The Reel Deal
MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING
A Reel Deal Film Review
By Tyler Malone
Reel Rating: 4 out of 5
“MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTING”
In Shakespeare’s day, the word “nothing” was pronounced like “noting”–they were homophones–and, therefore, the title to his comedy Much Ado About Nothing plays on this very pun. The title implies both that the play concerns much ado over insignificant things and also that the play is all about the much ado that can be made over noting things, as in perceiving them, cataloguing them, and/or writing them down. The act of noting is problematized throughout the play to the point where noting becomes, in a way, misnoting–perception as (intentional or unintentional) deception.
So when Avengers filmmaker Joss Whedon, in his new micro-budget adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing, begins his version with a wordless scene that doesn’t appear in the play, and alters the relationship of the piece’s two main characters, I was a bit worried. The unusual and unknowable relationship between Benedict and Beatrice is one of the highlights of Much Ado…, so giving them a very specific romantic history by having the movie begin with Benedict leaving Beatrice in bed after an apparent fling, recalibrates everything. At first, I’ll admit, I didn’t like this recalibration. Whereas the relationship in the play itself always seemed so ambiguous, and therefore open to much speculation, and indeed various “notings,” here Whedon appears to pin it down much more firmly.
Shakespeare is at his best when he’s courting ambiguity. It’s this very quality that many of his disciples have so admired over the years, and why many have argued he has remained relevant when contemporaries and followers have fallen by the wayside, casualties of our embarrassment of cultural riches, buried forever beneath the sands of time. Virginia Woolf explains that “Shakespeare is writing, it seems, not with the whole of his mind mobilized and under control but with feelers left flying that sort and play with words so that the trail of a chance word is caught and followed recklessly.” This image of Shakespeare with almost bug-like antennae–”feelers left flying”–seems very much akin to an earlier assessment of the writer by the poet John Keats. Keats formulated a philosophical ideal, with Shakespeare in mind, called negative capability. He wrote about it to his brothers back in 1817, explaining: “Several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously–I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”
All this is to say that many of us see Shakespeare as a man of genius, as Keats did, precisely because he “is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts,” and that his play Much Ado About Nothing, through the trope of “noting,” itself plays with the whole notion of the subjectivity, and therefore the uncertainty, of perception. As the character Balthasar proclaims in the play, “Note this before my notes: There’s not a note of mine that’s worth the noting.” Who of us can truly claim otherwise?
But, on pain of potentially misnoting myself, I’d note that the ambiguity of the relationship between Benedict and Beatrice in the play is a lovely example of the thematics at work–a thing which any noting potentially misnotes. So it originally puzzled me why Whedon would want to pin the protagonists down as having had a fling. And yet, as anyone who has had a fling knows, there’s nothing certain about a fling either. Do you call the next day? Do you call ever? Does it mean the one person wants something? Or the other? Are the two on the same page? In a way, giving them this history only re-enacts the very problem Shakespeare is working with in the play: that of noting and misnoting, perceptions and deceptions. Though he doesn’t explore it too much, the implication with this added scene, and the few flashbacks of their past that we get, is that they misunderstand both their own and one another’s feelings and wants. That is true in Shakespeare’s play at a certain point, but this added scene makes it true from the very beginning in Whedon’s film version.
Whedon adds or alters a few other things here and there in the same vein as that first scene, and as often makes cuts where need be, but for the most part he stays quite faithful to Shakespeare’s text. Whereas there are a number of examples of great adaptations of Shakespeare’s tragedies, the comedies are usually harder to get right. But Whedon for the most part does get it right, and mostly thanks to the exquisite comedic talent he’s amassed in his cast.
Much Ado About Nothing isn’t perfect, but I think I can call it exceptional. Perhaps I should have spent more of my review speaking to the strengths of this adaptation instead of wasting too much time making note of the small changes, but alas, these are the things that struck me. And these small changes, in a way, prove the strengths I’d have otherwise spoken of, because Whedon has an uncanny ability to adjust certain aspects of the play to enhance the play’s thematic interests rather than altering them or diminishing them. There is no greater strength in adapting a text to screen than that. Some Shakespeare purists will inevitably take issue with certain things, but overall, Whedon’s Much Ado… is a success. And one that more people should take note of instead of letting it stand in the shadows of his more high profile Hollywood stuff. There’s been much ado about Avengers, but I think this small success of a Shakespeare adaptation speaks more to the man’s talents than that standard studio flick (which was great, but not really all that exceptional). Regardless, whatever I have to say, I’d be willing to concede that there’s probably not a note of mine that’s worth noting. See the film, and note it yourself.
Much Ado About Nothing is a film written and directed by Joss Whedon, based on the play by William Shakespeare. It stars Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Nathan Fillion, and Clark Gregg. A modern retelling of Shakespeare’s classic comedy about two pairs of lovers with different takes on romance and a way with words.
Written by Tyler Malone
Photography Courtesy of Bellwether Pictures
Design by Lulu Vottero
Film Still from Much Ado About Nothing, Photography Courtesy of Bellwether Pictures