One of Shakespeare’s most popular plays (and one of my favorites, too), is Much Ado About Nothing. Written in either 1598 or 1599, it’s full of biting wit, passionate romance, and manipulation of both the shameful and shameless varieties. While it has a long production history, it has a short filmography.
For those who might not be familiar with the plot, the play is set in Messina, Italy, and a group of soldiers have just returned from some unnamed war to the wealthy house of Leonato. Now that the fighting is done, their priorites are different, they’re ready for some fun, and in the case of a few of them, marriage and intrigue. Claudio and Hero fall in love at first sight. Benedick and Beatrice, whose relationship has been a years’ long sparring match, pick up where they left off.
This time, however, is a little different. Both Beatrice and Benedick swear up and down that they’ll never be married because no one will catch them, and the rest of the company essentially says, “Challenge accepted.” From there the play is about convincing these two that they’re really in love with each other, which they are, because it only takes a few well-placed remarks for Beatrice and Benedick to get stars in their eyes. As Hero says, “If it prove so, then loving goes by haps. Some Cupid kills with arrows, some with traps.”
Unfortunately, there are also traps of a more sinister kind afoot. Don John, also known as John the Bastard, is jealous of all the happiness and romance he sees around him and looks to throw the proverbial wrench in the proceedings. He tells Claudio, Benedick, and company commander Don Pedro that he’s seen Hero cheating on Claudio with another man.
Our three unsuspecting soldiers buy what he’s selling, and things aren’t merry as a marriage bell at the wedding the next day. John and his two henchmen, Conrade and Borachio, however, haven’t reckoned on local police constable, Dogberry and his band of law enforcement officers. Dogberry bumbles a little bit, but he’s also very shrewd.
Since Much Ado is a comedy, the ending is happy, but audience and characters alike have to earn it because there are a lot of troubles that have to be ironed out first.
What were Shakespeare’s inspirations for the play? There’s some debate about that, with some scholars pointing to Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen, but more agree Bardello’s story of Timbreo di Cardona and Fenicia Lionato. The similarities are pretty pointed, but it’s also generally agreed that the source material was more of a starting place than a straight cut-and-paste.
Unlike other Shakespearean works such as Romeo and Juliet, Much Ado About Nothing hasn’t been translated to the big screen all that often, probably because the dialogue is very culturally and historically bound, but a couple of filmmakers have taken a whack at it. Most if not all the dialogue is presented verbatim, although with one major alteration: At the end of Benedick’s “Love me? Why?” speech in Act Two, he says, “If I do not win her, I am a Jew.” Anti-semitism was a thing in Shakespeare’s day, but that’s a topic for another time.
Naturally, some of these films succeed and others don’t, and here we present two:
Chronology dictates we start with Kenneth Branagh’s beautiful masterpiece, starring Branagh as Benedick, his then-wife, Emma Thompson as Beatrice, Denzel Washington as Don Pedro, Robert Sean Leonard as Claudio, Kate Beckinsale as Hero, Keanu Reeves as Don John, and Michael Keaton as Dogberry, as well as a host of familiar British faces. It’s gorgeously shot, with not a lot of cuts during big scenes but plenty of flow.
This movie is laugh-out-loud funny and heartbreakingly sad, giving us ample opportunity to feel for these characters while taking in the gorgeous Tuscan scenery, which is capped off by Patrick Doyle’s majestic score. My favorite scene is when Claudio, Don Pedro and Leonato accidentally-on-purpose discuss rather loudly how Beatrice is supposedly in love with Benedick while Benedick listens in shock. This is one of those times when showing is better than telling:
The film’s only real misstep is casting Keanu Reeves as John, because he doesn’t seem very comfortable with the material and sneers as if he’s in a Victorian melodrama. It is, however, an interesting turn from the guy who has such roles as Bill S. Preston, Esquire, Neo, and John Wick under his belt.
There are also a few non-canon elements, such as Dogberry’s men doing a Three Amigos-style dance when snapping to attention and Dogberry and his assistant, Verges, gallop down the road as if they’re on horseback, which is apparently a Monty Python homage.
