Tag Archives: Character Profile

Evolution of Character – Robin Hood

robin hood painting

Few heroes of film and literature have had the long lasting legacy that the prince of thieves has had.  Robin Hood’s origins date back to medieval times, possibly even beginning from the exploits of a real person.  Though his historical roots may be disputed today, the legend of Robin has not diminished over time.  For many, Robin Hood is the quintessential freedom fighter; a person who works against the system in order to solve an injustice.  And that distinction has made him a very commonly reinterpreted image of heroism.  Really, he represents many different things to different people.  He’s a rebel, an activist, and a noble protector.  In the world of politics, conservatives view him as a hero who stands up against big government overreach, while liberals view him as a hero who re-disperses wealth from the rich to the poor, both fitting that mold of righting injustices.  And perhaps the most interesting aspect of Robin Hood’s character is his selflessness, which is something that has helped him earn almost universal admiration.  In most versions of his story, Robin Hood is a nobleman who gives up his title and lands in order to achieve social justice outside of the law, which he views as corrupt and illegitimate.  The main story of Robin Hood is set during the post Norman invasion years of English history, where the native Saxon people were at odds with their Norman overlords.  Robin of House Locksley sees the dishonesty in the rule of Prince John, who’s using taxation as a way to oppress the Saxon people, and he uses his expertise as a knight and an archer to subvert the usurper king, and restore the throne to the more just King Richard, who is returning home from the Crusades.

It’s Robin Hood’s nobleness that defines him in his tale, but at the same time, most interpretations also build up the charming playfulness of the character as well.  There’s a reason why Robin Hood and his band of outlaws are known as the Merry Men.  He is both a crusading hero as well as a romantic one, which has endeared him to readers and audiences for centuries.  And that specific aspect is what has made him an ideal character for the silver screen.  Robin Hood has enjoyed many cinematic variations, some of which have left their mark on the character for modern times.  Even with reinterpretations, the essential aspects of the character and his story have remained mostly unchanged.  In each film, Robin steals from the wealthy and gives to the poor; he woos the beautiful Maid Marian; and he restores Richard the Lionheart to the throne bringing peace and prosperity back to the land.  Interestingly, the most common thing that changes from each different film version is Robin Hood’s ultimate nemesis.  Usually, it’s a choice from one of the story’s three central villains; the conniving Prince John, the ruthless Sir Guy of Gisbourne, or the thuggish Sheriff of Nottingham, but almost never all three in the same film.  Sometimes one of those characters is written out entirely, leaving more time to focus on one or the other.  But, what always ends up being the highlight in each movie is Robin Hood himself, and Hollywood has given us many spectacular and varied versions over the years.  Like other articles in this series, I will be looking at a few of the most notable versions of the character on film, and see how Robin Hood has evolved over the years as an iconic screen hero.

robin hood fairbanks


Of course, we start with the man who effectively became a legend playing the character.  Douglas Fairbanks was arguably Hollywood’s first matinee idol, and the role of Robin Hood is certainly what helped to cement his image.  What Fairbanks brought so effectively to the character was the fearlessness.  In the film, Robin Hood must accomplish many death-defying feats in order to save his love Maid Marian from the diabolical Sir Guy of Gisbourne.  What is particularly special about all the spectacular heroic feats in the film is that Fairbanks did most of them himself, without a stunt double.  The early days of Hollywood allowed a bit more leeway with what actors and filmmakers could get a way with, and that suited Fairbanks just fine because he was a bit of a showoff, which comes across in his performance.  He’s gutsy, but at the same time debonair, and he brings out every aspect of the character perfectly, despite the restrictions of silent cinema.  His leaping jump from a galloping horse on a raising drawbridge, without the help of visual effects, is a particularly spectacular feat to watch in the movie.  Fairbanks also set the standard on the visual representation of the character, with the pointed cap and the neatly trimmed facial hair.  Indeed, that look would define the character throughout most interpretations in the years ahead.  It’s a movie that clearly proves that Robin Hood was tailor made for cinema, and it took an actor of Fairbanks’ caliber to pull it off.  What Robin Hood needed was the swashbuckling treatment in order to connect with modern audiences, and it came at a time when Hollywood was ever so eager to create one.  And with Fairbanks’ guidance, Robin Hood entered the twentieth century in a big way.

