The Upside of Obsession

When I decided to attend my local screening of the National Theatre Live production of “Coriolanus,” I was expecting to see rows of empty seats.  The audience for Kenneth Branagh’s “Macbeth” had been no more than a dozen people, and “Macbeth” was by far the better-known play.

This time, the theater was packed.

By the time the film started, almost every seat had been taken…by young people.  The demographics of this particular audience would fulfill any marketing mogul’s dreams–a full house of 18-25 year olds with enough disposable income to afford the $20 ticket price.  They had come, in singles and droves, united in their love for one man–not William Shakespeare, but Tom Hiddleston.

These were “Thor” fans, who had followed their beloved Loki out of the Marvel universe and into that of the Bard.  Cinephiles who bemoan the comic book domination of the box office should take comfort in the fact that these films are producing genuine stars with sizable, loyal fan bases.  A love of great literature (and by extension, great film) often springs from an unlikely source.  How many people picked up “Pride and Prejudice” for the first time after seeing Colin Firth, his white dress shirt clinging to his soaked skin?  Benedict Cumberbatch made the effortless leap from Sherlock Holmes to Star Trek to Frankenstein, introducing his legion of fans to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Mary Shelley’s work in the process.

So now it is Hiddleston’s turn to guide the next generation’s literary taste, but he is not the only big name screen star to tackle “Coriolanus.”  In 2011, Ralph Fiennes directed a film version of “Coriolanus” starring himself in the title role, with Gerard Butler as his adversary Tullus Aufidius.  Like the National Theatre Live version, it is set in the modern world, with grimy streets and graffiti covered walls revealing the political turmoil of the play.  This is where the similarities end; each version creates very different protagonists and as a result, the tone of the play shifts accordingly.

“Coriolanus” itself is a difficult play, partially because its primary concern is truth, lies and reputation.  In Shakespeare’s other plays, we can assume that the characters tell us nothing but the truth.  When the Montagues and Capulets are said to be bitter enemies, we believe it.  In “Coriolanus,” we are given dozens of contradictory opinions–so many that is almost impossible to sort truth from fiction.  This becomes problematic when it comes to our protagonist.  Fiennes’ Catius Martius often seems distant and cold.  His appearance itself is intimidating–the steely blue eyes encased in a smoothly shaven skull reminiscent of his turn as Voldemort from the “Harry Potter” films.  His interactions with the common people betray his open contempt for them, and even his tenderest moments with his family are controlled rather than sentimental.  Some people complain that Coriolanus is an unsympathetic hero, and Fiennes plays him as a hardened soldier whose final actions are guided by deep inner feelings that are not readily apparent on the surface.

By contrast, Hiddleston’s Catius Martius is emotionally vulnerable and his frustration with the people seems to stem less from his own native pride than from his contempt for the sheer lunacy of their actions.  The National Theatre Live production places greater emphasis on Coriolanus’s enemies (as did the original play).  The two tribunes of the people openly lie and manipulate an uninformed public–their deceptive ways are less apparent in the Fiennes version, whose politicians are polished experts and pundits rather than pandering demagogues.  There are moments of humor and lightness in Hiddleston’s performance that contrast with the serious, brooding solitude of Fiennes.

The films also create completely different versions of Aufidius.  Gerard Butler fully inhabits the role and shows Aufidius as both soldier and human being.  He has an easy rapport with others, a skill that Fiennes’ Coriolanus deliberately lacks.  In one scene, Coriolanus lurks in the shadows as he watches his rival with a mixture of admiration and envy.  The final scene between the two is surprisingly poignant, and though Butler does not speak, his face says volumes about his feelings for his enemy.  Hadley Fraser’s Aufidius finds himself outmatched and outdone by Hiddleston’s Coriolanus.  This Aufidius is driven by his failures, thus the final scene comes across as disturbing rather than sad.

While both productions are exceedingly well acted, neither version fully captures the ultimate message and tragedy of Shakespeare’s play.  Coriolanus is a man who was misunderstood his entire life: branded as proud when his actions show otherwise, forced into politics when he would prefer to shun the public stage.  His contempt for the people is not without cause, and there are several scenes in the play that show their hypocrisy.  Unfortunately, both cinematic versions have eliminated or altered certain crucial scenes and truncated the ending.  Imagine if “Romeo and Juliet” ended with the death of the two lovers and their families never made peace at the end.  Those who truly wish to understand “Coriolanus” will need to go back to the source text…

…which brings us back to Tom Hiddleston.  In a recent interview, he said “Some people have been a bit obsessive about attributing responsibility for things that have happened in their lives to me.  You want to say: ‘Bless you for saying those nice things, but I’ve done nothing.'”  This is not quite true.

Actors have the power to draw us into other worlds, and their influence spurs us to discover new things.  A character we identify with may prompt a moment of self-realization, or the intensity of our fandom drives us toward different, challenging forms of art we never would have sought on our own. I only discovered my favorite film, “Henry V,” because my childhood crush (Christian Bale) had been in it.  At the time, I was watching everything he had ever made, including Steven Spielberg’s magnificent “Empire of the Sun.”  After watching the films, I went to the bookstore and picked up copies of Shakespeare’s play and J.G. Ballard’s novel.  I imagine that many of Tom Hiddleston’s fans are now doing the exact same thing.

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Lecturer by day, aspiring writer/novelist by night. :)

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