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Despite the adaptation of a text to film benefiting from the opportunities and abilities bestowed to a director through the visual aspect of the medium, narrative complexity and depth of literary themes almost inevitably suffer a condensation. Ralph Fiennes’s adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Coriolanus is not immune to this trend, with temporal constraints forcing Fiennes to focus upon thematic elements of Shakespeare’s original work that he finds to be integral to his interpretation. Whereas Shakespeare’s characterization of key figures such as Coriolanus and the Tribunes are mainly dependent upon dialogue, Fiennes integrates techniques specific to his chosen medium in order to achieve the equivalent intention. Moreover, Fiennes’s modification of the setting and aspects of the historical context assists in the distinction of Fiennes’s film as an adaptation with its own unique emphases, rather than a visual reconstruction of the original play, while still effectively maintaining the essence of Shakespeare’s piece.
Fiennes’s selection of modifications and emphases within the focus scene provide a characterization of the Tribunes in line with that of Shakespeare. Fiennes mirrors Shakespeare’s presentation of the Tribunes as Machiavellian and conniving in nature, seen in Sicinus’s assertion in regards to Coriolanus’ display of wounds, “Why, so he did, I am sure”. Laced with subtext, Sicinius provocatively feigns a sentiment of homonoia towards Coriolanus to conceal the true agenda of the Tribunes. This suggestion is targeted by Fiennes through a close-up shot of the Tribune as he delivers the line, emphasizing the oratory manipulation at play by forcing audience attention towards Sicinius. Brutus and Sicinius’s contradictory manner of reference to the plebeians serves to highlight their rapid disassociation from their own social class, a theme that is omitted from the cinematic adaptation in terms of dialogue, but Fiennes uses an alternate method of presentation. Brutus informs Menenius that they will stay in the marketplace “for the people”, connoting a sense of service for the plebeians, which is fortified by Brutus positive appellation towards them as “my masters”. While both of these comments remain in the film, Brutus’ “Let them go on” is excluded, disallowing the audience from comprehending the disassociation of the Tribunes from their social class, evident in the pronoun “them”, in a diegetic manner. Instead, Fiennes uses the costume to achieve this aim, with both Tribunes wearing suits is symbolic of their megalomaniacal ambitions to separate themselves from the plebeians and breach the social chasm, as only Coriolanus, Menenius and their entourage are wearing suits. Fiennes characterization of the Tribunes as manipulative beings fixated upon their ambition appears in a manner faithful to Shakespeare’s original play.
Fiennes’ depiction of the eponymous tragic hero is one that maintains the essence of that presented by Shakespeare. Throughout his request for consulship, Shakespeare includes large passages that present the internal dialogue of Coriolanus and reflection upon his ordeal. However, Fiennes highlights the attempt to gain the voices of the people as a wholly arduous task for the general, emphasizing his lexical minimalism and discomfort in discourse with the plebeians due to his contempt for them. In a modern addition to Shakespeare’s original script, heavy and intensifying percussion instrumentally accompanies Coriolanus’ approach of the marketplace. Representative of the drums heard in war, this instrumentation is used by Fiennes to emphasize the task as a battle for Coriolanus with both his code of ‘stoic virtus’ and with his disdain for the people whose voices he must plea for. However, Coriolanus’ innate respect for those within the martial domain, as seen in Shakespeare’s text with his use of positive appellation such as “my fellows” for plebeian soldiers, is emphasized by Fiennes through modifications and additions in regard to Citizen 1. In the cinematic adaptation, Citizen 1 wears a beret emblazoned with a Roman crest, indicative of military service, which earns the respect of Coriolanus, symbolized by a handshake between the two. The only physical contact between Coriolanus and a plebeian in the scene, Fiennes adds this contact to highlight his adulation of those who most closely reflect his code of honour, and his simultaneous scorn for those who do not meet this criteria, being the vast majority of commoners. Coriolanus’ candid passage of prose “I will, sir…bountiful to the desirers” is omitted, with Fiennes opting to present Coriolanus’ seeking of consulship as a venture to be completed quickly, rather than one involving any sustained discourse with the lower class which he