robin hood flynn


After the introduction of sound and color to the film medium, Hollywood again saw the opportunity to once again bring Robin Hood back to the big screen.  And the result is this now classic version, which some often cite as being perhaps the greatest screen version of the story ever.  And that’s hard to argue.  This beautifully crafted, Technicolor marvel is everything you want a Robin Hood movie to be.  It’s got adventure and romance, but also a surprising bit of political subtext.  The movie was directed by Michael Curtiz, an Jewish Hungarian filmmaker who fled Nazi occupation of his homeland at the start of WWII by fleeing to America and finding work in Hollywood.  This story about suppression of people based on their ethnicity probably felt very personal to someone like him.  But, that’s not to say that this movie is just a product of it’s time; it’s actually quite timeless.  And a large part of the film’s success is due to the casting of Errol Flynn as Robin Hood.  He exudes charisma throughout the movie and commands every scene.  Where Fairbanks brought out the physicality of the character, Flynn brings out the humanity, displaying the character’s intelligence and open heart in a very effective way.  The movie also has him dealing with all three of his main foes, for the only time that I can think of in any version.  Of particular note is Sir Guy of Gisbourne (played perfectly by Basil Rathbone), whose final duel with Robin is an iconic scene in it’s own right.  Flynn would become the quintessential version of the character for many years, and probably still is today.  No other actor before or since has been able to embody all the nobleness and virtue of Robin Hood, which ironically Errol Flynn had very little of in real life.  I guess that makes this a truly unexpected performance as a result.

robin hood disney


With a larger than life hero as popular as Robin Hood, you knew that Disney would eventually take their own stab at the character with an animated film.  What was surprising about their version was the way they did it.  In Disney’s Robin Hood, the cast is entirely made up of animals playing all the characters.  And remarkably, it works.  Some of the character choices are pretty obvious (Richard the Lionheart is literally a lion here, as is the villainous Prince John), but some are cleverly unexpected; Prince John’s executioners being vultures for example.  But the obvious choice of animal for the titular hero had to be a fox.  For such a cunning and deceptive hero, what else could he be?  The character is perfectly designed around both aspects of the character; embodying the persona of a fox while still maintaining the traditional image of the hero, complete with green tunic and pointy hat.  The voice, provided by British born actor Brian Bedford is also perfectly suited for the character.  He commands the same suaveness of Errol Flynn, but has a bit more modern sarcastic sense of humor.  I also like the way he hams it up whenever Robin is in disguise; whether it be a gypsy fortune teller or as a feeble beggar, it’s always funny.  This version may be quite the departure from the traditional story, but it still does a good job of presenting the character in a heroic and noble way.  As far as a Disney-fied version of the classic character, this Robin Hood proved to be a crowd favorite and it’s widely viewed as one of the more popular versions of the story for modern audiences, despite all the modern liberties taken with the story.  It’s a clear sign of just how universally effective Robin Hood is as a big screen hero.

