Four Faces of King Lear

Four Faces of King Lear

Shakespeare’s plays have become an endless pool of resource for the filmmakers of the world. Their universality of themes and emotions has intrigued a range of directors and has prompted so many adaptations and retellings. One of them, King Lear, distinctly stands out. Romeo and Juliet may have become one for the classrooms and Macbeth may still be classified as a terrifying legend, but King Lear seems to grow with age and feels immensely relevant and profound now more than ever. The themes handled by the epic resonate and typify the post-modern era as if the book was written a few years ago. Of course, it is difficult to make a film that is both true to the literature and retains its cinematic qualities without the influence of theatre. But some of these projects have done this well, to say the least. Here are four of the cinematic versions that were but inevitable to come. 

King Lear – Jonathan Miller (1982), The United Kingdom

A film from the home country to begin with. Miller’s King Lear is my substitute for the impossible-to-find Peter Brook version. Made as a part of a massive project undertaken by the BBC in 1982 to film Shakespeare’s works, this version has been remembered almost solely for the monumental performances of all the actors. And in harmony with the intention of the production, the film remains thoroughly faithful to the classic. It attempts to take into it everything that Shakespeare put forth in his narrative.

I must admit that I was quite skeptical when I started watching the film. Shot in 4:3 and under an objective of just filming Shakespeare’s work, I expected the film to be too theatrical and plainly, an extended soap-opera. But the film is far from that. It almost completely does not use expressionist zooms, shot-reverse shots and even a background score for that matter. Yes, it is excessively lit and has got a soap-like visual quality, but it sure does possess cinematic values of its own. Its cinematography, particularly, uses room space well and with surprisingly long shots, achieves a quiet brilliance of its own. The camera is almost static but it conveys much even with that restriction. Interestingly, it almost always films Lear from a downward angle perhaps mirroring Lear’s own infallible pride.

Hordern’s performance as Lear is evidently great and at times, even imposes on the other actors’. Edmund’s character, played by Michael Kitchen, serves as the comic relief and regularly breaches the fourth wall to glorify his vileness. However, the production design of the film leaves a lot to be desired. Shot almost completely indoors, the film uses a bland colour palette that is neither as expressive as Kurosawa’s version nor as meticulously controlled as Kozinstev’s. But the 185 minutes of inspired performances more than make up for that and eventually deem it a very worthwhile effort.

Korol Lir – Gregori Kozinstev (1971), The USSR

Kozinstev’s least talked about adaptation is ironically a fantastic one. Shot arrestingly in widescreen, the film reminds us of the Tarkovsky classic Andrei Rublev (1966) with its measured pace and absorbing imagery. The extraordinary cinematography uses the widescreen judiciously as it uses track shots to cover the vast stretches of barren and decaying landscape that reflect the very nature of Lear’s mind. Kozinstev’s employment of largely empty rooms and lifeless locales coupled with the recurrent images of wild beasts that highlight the torment that Lear is going through provides the perfect ominous atmosphere for the tragic showdown.

Where the BBC version was elaborate and expressive for the sake of the text, Korol Lir is less verbose and more cinematic. The images take the driver’s seat and the emotions are kept suppressed. This quietness of the images adds to the menacing atmosphere that builds up. Kozinstev utilizes the black and white costumes effectively to convey meaning rather than verbalizing it. Yuri Yarvet shines as the (completely shaven!) foolish king and carries naturally with himself an air of madness.

Kozinstev remains mostly faithful to the text and retains most of the characters and elements as they are. However, his handling of Lear and The Fool are interesting. After the first part of the film, Lear is almost constantly shot downwards. At times, the camera neglects him and shuns him oblivion and others, it completely homogenizes him with the helpless mass. Kozinstev places Lear as an insignificant part in the huge fabric of nature. This stark contrast in his position before and after the partition evokes a sense of sympathy for Lear even though his plight is a result of his own decisions. Additionally, Kozinstev ties Lear’s fate to that of his kingdom itself. As Lear deteriorates, we see images of mass exodus looking as if headed towards doom.

And more fascinating is the character of The Fool. Kozinstev does use The Fool as the pivotal character but where Shakespeare killed off the character towards the end, Kozinstev retains him even after Lear’s death. An interesting proposition – The Fool without The King – considering that The Fool is but a manifestation of Lear’s mental self. The soul without the body, the shadow without the object.