disdains. This notion is furthered with the removal of Coriolanus’ dialogue most similar to soliloquy “More sweet voices…the other will do”. As soliloquies in Shakespeare stereotypically allow the self-examination of the internal conflict of a character, the omission of this passage by Fiennes, partly due to the fact that a lone character on screen may appear contrived if the extra-dialogic instructions were to be obeyed, is also a result of his presentation of Coriolanus as unwilling to engage in reflection on the matter, favoring a rapid procedure of the unavoidable custom. In his “Your voices” speech, the dialogue in Shakespeare’s original text emphasizes the repetition of the metonimous “voices” as evidence of Coriolanus’ disposition to become obsessed with words that vex him. In Fiennes’s film, the dialogue is adapted such that Coriolanus delivers the speech in a stilted, mechanical manner, highlighting the preternatural nature of the words he delivers, as they are words spoken due to necessity, not honesty. Coriolanus’ interactions throughout the scene are adapted by Fiennes to emphasize his abject scorn and aversion to divulgence with the common class, due to his perception of them as a cowardly cohort and of inferior nature to himself, wholly in line with the characterization of Coriolanus in Shakespeare’s work, despite being highlighted in a differing manner.
Shakespeare’s setting and historical context are adapted by Ralph Fiennes to suit his cinematic adaptation of the text. While the original play is set in Ancient Rome, on the Jacobean stage, Fiennes’ makes the decision to transpose the play into a modern context. This modification through transposition provides the contemporary audience a familiar lens through which to understand and contemplate the major concerns of the work. While Shakespeare’s exploration of power and class transcends time, the modern screen adaptation affords the audience a greater ability to connect and identify personally with the issues presented. The audience are familiar with modern politics more so than they are ancient roman customs. The “napless vesture of humility” and “cap” worn by Coriolanus in in his walking through the marketplace are items of clothing that, in Shakespeare’s text, are worn by aspiring consul to present themselves unpretentiously to the plebeians to garner their respect. The clothing worn by Coriolanus in Fiennes’s film suitably avoids the anachronistic nature of the attire, but provides an alteration to the intentions of Shakespeare. Coriolanus wears a suit without a tie, apparel that remains indicative of his superior class to the plebeians, as their own clothing is of lesser sophistication. Due to his favor of military dress, conspicuous as these are the clothes he returns to following his removal of the “garments” of humility, Fiennes presents Coriolanus’ attire as representative of his engagement in the civic domain with the plebeians he regards as inferior, rather than appearing humble. Moreover, Shakespeare delineates Coriolanus as begging a small “brace” of citizens in the market place for their approval of him, partially due to the constraints of the stage size. Fiennes capitalizes on the film medium’s lack of restriction with space to depict a large crowd before Coriolanus in the market place. Through use of shot reverse shot, showing Coriolanus in the market square and then the common body after he speaks, Fiennes emphasizes the division between the protagonist and the common people. Fiennes’ uses minimal shots of Coriolanus and the common people within the same frame. When Coriolanus does speak to the citizens individually, Fiennes isolates the protagonist with a similar use of shot reverse shot. Close up shots of the 4th citizens’ eyes create a sense of Coriolanus being interrogated, and low camera angles are used that angle up to show Coriolanus literally and metaphorically above, or superior to the common body. While Shakespeare’s stage setting with fewer citizens effectively depicts the power struggle between the people and Coriolanus, Fiennes’s larger modernized setting works effectively also.
Ultimately, the medium of film is mimetic in nature, and while audience comprehension can be promoted through this paradigm, conflation or exclusion of complex literary themes is inevitable. Fiennes’s adaptation of Coriolanus is temporally incapable of exploring the eponymous protagonist’s character and developing the complex metaphor evident within Shakespeare’s play to an equal degree. However, through the use of a plethora of cinematic techniques and directorial decisions in regards to the omission and emphasis of components of the original play, Fiennes’ adaptation is one that accurately transposes the essence of the original Jacobean play to a modern setting.
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