robin hood connery


Here we have a decidedly different take on the character than previous versions.  This particular film tells us the life of the hero after his daring exploits have already made him a legend, and thus, shows him trying to cope with his legacy into his later years.  This version of Robin Hood is really a deconstruction of the Robin Hood mythos, portraying Robin as a man torn between duty and honor.  In the movie, Robin (played by Sean Connery) is growing older and he’s seen all the good will that he has brought to the kingdom undone by more war and greed.  Richard has again abandoned his throne to fight another Crusade and Robin leaves his king to return home after he becomes disillusioned by the futility of his king’s foolish mission.  Upon returning home, Robin seeks to redeem the one thing left in his life that he feels is still within his reach, and that’s his relationship with Marian (played by Audrey Hepburn) who has become a nun in the years since he left.  The fact that this movie was made in the wake of the ending of the Vietnam War probably has something to do with this more revisionist take on the character, as society was trying to reevaluate the true makings of heroism and justice.  Robin Hood is still pure of heart here, but he begins to doubt his purpose once he’s seen all the good he has done has been for naught.  The movie is touching, particularly in the Robin and Marian scenes, but I do have to say that Connery is a bit miscast here.  The man is too strong of a persona to play this more vulnerable version of the character.  His performance is still good, don’t get me wrong, but I think it’s the least effective representation of what Robin Hood is all about in the end.  But, in a future version of the story, we would indeed see Connery much better placed in the world of Robin Hood.

robin hood costner


For modern audiences, this is probably the version of the character that more quickly comes to mind.  This is also one of the more divisive versions of Robin Hood put to film.  Many critics balked at the casting of all-American Kevin Costner as the titular hero.  The unsubtle approach to the story and characters also made a few people turn their noses up at this version, as well as towards a few other strange film-making choices made by producer Costner and director Kevin Reynolds.  But, I do have to say that I consider this movie a bit of a guilty pleasure.  Is it a perfect interpretation of the Robin Hood story?  Hardly.  Taking away Robin Hood’s sense of restoring well-being to the unfortunate and instead making the movie a revenge tale between Robin and the man who killed his father, the Sheriff of Nottingham (a delightfully campy Alan Rickman) is definitely not the way to go to be faithful to the character.  But, Prince of Thieves works for me based on it’s own merits as a standalone story.  I enjoy the white-knuckle action scenes as well as the beautiful music by Michael Kamen.  And even though Kevin Costner’s attempts at a British accent are laughable, he at least has a commanding presence as the character.  Can’t say the same about Christian Slater’s painfully bad turn as Will Scarlett.  And Costner makes up for his shortcomings by adding charm to the character when needed.  Not to mention, he sells that cold stare when firing an arrow at his target perfectly.  I also love the addition of Morgan Freeman as a Moorish companion for Robin; something worthwhile that this version added to the mythos.  It’s not perfect, but this Robin Hood story still engages me every time I watch it.  Also it allowed Sean Connery to find his rightful place in the world of Robin Hood when he cameos at the end as King Richard himself.  Now there’s a suitable role for the former 007.

robin hood elwes


Made partially in direct response to the Kevin Costner version of the Robin Hood tale is this spoof movie directed by Mel Brooks.  Though Costner’s version is mocked heavily, the movie also takes a fair deal of aim at the classic Errol Flynn version as well.  As far as Brooks directed spoofs go, this one isn’t quite as strong as past efforts like Blazing Saddles or Young Frankenstein (both 1974), or even Spaceballs (1987).  But, that’s not to say that it’s a bad parody either.  There are some jokes that fall flat (the chastity belt gag is a little weak), but others are just as good as anything that Mel Brooks has written before, particularly the subtle ones (I especially love the bit where Robin learns how each of his family members have died since he’s been away, including his pet cat and goldfish).  But, the thing that works best in the movie is the casting of Cary Elwes as Robin.  Elwes was tailor made for the character, not only looking the part with his Flynn-esque features but also by perfectly displaying the charisma of the character; having come out of playing Dread Pirate Roberts in The Princess Bride (1987) probably helped.  I also like the way he  brings that out even with all the gags and puns thrown about in the film.  There’s a great line in the movie where the English born actor even gets to brag about his role as the character; “Unlike other Robin Hoods, I can speak with an English accent,” which is a not so subtle jab at the American Costner and probably even to the Aussie Flynn.  And because of Elwes contribution, this is actually one of the better interpretations of the character we’ve seen on the big screen.  It’s funny without betraying what makes the character great in the first place.  And it also taught us the important fact that real men wear tights.

