Saturday 9 April 2016

Shakespeare & Hollywood Story Structure

by Caroline Lawrence

What do you do when you’re supposed to write a post about Shakespeare but you’re not half as knowledgable about the Bard as the other History Girls? 

Easy! You phone a friend. 

I phoned Aidan Elliott. 

I know him from church and we also used to attend a film analysis group. He’s just surfaced after a busy few years working on a PhD. So it seemed like a good excuse to catch up.  

That’s how we found ourselves spending two happy hours discussing Shakespeare and story structure a the Southfields Starbucks. The background noise is ambient music occasionally interrupted by the clatter of cappuccino cups and hiss of steam. Aidan has brought his ancient copy of Hamlet, so well-read that it’s falling to bits. 

Aidan has several occupations. One of them is as a part-time lecturer at Kings College London. Another is teaching American students from Notre Dame University (in America) on their semester abroad. For Notre Dame’s Trafalgar Square campus he teaches a class called ‘Shakespeare Through the Lens of Hollywood Narrative’. The course is a short one, consisting of three hour-and-a-quarter sessions in one week. 

I kick off by asking him how he gets 19-year-old American college students hooked on Shakespeare in less than four hours tuition time. 

Aidan explains that instead of suffocating them with great swathes of Shakespeare text, he shows them clips from movies and TV such as The Usual Suspects, The Big Chill, Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead. That’s his way of telling the kids he’s going to be talking about Shakespeare the Storyteller. He uses these clips to introduce principles of the Russian Formalists and terms like syuzhet, fabula, schemata, analepsis and prolepsis

For those of you who – like me – are unfamiliar with the names Propp and Shlovsky, syuzhet is the order in which the elements of the the story are presented and fabula is a term for the actual chronoloical order of the events. I immediately thought of the film Memento which turns out to be a popular example. The story (fabula) of Memento is told backwards (syuzhet) in a perfect reversal. (See the diagram from Wikipedia)

As for the term schemata, Aidan defines this as the filters we apply to make sense of the narrative. Maybe you could say our assumptions. Analepsis is essentially another word for flashback and prolepsis is a flashforward. 

After illustrating these concepts through film, Aidan asks his students to consider how Shakespeare uses any of these elements. So he will ask his pupils to think about how the pilot of The Walking Dead overturns the schemata (our assumptions) by showing a policeman shooting a little girl. Only the little girl is a zombie trying to eat him. Straightaway we know all our preconceptions about this world are wrong. Does Shakespeare ever ask you to apply different schemata to his plays? 

Only on the second day does Aidan introduce actual clips from Shakespeare, asking the students to look out for conflict and the shape of the story. 

‘Your character starts off lacking something,’ he says. 

Stasis equals death!’ I cry, using one of the terms of a popular Hollywood script doctor Blake Snyder. 

Aidan nods. ‘The protagonist knows they’re unhappy but they don’t really know what they want.’

‘Truby’s Problem/Need,’ I say, referencing John Truby, another Hollywood story structure guru. 

Aidan presses on. ‘It’s really toward the end of Act One that the story kicks in.’ 

Call to adventure!’ I say. ‘The Inciting Incident.’ I point at a diagram of Freytag’s pyramid and ask, ‘Does Shakespeare always have five acts?

Yes,’ says Aidan carefully, ‘though an awful lot of that has been imposed on the text.’

‘So he doesn’t always mark the acts?’

‘Not always…’

‘But sometimes he does.’

‘Sometimes he does. A lot of times his plays are edited into five acts.’

‘Do you have any sense of how Shakespeare approached his writing?’ I ask. ‘Did have some kind of structure in his head?’

Aidan nods. ’My feeling is that he knows the building blocks he’s using, because quite often the hero gets what they’re after at the halfway point of the story.’

‘Like Blake Snyder’s Midpoint!’ I say. 