I first saw this movie in my senior AP English class in high school, and I remember very vividly that my teacher, Mr. Duda had a crush on Emma Thompson. “I could look at her forever,” were his words.
We go from beautiful Tuscany to Joss Whedon’s house and backyard in Santa Monica. Literally. Set in the present day, we’re supposed to believe the men in this movie are members of the Italian mafia, but as none of them do anything remotely mafia-like, they’re just a bunch of guys in suits. That’s one of the reason the turf wars theme worked in Baz Luhrmann’s version of Romeo and Juliet, messy and shrill as it was: We saw the characters committing actual gang-related violence.
The casting is decent. Among others, Nathan Fillion, who’s probably the most well-known, plays Dogberry, Reed Diamond plays Don Pedro, Fran Kranz as Claudio, Sean Maher as Don John, Jillian Morgese as Hero, and Riki Lindholm as Conrade. Amy Acker and Alexei Denisof have a fine time locking horns as Beatrice and Benedick, although it’s hard not to see Denisof as Sandy Rivers. I think my favorite was Clark Gregg as Leonato, though, because he seems to display the most range, and his eyes genuinely twinkle when he looks at Hero.
The problem is that the execution is a little sloppy and it feels as if the movie is trying too hard. Seeing supposed mafia members going at each other in a child’s bedroom with paper butterflies looking on isn’t exactly menacing, especially when one of them puts on a feathered lampshade for no apparent reason.
And the language doesn’t fit the setting. Not only are references to feudal Italy out of place in modern-day California, but there are laughable mistakes in the staging and continuity. During the masked ball scene in the first act, when Don John and his henchmen come up to Claudio, who they think is Benedick, and tell him Don John woos Hero for himself and not Claudio, Claudio should presumably be wearing a full mask. Problem is, in Whedon’s version Claudio is wearing a snorkel mask and most of his face is exposed, so he’s clearly not Benedick, not to mention Benedick has a full beard. It’s a dumb mistake and kind of needless.
Speaking of Benedick’s beard, it disappears from one scene to the next in the first half of the movie even though only a couple of minutes have passed. When Benedick found time to shave during all the drama is anyone’s guess.
Much Ado About Nothing should be experienced even if one doesn’t have a lot of experience with Shakespeare. It’s fun, it’s intriguing, and it’s completely worth it. Personally I would stick to stage versions or the Kenneth Branagh film, but that’s just me.
Beth Ann and Le’s Luso World Blogathon is coming up on Saturday. Thanks for reading, all, and I hope to see you then…
The 1993 (DVD and Blu-ray) and 2013 (DVD, Blu-ray and streaming) versions of Much Ado About Nothing are available from Amazon. The original play can be found here.
~Purchases made via Amazon Affiliate links found on this site help support Taking Up Room at no extra cost to you.~
If you’re enjoying what you see on Taking Up Room, please look for additional content on Substack, where you’ll find both free and subscriber-only articles. I publish every Wednesday and Saturday.
Gaw, Allison. “Is Shakespeare’s Much Ado A Revised Earlier Play?” PMLA. Vol. 50, No. 3 (Sep., 1935), pp. 715-738.
Gordon, D.J. “‘Much Ado About Nothing:’ A Possible Source for the Hero-Claudio Plot.” Studies in Philology. Vol. 39, No. 2 (Apr., 1942), pp. 279-290.
2 thoughts on “Stage To Screen: Much Ado About Nothing”
I was also underwhelmed by the Joss Whedon version, which made me sad because I like so many people in it. The trouble for me was, it started to feel like a game of “guess what actor/actress is going to show up next!” You’re right, though — Clark Gregg was a total scene stealer and probably my favorite in the whole thing. Besides Nathan Fillion, I mean.
The Branagh version is just so, so good, though. I don’t even mind Keanu and his glowering.
I got to see this performed live a few years ago, and it works soooo well on stage — lots of opportunity for sight gags, spontaneous funny expressions, and so on. It’s my second-favorite Shakespeare play, after Hamlet.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Ooh, that must have been fun. And wow, I’m amazed anyone saw the Whedon movie–it seems a little buried. That’s probably a good thing. Branagh’s version is peerless.