robin hood crowe


On paper, this should have been an interesting idea, but sadly the execution left a lot to be desired.  Directed by Ridley Scott and starring his go-to star Russell Crowe, this version of Robin Hood actually deconstructs the origins of the character, showing how he became the Outlaw of Sherwood Forest.  Instead of coming from noble lineage, we see Robin rise up from being a lowly archer in King Richard’s army.  He decides to flee back to England after Richard is killed in battle, but not before assuming the identity of a dying nobleman by the name of Robert Loxley in order to gain safe passage.  Once home, he learns of the growing tensions between nobility and the peasantry, while at the same time trying to gain the trust of the Loxley family that he is now in charge of, including the Maid Marian (Cate Blanchett).  At the same time, a plot to help an invading French force is arising, conducted by the villainous Sir Godfrey (Mark Strong).  If that seems like a convoluted premise, it is.  This version is too bogged down with plot details to work effectively as a Robin Hood story, and sadly what gets sacrificed in the process is character development.  Russell Crowe in particular gets nothing to do with the character.  It’s almost like Scott and Crowe are just trying to rekindle the same kind of magic that they showed in the far superior Gladiator (2000), but have since forgotten how to do it the same way.  It’s an origin story where none is needed.  We want to see Robin Hood steal from the rich to give to the poor, but this movie seems less concerned with that aspect then to showing us how Robin got his name.  It’s beautifully crafted, but a dull sit through of a story, which is decidedly uncharacteristic of a Robin Hood movie.  Mostly, this movie just proves to us the wrong way to bring Robin Hood to the big screen.

Robin Hood has always remained relevant to audiences of all generations.  Everyone knows the tale, whether they’ve seen any of his movies or not, and I guess that’s why so few of these films have actually deviated very far from the traditional plot itself.  I think that a large part of his resiliency is because of the timelessness of the character.  Though medieval in origin, Robin Hood has since become an archetypal hero.  His selfless crusading for the underdog has been a favorite character asset that we’ve seen carried over into other respected heroes in film and literature, such as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962).  The films based on his exploits have also left their mark on modern action and swashbuckling films over the years too.  The Adventures of Robin Hood (1939) in particular stands out as an iconic work of film art, and one that definitively establishes Robin Hood’s place in the pantheon of cinematic heroes.  Though modern versions of the character have been shaky (particularly the tired Russell Crowe version), he’s still a character that will undoubtedly live on well into the future with more big screen adaptations, and hopefully they’ll continue to add more depth to his hero’s journey.  If there is one thing that all these different versions have shown us is that the story continues to evolve.  That’s the special thing about heroic tales in folklore; they continue to grow the more you share them and add your own special twists.  And in that respect, Robin Hood has grown more as a character on the cinematic screen than he has in many centuries before in literature, making him a truly modern hero.

Evolution of Character – The Wizard of Oz

wizard of oz portrait

Fairy tales have had a long history of success in both literature and in cinema.  And key among it’s strengths have been the larger than life adventures of magical creatures in far off places that help to transplant audiences out of reality, whether they be fairies, witches, monsters, or wizards.  Though fairy tales are popular around the globe, they have primarily come from European origins.  That was until American author L. Frank Baum added his own fantastic tale to the mix when he wrote his now iconic 1900 novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.  Though inspired by traditional fairy tale tropes, there’s no denying that Baum’s classic is the first distinctively American fairy tale.  Telling the tale of Dorothy Gale, a rural girl from the heart of Kansas, Oz is an unforgettable journey that has captured the imagination of readers for over a century.  It also marks a transition in the fantasy genre as it moved away from it’s European roots.  By creating a fully realized world in Oz, Baum was also introducing the concept of world-building into the fantasy narrative, which has since become a common characteristic of fantasy writing ever since.  The the multi-layered worlds of Middle Earth, Narnia and Westeros all have their roots in the foundation that Baum laid out when he created the land of Oz.  But, it’s not just the amazing spectacle of the land over the rainbow that has sustained the story’s popularity.  It’s also the characters, many of whom are now icons of the genre.

