Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing, in theaters now, is a modern, lively, sexy take on the comedy by William Shakespeare. It’s an adaptation that embraces both the light and the dark moments of the play, and one that is accessible for Bardolaters and Shakespeare newbies alike. Performed in a contemporary setting but using Shakespeare’s text, the film stays true to the 16th century play while also delivering some 21st century charm.
Following directors like Julie Taymor, Baz Luhrmann, and many others who have displayed the versatility of Shakespeare’s work with fresh film adaptations, Whedon imbued his own wit and his talent for developing depth for several characters, no matter how large the ensemble, into Much Ado About Nothing, a play about the “merry war” between reluctant lovers Beatrice and Benedick. The Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator told EW that as he prepared to shoot the film, he asked himself, “How can I augment and clarify what is in this text, and – occasionally – how can I spin it?”
Here EW delves into Whedon’s creative choices for various aspects of his adaptation, as explained by Alexis Denisof, who plays Benedick, and by Whedon himself.
SPOILER ALERT: Though the story points of Much Ado About Nothing are more than 400 years old, some might consider the ways Whedon interpreted the play to be spoilers, so do not read on if you have yet to see the film and want those to remain a surprise.
Claudio, in the pool, with the snorkel
In a key scene when the film’s villains trick Claudio (Fran Kranz) into believing something that is untrue, Claudio appears in a manner wholly unexpected for a Shakespeare play but that makes sense for a modern guy who has just spent the night partying. So why did Whedon decide to put Claudio in a swimming pool, martini in hand, donning a snorkel for the scene? The answer is quite simple: The director, who shot the film at his own Santa Monica, Calif. home, told EW, “For the love of God, if you have a pool overlooking beautiful mountains and trees and you are doing a party scene in a modern-day Shakespeare, and you don’t have someone in a snorkel and martini, then you should be fired.”
Actually, there was a little more to it than that. Even before Whedon knew that the photo of Claudio in a swimming pool would become a promotional image for the film, he knew that it would set the right tone for his adaptation and for that scene in particular. “It encapsulates so much of the spirit of the thing,” he said. “Ridiculousness with just a hit of darkness.” That carefully measured dose of darkness comes into this scene as a night of partying ends and the morning dawns with the first of multiple times poor Claudio is cruelly tricked by the movie’s antagonists. Whedon sees Claudio in this moment as “a guy who has been partying too much, and there’s that feeling of decadence that’s about to go from charming to damaging in that image.”
A gender reversal for Conrade
The villainous Don John has two henchmen in Shakespeare’s play. In Whedon’s film, one of those henchmen is a henchwoman: Actress and comedienne Riki Lindhome plays Conrade, so the character is not only an aid for Don John’s devious plot but is also his lover. “It was basically nice to have another girl in the play,” Whedon explained, adding, “I’ve seen people play Don John well. I’ve never seen Conrade and Borachio really bring heat to the thing. And I did like the idea that the only actual stable relationship in the movie is between the villains.”
Some history for Benedick and Beatrice
The text of Much Ado About Nothing features only a few lines that suggest Beatrice and Benedick – these two strong-willed people who supposedly hate each other at the start of the play – actually have a romantic history. At one point, Don Pedro says to Beatrice, “You have lost the heart of Signior Benedick,” and Beatrice responds, “Indeed, my lord, he lent it me a while, and I gave him use for it,” – meaning I paid him interest for it – “a double heart for his single one.” Some performances of the play highlight this apparent past relationship, while others don’t. Whedon chose to run with the interpretation that the two had once been together, opening the film with Benedick walking out on Beatrice (Amy Acker) after what looks like a one night stand.
Whedon said, “For them to just be trading barbs because they’re confirmed bachelors can be charming. For them to be trading barbs because they cannot deal with the way they feel about each other is much more interesting.”
Denisof also embraced that approach to the couple’s interaction. “We wanted to bring something with a little more edge and more layers to it,” Denisof told EW, “and to go to a slightly more aggressive and darker place with each other at times that gives it a counterpoint to the hilarity that follows. And I think that the comedy has a stronger release because [Beatrice and Benedick] have really been hard on each other.”