The reason this matters is that film is primarily a visual medium. The best adaptations of Shakespeare, whether silent or otherwise, are those that capture the tone and mood of Shakespeare's words. It's the shot through the staircase from Ophelia below to Hamlet high on the top of the turret in Olivier's Hamlet (1948), or Branagh's bloody, exhausted yet joyously victorious Henry V at the end of Agincourt.
But this also means that the best film adaptations of Shakespeare, are those that start not in the service of the text, but of the final image. Those where the aim is not to do dutiful service to the Bard, but to create something special for the screen. Shakespeare's plays may be a means to that end, but it just sort of happened that way. It wasn't a drive to make Bill "more accessible", but to make a good film which, on this occasion, as it turns out, happened to mean using Shakespeare.
The best film I've come across in this respect yet isCharles Kent and J. Stuart Blackton's A Midsummer Night's Dream (1909, pictured) where the focus is clearly Puck who is played by a fairly young girl who flits about the screen with innocence and delight, floating I the air with her lightness of spirit. This isn't about flashness or technical wizardry - it's on a par with decent youth theatre and probably far easier to spot the wires - it's about the lightness of the image. The recent BBC adaptation of "Midsummer" was full of whizzes, wizardry, impressive effects and all the speeches but it didn't touch me anyway near as much as the 1908 version.
No doubt some will dislike its portrayal of Puck as to being true to the play, but again this isn't necessarily the right question. The quality or importance of a film isn't about the source material it is adapting - that's what reading the book, or watching the play on-stage is for. What matters is the final film, the images on the screen and whether what is created is of merit on its own terms. The are some pretty torpid adaptations of Shakespeare out there where everyone is dutifully performing so that the audience can undergo the literary equivalent of eating their greens. All very respectful and faithful, but bad, bad cinema.
All of which got me thinking about another literary pillar often adapted for the big screen - the Bible. like Shakespeare, people say it matters, they want. To be respectful of it and often believe that it'd be good for people to have better appreciation and understanding. The two collections inspire in many a kind of earnestness.
If anything these tendencies are even greater with the Bible. And so many people start with the idea of making a film based on the Bible. They're not asking the question, of all the topics available what will enable me to make the best moving visual image I can make, they're starting with a text that they want to get across. And then they're surprised that their project has become such loathèd medicine.
For some of the insights in this piece I'm indebted to Bryony Dixon and Judith Buchanan whose recent BBC programmes on silent film adaptations of Shakespeare and been interesting, informative and really enjoyable. (Dixon appeared in BBC Birmingham's "Silent Shakespeare"and Buchanan ib BBC Radio 4's "An Excellent Dumb Discourse". At the time of writing both are available to view online in some regions.