For the most part, the characters have changed very little through all the many different literary iterations over the years.  Dorothy has always remained the innocent child trying to find her way home, and her companions The Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion have likewise all stayed true to form.  The villainous Wicked Witch of the West has seen more varied interpretations over the years, though more often than not still firmly placed in the role of the antagonist; the popular revisionist musical Wicked being the notable exception.  But if there’s a character whose portrayals have departed more frequently from the books over the years, it would be the titular Wizard himself.  The Wizard is certainly one of L. Frank Baum’s more interesting creations.  Once thought to be a great, all powerful Wizard, he is by the end of the story revealed to be (spoilers) just an ordinary man.  And not only just any ordinary man, but an outsider like Dorothy who has found himself cast away to Oz after being caught in a tornado.  His talents as a magician helped to convince the local people that he had magic of his own, and it’s probably what helped to elevate him into power, as an alternative to the Wicked Witches of the East and West.  But, to keep up the charade, the Wizard uses the tried and true smoke and mirrors routine to make him a figure meant to be both feared and respected.  Though distinctively drawn in the original story, The Wizard is also the one character that is the most open to interpretation, which has been the case in most of his movie versions.  So, in this article, I will be looking at the many cinematic faces of magician Oscar Diggs and see how he’s evolved as the Wonderful Wizard of Oz over the years on the big screen.

Wizard of Oz 1910


The immediate success of The Wizard of Oz at the turn of the century naturally extended out into other mediums, including the emerging art-form of cinema.  The elements of the story lend themselves perfectly to the film medium.  Even L. Frank Baum wrote and directed a couple of these himself.  This 1910 adaptation was not one of those, but it is one of the better versions of the story to come out during this period.  Like most other films made during these early years of cinema, the production is restrained by the limitations of the time, and most of the movie is made up of tableau shots that condense the story down to it’s bare bones.  It’s more of a showcase for set and costume design rather than plot and character development; much like Georges Melies’ A Trip to the Moon (1902).  But, even still, Baum’s story is still recognizable in those short 13 minutes, and one of the standouts is the Wizard himself.  The film does away with the disguises that the Wizard has used before in the story, and instead presents the man just as the true magician that he is.  It’s a jovial performance from veteran vaudeville actor Hobart Bosworth, who perfectly encapsulates the top hat wearing entertainer that L. Frank Baum visualized, even if it’s perhaps a little too slap-sticky at times.  But, even for a movie made in the early days of film, it does represent a fresh start for such an iconic role.

wizard of oz 1925


Now while effort was put into the 1910 version in order to stay faithful to the original novel, the same cannot be said about this 1925 version.  In this retelling, there are no witches and no magic.  Instead, Oz is a far away kingdom here on Earth that is ruled by a cruel emporer who has usurped the throne from the rightful heir, Dorothy.  You heard that right; Dorothy is a princess of Oz in this version, and she’s not even the main character.  That would be the Scarecrow, or rather a farmhand who disguises himself as a scarecrow.  The reason for this change is because the whole film was meant to be a showcase for comedian Larry Selmon, who plays the Scarecrow part.  To spotlight the actor, they reworked the story around him, even if it doesn’t resemble anything like the original.  This lessens the effectiveness of the characters and the setting overall, because it’s ignoring what made them so popular in the first place.  But most problematic is the Wizard himself.  He’s relegated to a minor henchman role.  Sure, actor Charles Murray looks the part, but he leaves such little impact on the story that it makes you wonder why the movie is still titled after him.  This is an odd interpretation of the classic story, and not surprisingly, audiences rejected it.  It’s good to see that even early fans of the story held it up to high standards and dismissed this attempt to exploit the name for other purposes.  Few other adaptations would stray far from the source novel in the years after.