‘Yes. For example, Hamlet wants to know if his uncle is guilty and he discovers that he is in Act 3, Scene 2, exactly halfway through. Macbeth becomes king half way through Macbeth. Romeo marries Juliet in Act 2, Scene 2…’

‘So it’s often a high point. Some kind of achievement.’

‘In a tragedy.’

‘And in a comedy, it’s a low point!’ I say. ‘The Apparent Defeat in a comedy, and the Apparent Victory in a tragedy.’ Again, these are all beats I know from Hollywood screenwriting. But then comes one I’m not aware of. 

‘What quite often happens then is that the main character disappears after the first half.’

‘The hero disappears?’


’That’s bold!’ 

‘Yes. I think Act 4 shows the impact of the hero’s success on wider society. So it’s in Act 4 that you see the effect of Romeo and Juliet’s marriage on the family. In Macbeth you see what is done to Scotland. In Hamlet you see what effect his action has on Ophelia: she goes mad.’

Aidan goes on to explain that because the hero is absent in Act 4, it is frequently cut by filmmakers. 

‘What do you do on the third day of your class?’ I ask.

‘That’s when we look at passages in Shakespeare’s plays and compare them with the filmed versions, highlighting which lines the filmmaker has cut and asking what might be lost. What characters have been cut? Has conflict been sacrificed? Also, what’s in the mise-en-scene that can justify the filmmaker cutting a ten minute scene to two minutes. I get them to discuss this in pairs,’ Aidan continues. ‘What we usually see is that in films, if there’s no conflict then the character or scene goes. That's why Hamlet’s gravedigger doesn’t always survive.’ (For more about the comparison of scenes, watch this YouTube Clip.)

I’ve only touched on what Aidan and I discussed that afternoon. I’d love to attend his class and I'm sure the kids adore it. He illustrates the Bard in terms of story structure applied to movies and TV because quite a lot of young people get put off by Shakespeare’s language but they are literate with film and television. That’s how Shakespeare was presented to Aidan in secondary school - as a block of text on the page that he had to read for homework. 

He didn’t get it then, when he was sixteen. 

He didn’t get it when doing an Open University Course when he was twenty-one. 

But he figured there must be something about a playwright and poet who could maintain sustain such popularity for over four hundred years. 

So he read the plays, and re-read them and watched the plays on stage and re-read them. In his mid-twenties he was being put up by his employers at the Heathrow Holiday Inn because London property was so expensive. He tells me for twelve months he ate everything on the menu and read everything of Shakespeare. He calls it ‘The Year of Reading’. 

I guess Aidan finally ‘got it’ because last year he was awarded a PhD for his dissertation Shakespeare on Film: Through the Lens of Narrative Theory, and now he’s a Doctor of Shakespeare.

Aidan’s Top Ten Shakepeare:

1. Favourite play: Doesn’t have one; they’re all good
2. Favourite character: Hamlet
3. Favourite stage Hamlet: Roger Rees ‘for sentimental reasons; he was my first Hamlet and I saw him four times’ and the young Ben Wishaw ‘for acting ability’
4. Favourite film Hamlet: Innokentiy Smoktunovskiy in the 1964 Russian version
5. Favourite passage: Caliban’s ‘I cried to dream again’ from The Tempest
6. Favourite villain: Iago, who refuses to justify himself.
7. Favourite film adaptation: Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing
8. Favourite female character: Rosalind from As You Like It
9. Favourite kids’ film: The Lion King (Hamlet)
10. Favourite teen film: Ten Things I Hate About You (Taming of the Shrew)

Dr. Aidan Elliott invites to you chat with him on Twitter @Aidan1564 (Yes, 1564 is the year of Shakespeare’s birth)


Sue Purkiss said...

That's very interesting. I'd like to go on his course too. Hadn't noticed that about Act 4... Thanks, Caroline!

Lydia Syson said...

Utterly would I! Will be watching Shakespeare on film in a whole new light from now on. Thank you both.