As palette cleansers go to The Avengers, you don’t get much further away from superheroes as The Bard himself, William Shakespeare. But that’s exactly what Joss Whedon does in this entertaining and delightfully engaging adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s best comedies. Shot in the span of two weeks at Whedon’s own house, the setting moves from Messina, Italy to Messina…California as the events surrounding the return of a group of “soldiers” lead by Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) unfold during their stay in the house of Messina’s governor, Leonato (Clark Gregg). There’s intrigue, wit, mistaken identity, love, hate, revenge, and, of course, a wedding. It isn’t a Shakespeare comedy without a wedding. Populating the cast is a who’s who of Whedon players including Alexis Denisof (Buffy, Angel, The Avengers) as Benedick, Amy Acker (Angel, Dollhouse, Cabin in the Woods) as Beatrice, Sean Maher (Firefly) as Don John, Fran Kranz (Dollhouse, Cabin in the Woods) as Claudio, Tom Lenk (Buffy) as Verges, and Nathan Fillion (Firefly, Buffy, Dr. Horrible) as Dogberry.
Making an adaptation of a Shakespeare play is not easy, especially in the present day when your audience for such ventures is more than likely limited to Shakespeare/English Lit geeks, graduate students of the same ilk, or theater patrons. Let’s face it, the average movie goer isn’t going to look at the words William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing and think, “Well that’s definitely a movie I want to see!” The further we get away from the time period in which the plays were written, the harder it is to make them relevant to a modern audience without altering the dialogue or just adapting aspects of the play into another movie like 10 Things I Hate About You, O, or West Side Story to make the stories more palatable. Shakespearean dialogue requires you to listen, and I mean listen. While there are very obvious jokes and metaphors in The Bard’s writing, a lot of his best writing is in his wordplay and Much Ado About Nothing has some of the best wordplay period.
So it makes sense that Whedon would choose Much Ado About Nothing out of all of Shakespeare’s plays. One, because it’s a drama/comedy, which Whedon excels at in his own work. And two, because it’s a play that has one of the best couples committed to paper in Benedick and Beatrice. While Hero and Claudio’s traditional romance and reconciliation drives the main plot and its many shenanigans, the real meat comes from the repartee between the two former lovers as they wax poetic about the cynical and unrealistic nature of love, committing to being single because love and marriage are far more destructive. It’s not surprising to see why this play would appeal to Whedon the most since his penchant for portraying dynamic and nuanced female characters would put Beatrice at the top of his list of female characters in Shakespeare’s plays. Unlike Katharina in Taming of the Shrew, Beatrice remains vigilante in her denial of love, but eventually comes around to the idea of loving Benedick through the machinations of her cousin, uncle, Don Pedro, and Claudio. She isn’t forced into marriage, nor does she have to be beaten and made an example of so that the audience understands that a woman with a sharp tongue can be silenced and subdued. By play’s end, Beatrice and Benedick are still the same people, still possessed of the same wit, but they’re more enlightened about their feelings towards each other. They are the most modern couple in Shakespeare’s works and the easiest to relate to as they match each other word for word.
In adapting the play, Whedon keeps the story tight and contained, cutting superfluous scenes while visually capturing others through the use of expository dialogue. When Beatrice and Don Pedro speak of her past relationship with Benedick, Whedon allows us to see what Beatrice is actually talking about, giving us more insight into their relationship and why their conversations are so venomous at times. And when Borachio (Spencer Treat Clark) explains how he deceived Claudio about Hero’s maidenhood, Whedon shows us as the explanation occurs instead of just letting Borachio lay it all out in front of the camera. The advantage of a visual medium in adapting a play is that we can see that which we’re only told about on the stage. Whedon makes a number of smart choices in this adaptation. Filming it in black and white instead of color gives the movie a more intimate feel, keeping our focus on the actors and the dialogue instead of scenery. Even the shots are framed intimately, as if the audience is a fly on the wall, privy to a number of conversations they’re not supposed to hear.
And while I said before that the cast is filled with Whedon’s friends, there isn’t a bad actor in the bunch. Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof are full of energy as they play off each other and equally display their prowess at physical comedy. Denisof is especially funny in a number of scenes, but when Benedick is showing off for Beatrice after overhearing that she loves him, it’s a hilarious scene that shows Benedick’s arrogant charm and Beatrice’s exasperation. Nathan Fillion and Tom Lenk are a fantastic duo as Dogberry and Verges respectively, playing up their pomposity with a cheesy wink to current crime procedurals like CSI: Miami. Diamond, Gregg, Maher, and Kranz make blander, yet still important characters more interesting than they are on paper, especially Kranz; and even smaller roles like Conrade (Rikki Lindhome) and the two Watchmen (Nick Kocher and Brian McElhaney) manage to be just as fun to watch.
All-in-all, Much Ado About Nothing is the right way to do a Shakespearean adaptation. Whedon gets to the core of what makes this play so funny and poignant. He never loses focus and makes sure the audience stays invested in a play where even the slightest misunderstanding can have far-sweeping repercussions, for better or worse.
- Kocher and McElhaney are also known as the comedy duo BriTANick
- Rikki Lindhome is one half of the musical comedy duo Garfunkle and Oates
- Alexis Denisof is married to Alyson Hannigan who played Willow on Buffy, The Vampire Slayer
- The songs from the play were adapted by Joss, Jed Whedon, and Maurissa Tanchareon, who composed the music for Dr. Horrible
- Ashley Johnson (Margaret) was the waitress in The Avengers saved by Captain America and was the little sister on Growing Pains (do you feel old now?)