wizard of oz frank morgan


Now we come to what is undoubtedly the greatest cinematic interpretation of Baum’s classic, as well as the most iconic version of the titular character.  1939’s The Wizard of Oz is a masterpiece in every way possible, and rightly stands as one of the greatest movies ever made.  Clearly made as response to the popularity of the animated musical adaptation of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1939), MGM Studios sought to take on another popular fairy tale and give it the grandest of treatments.  Thankfully they saw the potential in Baum’s story and the movie production does the absolute best job making the land of Oz come alive and feel unlike anything we’ve ever seen.  The characters are also what makes this such a beloved classic and each one is perfectly cast.  This was especially true for Frank Morgan, who almost looks like he’s leaped right off the page as the Wizard.  Not only does he do an amazing job playing the character, but he’s seen throughout the movie as various other people like the doorman of the Emerald City, as well as a traveling palm reader whom Dorothy befriends back home in Kansas.  But, it’s the Wizard that really highlights his performance, especially when he’s going over the top as the giant floating head in the throne room scenes.  Morgan’s performance is so iconic that every Wizard adaptation since has used his version as a base of inspiration.  And indeed, no other version has ever felt truer to Baum’s vision.  In this classic movie, it is indeed a treat to see the man hiding behind the curtain.

wizard of oz richard pryor


The enormous popularity of the MGM adaptation kept Hollywood from attempting another version of the tale for quite a while, but Motown Records saw an opportunity in the mid-70’s to take on the tale with a modern twist.  The Wiz imagines the land of Oz as an urban Wonderland full of the musical sounds of Soul and Disco.  The idea of taking the classic story and casting all the roles with African-American actors is certainly a welcome one, and that’s indeed what made it a standout when it appeared on Broadway.  When the movie adaptation happened, the producers from Motown Records reached into their stable of recording artists in order to bring star power into the film, which had some mixed results.  Some of the casting is spot on (Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow; Lena Horne as Glinda) while others are a little off (44 year old Diana Ross as the teenage Dorothy).  But one of the more natural casting choices was legendary comedian Richard Pryor as the Wizard, or Wiz to be more appropriate to this version.  Pryor brings his trademark bombastic comedy style to the role, and it’s a perfect match for the Wizard in his grandiose, giant head form.  The image of the character is also a nice modern twist on the MGM version, with the shiny chrome head feeling both original and true to Baum’s version.  But, once revealed as a fraud, Pryor also captures the timid man behind the curtain perfectly as well.  It may be a revisionist take on a beloved classic, but it’s done with a great deal of admiration for the story, and the movie especially stays true to character with regards to the iconic Wizard himself.

Wizard of Oz 1982


Just to show how far reaching the legacy of The Wizard of Oz has spread, there’s even a Japanese anime version out there.  And this one isn’t even the first one made, nor the last.  The reason I wanted to highlight this version is because of two reasons; one, it’s the most faithful anime adaptation of the story, and two it’s because it has probably the most accurate interpretation of the Wizard that’s ever been put on film.  In L. Frank Baum’s original story, the Wizard asks to meet Dorothy and her companions individually instead of all together.  Interestingly, each character sees the Wizard in a different form.  For Dorothy, the Wizard appears as a giant, green head; for the Scarecrow, as a beautiful winged angel; for the Tin Man, as a giant beastial creature; and for the Cowardly Lion, as a ball of fire.  This 1982 anime, to my knowledge, is the only time I’ve ever seen these multiple versions of the Wizard actually envisioned.  Even the MGM version strayed from the book here, choosing instead to present the Wizard in one form; the one that Dorothy sees in the books.  That helps to make this version unique out of all the different adaptations, just because it went out of it’s way to accurately represent what’s in the book.  Unfortunately, being too faithful also makes this version a little stilted and dull at times.  Actor Lorne Greene of Bonanza fame performed the English dub for the Wizard, and the voice is a good match.  I especially like the power in his voice when he plays the false versions of the Wizard.  Though not the most exciting version of the story, this is certainly an interesting take on the classic, and offers probably the best visual representation of Baum’s Wizard that we’ve seen to date.