Ran – Akira Kurosawa (1985), Japan

Moving farthest from the country of origin, we arrive at my favorite version of the tragedy. Akira Kurosawa’s Ran is a revelation and a slap for those who considered him defeated after such frustrating years. Kurosawa gives a complete reboot to the book and revamps it perfectly to suit the backdrop. He had already sizzled in the multi-layered feudal drama Kagemusha (1980) and in Ran he retains the backdrop to carve out a shattering masterpiece that is much more cinematic, much more harrowing and much more human than its counterparts.  As much cold at surface as it is with its gut-wrenching violence, Ran at heart it is an elegy, a requiem for the helpless decline of humanity.

Kurosawa makes remarkable changes in the text as he replaces the daughter trio with three sons. He completely eliminates the Gloucester subplot and the theme of lust from the picture. The central focus of Kurosawa remains the idea how man’s past catches up with him no matter what he does. Hidetora (The Lear character) suffers progressively as every one of his action turns back on him one by one. He shelters in a ruined fort that was destroyed by him. He then is protected by Tsurumaru who was blinded during one of his raids. And both his daughters-in-law have been affected by his wars in one way or the other. Hidetora has cast the boomerang, now he has to collect it.

Kurosawa was an excellent painter and it shows. With remarkable use of almost all colours, Kurosawa takes us the filmic medium as his canvas and strikingly brings out the brewing savagery and insanity of all his characters (“Ran” incidentally means Chaos).

Watching Ran even after 20 years of its production, a shiver runs down the body, for the images are of such power. The threatening clouds that preface each scene, the opening hunt, Lady Kaede’s vengeance and its termination and the final image of the blind Tsurumaru dropping the scroll of Buddha – more than an adaptation. Poetry of war.

King Lear – Jean-Luc Godard (1987), France

It actually isn’t fair to call this one a French adaptation. It is Godard’s adaptation, period.

And it isn’t fair to even call it an adaptation of King Lear; it is a film that tells about an adaptation. I might just be giving the article away, but there are some traces of the Shakespearean work to classify it with the other three films. It follows a man who calls himself Shakespeare Junior the fifth just after the Chernobyl incident as he tries to re-create Shakespeare’s (lost) work. And as usual, Godard uses this loose structure to weave his tangled web of ideas and reflections.

What Godard has done here is commendable because he takes Lear from one form of literature to another. All the Lears hitherto have been narrative oriented whereas Godard presents him inside an essay – an essay on art, its preservation and reproduction. He discusses how images are unique and how it is inimitable. Additionally, he places the audience directly in King Lear’s shoes. Lear wanted to believe everything he heard from his daughters and similarly, the audience is “led” to believe that the film has ended much before the actual finish (many times!). And through this mockery, Godard calls for a desertion of belief on the images we see. He emphasizes time and again that “seeing isn’t believing”.

The film regularly tells us that it is 3 journeys into King Lear. Godard grazes the book, which is essentially a tale of struggle of virtue amidst domination, power and betrayal, and extends its possibilities to ponder upon the nature of the cinematic medium. He explores three kinds of domination – domination of commercialism over art, domination of power of image over that of words and the domination of existing forms of cinema over the new ones. And surprisingly, the final tragic image of Lear (Don Learo here) doesn’t show him crying with Cordelia in his arms. Instead, his back is turned as Cordelia remains dead behind him. He continues to be blind.

As such King Lear is all about decadence. Everyone in the story is blind. Lear is blinded by his pride and the fear of hatred, Gloucester by mere belief and later physically, Edmund the sisters by their lust for power and even Kent by his loyalty. The only person unaffected by this “disease” is Cordelia (and perhaps The Fool who is but half a man) whose is the only symbol of virtue and righteousness in the story. And Shakespeare’s work is a tragedy only because of her death that apparently leaves us without a channel of hope.  However, Kent’s eventual awakening after Lear’s death is a possible conduit to sustenance of humanity.

To see how various filmmakers have been obsessed with the representation of power over virtue and vice versa, death and survival of good and vagaries of the human mind is as enlightening as it entertaining. One realizes that even after so many interpretations and analyses, the book remains a constant supplier of thought and remains open to so many adaptations. I, for one, would like to see at least two good Indian adaptations of the book. One, a neorealistic version set in the cities of modern India where struggle for survival is at its peak – something like what would evolve if Wong Kar Wai made it. And the other, a Ran meets Tokyo Story kind of adaptation rooted in the most rural of India’s villages where, also, the feud over familial property remains a fiery issue.