If you’re a fan of Joss Whedon–the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, Dollhouse, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, and director of The Avengers–then you’ve probably known about his version of Much Ado About Nothing for a long time. Here’s the scoop: Joss holds Shakespeare readings in his home periodically with all his actor friends, and one day he decided he should make a film of one of these plays. So in 12 days, in his own home, he filmed a modern version of Much Ado About Nothing. Last week, it finally came out in limited release. Since I’m now a New Yorker, I got to be one of the lucky few who could go see it.
It was a brilliant movie. I’m no film critic, so I can’t speak to the lighting or cuts or whatever the proper terminology is, but visually, it was beautiful. The soundtrack was thoughtful and artful. More importantly, the arrangement of the film added so much to Shakespeare’s original story. The play has two main plots: one is the hostility between Lady Beatrice and Signior Benedick, which has a nebulous back story of scorned love and concludes in true love; the other plot is about young Hero and Lord Claudio falling in love. The only problem is that Claudio is led to believe that Hero has been unfaithful, so at their wedding day, he shames her in front of the entire party and leaves her at the altar.
Whedon took this basic story and added visual scenes to make it even deeper. In a scene clearly unscripted by the Bard, the movie opens at the end of a one-night stand between Beatrice and Benedick. This is important for adding extra fire to the war of the wits that goes on between the two; it also leaves no doubt as to the fact that Beatrice is “unchaste.” When Hero is then accused of unchaste, the moment in the movie is all the more potent than what is in the script: Benedick–who is a self-acclaimed ladies’ man and has probably ruined several young women the way Hero has just been accused of–reacts first by looking at Beatrice. Then he is Hero’s champion, even as her own father forsakes her.
Whedon also shook things up by installing one of the evil cronies as a woman. Named Conrad, the character was clearly written as a man, yet Whedon cast it as a woman and even made the relationship between Conrad and her evil master, Don John, highly sexual. This is interesting for a few reasons: it adds to the morality of extramarital sex that is investigated by the Hero-Claudio plot; it adds a layer of depth to the motivations of this particular character; and it reverses the Shakespearean tradition of having males play female parts.
This is not simply a modern transposition of a Shakespearean play. It is artful, it is intelligent, and it has something to say about sexual morality, about love, and about loyalty. I look forward to watching the movie again because I am sure there is more meat to Whedon’s masterpiece. For now, I heartily recommend it to all who can actually find a screening.