wizard of oz jeffrey tambor


Here we have a version of the story built around the legacy of past versions, specifically the classic one from MGM.  On paper you would think that a version of The Wizard of Oz starring the Muppets would be a home run.  Unfortunately, this is not one of the Muppets’ stronger efforts and the whole thing is more of a cash in than anything else.  There’s little effort in trying to be true to L. Frank Baum’s original story, and instead the movie is more concerned with mimicking the movie than the book, to which it does a fairly poor job of doing.  The one exception in this version, however, is the casting of Jeffrey Tambor as the Wizard.  Yes, he’s playing it over the top and completely out of character from the original, but he still brings gravitas to the role that’s missing from the rest of the film.  The Arrested Development star has a gift for making pompousness funny, and that’s what he brings to this role as the Wizard.  It’s the Frank Morgan version but without the humbleness, and that surprisingly works well here.  Truth be told, I wish this version was in a better movie.  Overall, it actually shows how well the story has aged over the years, where the archetypes of the characters are able to withstand a more cynical reinterpretation and still retain their dignity.  Tambor does his best with what he has and helps to make the Wizard a standout in an otherwise pathetic retelling of the story.

wizard of oz james franco


Though a supporting player in the novel that bears his name, the Wizard of Oz nevertheless still has an interesting backstory, seeing as how he has traveled from afar to the land of Oz by accident, just like Dorothy.  Director Sam Raimi saw potential in this backstory and decided to delve into the Wizard’s past with this prequel to Baum’s classic tale.  Oz, The Great and Powerful tells the story of how magician Oscar Diggs came to Oz and became the Wizard and ruler of the Emerald City.  With the help of the good witch Glinda, the story shows Oscar using his tricks to outwit the evil Witches that have taken over Oz while at the same time learning a lesson about using his gifts responsibly and not to just satisfy his own needs.  While a box office hit, some audiences were not pleased with the liberties that were taken with L. Frank Baum’s classic characters; most notably the witches, and some of those complaints are justifiable.  The miscasting of Mila Kunis as the Wicked Witch of the West is especially problematic.  But there’s still a lot that I like about this movie, and chief among them is the casting of Franco as the future Wizard.  He may not be to everyone’s tastes, but I actually enjoy his oddball performance here.  He definitely captures the huckster qualities of the character perfectly, and some of his over the top performance choices are definitely enjoyable.  It’s interesting to see the world of Oz presented in a time before Dorothy, when darker forces were in control.  It’s also the one and only time we see the Wizard hold his own as the center of the story, and overall, I like what they did with the character here.  This may not be what Oz purists want to see presented on the big screen, but I think it does a serviceable job of expanding upon the world that L. Frank Baum imagined over a century ago.

Out of all the many characters who call Oz home, The Wizard is the one character that translates the best over the many different iterations of the story.  Dorothy, the Wicked Witch and the other fantastical characters are so iconic that they must be done a certain way or else they won’t work at all, but with the Wizard there really is no right or wrong way to bring him to life.  He is the most adaptable character of the story.  I think that it’s why so many found it suitable that he should get his own movie with Oz, the Great and Powerful.  The role is also easy enough to fill with any kind of actor you choose, making his many different versions so varied over the years.  It’s the only kind of role where you can have Richard Pryor play him in one version and Jeffrey Tambor in the next.  Though some standards on the character were set by the iconic version in the MGM’s classic, as was much of what we recognize as the World of Oz, there’s still a lot of new avenues that can be explored in each new version of the character.  More than anything, the many varied versions of the Wizard of Oz represent the timelessness of the story, which is a strong sign of it’s definitive place in the pantheon of great fairy tales.  Time will tell how much of an impact The Wizard of Oz will have with future generations, but over a century later, readers and audiences are still happy to follow that yellow brick road and meet that Wonderful Wizard time and time again.

