I was very excited when I first heard that Ralph Fiennes had made a film of Coriolanus. Excited, and a bit perplexed. Some years ago, I briefly considered trying to do something myself with Shakespeare's tragedy – either turn it into an ultra-low-budget film or maybe stage it somewhere. It didn’t result in anything, but I spent a lot of time thinking about how and whether the play could work today. The reason I decided not to do anything with it, though, was a surprising one.
I’m not planning on reviewing Fiennes’s film, which I mostly like. I think David Edelstein does a nice job in his very favorable review, here. And Fiennes holds forth eloquently in an interview with my pal Sam Adams for the LA Times, here. I’m not entirely convinced, though, that Fiennes has cracked the story’s connection to today. In fact, one of the things I like about his film is how resolutely un-modern it is, despite the updating of its time period.
Coriolanus isn’t one of Shakespeare’s better-known plays, but it has been for some years one of my favorites. This probably has less to do with my obscurantism and more with a stalkerish obsession I had in high school with T.S. Eliot, who notoriously held this one in quite high regard. But while Eliot’s endorsement certainly held some sway with me, it doesn’t appear to have made much of a dent in the culture at large: Almost nobody stages Coriolanus nowadays. (Christopher Walken did do a celebrated turn in New York back in the ‘90s; and there’s an excellent, excellent 1984 BBC production starring Alan Howard, available on DVD.)
There are probably a couple of reasons for this: The Bard’s last tragedy, it has a bit of a reputation for not having the poetic and metaphysical oomph of works like Hamlet or Lear. But the more relevant reason may be that its hero seems to be a bit of a twat.
Coriolanus is one of the few Shakespeare plays that doesn’t reach across the centuries and crash upon the modern consciousness. Its tragic hero is resolutely ancient, and its concerns seem somewhat quaint, at least when they’re not offensive. The text is famously open to interpretation, but that may also be because it’s so troubling to the modern sensibility.
Writing well before the age of populism (and fully cognizant of the chaos that reigned before the Tudors consolidated power a little more than a century before), Shakespeare conjures up a world where the heaving desire of the masses to feel themselves equal to the best, most noble members of society – in this case, a Roman patrician warrior-general – is a corrosive force. Yes, Coriolanus the character has too much pride, and this is his undoing. But there’s never a sense that his pride is unwarranted. Why shouldn’t he be superior to the people, the play seems to ask. Who the hell are they, and what have they done to distinguish themselves?
As I assessed the play, I came to understand that the key challenge in doing Coriolanus today is to try and represent the play’s central dilemma, and its hero, in a way that would work for a modern audience -- not to rewrite it or to soften it, but to unlock it. The play’s terrified vision of democracy may have connected with audiences at the time, but how could one make that same impact today, when democracy and a public voice are our most cherished rights? True, we hold our soldiers in very high regard as well, but we still accept that they are people, just like us. A soldier too proud to bring himself to the level of mere mortals wouldn’t really fly -- even if that very pride is the tragic flaw that brings him down. Soldiers aren't supposed to be like that anymore.
So I was ready to conclude that there might not really be a way to make Coriolanus's pride, his superiority, palpable for today's viewers.
Unless, I thought, you made him a superhero.
That was clearly the solution. To accurately convey the relationship between Coriolanus and the populace, you’d need to create a relationship whose asymmetry people today would accept. The only answer, it seemed to me, was a guy with superpowers – be they from another planet or through a radioactive whatsit or a magic cape or whatever. Something that clearly set him apart – biologically, physically, galactically – from the rest of us.
And then I realized that Pixar had already made this movie, and that it was called The Incredibles.