Evolution of Character – Romeo & Juliet

romeo juliet painting

Love stories can be found in even the unlikeliest of genres. Oftentimes, some of the best romances are remembered from movies that aren’t even classified as romances.  Take Casablanca (1943) for example.  It has one of the most famous and passionate love stories at it’s center, and yet today it is classified more as a war drama and less of a romance.  It’s also a love story that leaves the two key players apart at the end, and it’s viewed as a noble sacrifice.  Indeed, a great love story comes about as a by product of a great story, and whether or not the characters are left happily ever after is determined by what’s best for the story and not by what the audience desires.  This often means that tragic love stories are the ones that stick with us the most.  There’s a reason why Titanic (1997) became as big of a hit as it did, and it’s not because it’s two leads got a happy ending.  Lost love leaves the biggest impact on an audience because it makes finding it all the more precious.  A character’s strength can often hinge on how well they are able to overcome loosing the one they love; either they rise above it and are grateful for their brief time together, or they succumb to their grief and become lost as well.  Perhaps the most famous of all the tragic romances came from legendary English playwright William Shakespeare when he crafted his own tragic romance titled The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet.

First published and performed in Elizabethan England in 1597, the tale of Romeo and Juliet has gone on to become perhaps Shakespeare’s most popular piece of work; or at least the most often re-adapted.  Depicting the doomed romance between Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet, the youngest children of two warring families in the fictional Italian city-state of Verona, Romeo and Juliet touches on many themes that have not only redefined the meaning of romance, but has also gone on to set the modern standard for all love stories to follow.  Romeo and Juliet’s story involved themes about prejudice, generational differences, youthful rebellion, and even sacrifice.  It’s a tale that speaks to many people who fall in love despite social expectations, whether it be someone from another race, religion, culture or sexual orientation.  Basically, Shakespeare’s story is about unbound love, and pointing an accusatory finger at those who prevent it from happening; a theme that still remains relevant today.  Because Shakespeare’s play continues to resonate with audiences, it’s only natural that there should be plenty of film adaptations to compare and contrast with one another.  Since it’s Valentine’s Day, I will be looking at some of the most notable adaptations of Shakespeare’s classic romance, and see how well they defined the characters of both Romeo and Juliet, as well as how well they stuck close to the key themes of the play.  And so with that all said, where for art thou Romeo?

romeo juliet 1936


There were many attempts to adapt the works of Shakespeare for the big screen ever since the inception of cinema.  But once the era of talkies came around, it was finally possible to hear the unique Shakespearean iambic pentameter on the big screen.  And the great thing about cinema is that it brought classics to the masses, allowing even the common man to experience the works of Shakespeare and others.  Romeo and Juliet was one such play that was easily adapted for the screen many times, mostly in the silent era.  However, it wasn’t until this lavish 1936 production that we finally got a major Hollywood adaptation of the play.  Starring British actor Leslie Howard (of Gone With the Wind fame) and Oscar-winning actress Norma Shearer as the titular couple, this production does it’s best to be true to the original source material.  The Shakespearean language is still there, albeit truncated to fit a cinematic run time, and the sets and costuming are all exquisitely crafted.  There’s only one problematic thing with this version of the story, and that’s the miscasting of the two leads.  The two actors are not at all convincing as Romeo and Juliet, mainly because they are far too old to play the teenage lovers.  Norma Shearer was 34 during the making of this film, and Leslie Howard was 43.  That is too much of an age difference to make their performances convincing.  Truth be told, Howard fares a little better because of his classical training in London theater, but unfortunately Shearer is too Hollywood in her acting style to rise above this.  Even still, the movie does try to capture some of the essence of Shakespeare’s play, with production values worthy of the material.

west side story tony maria


Other modest big screen adaptations came and went over the decades since Hollywood’s first attempt, but in the early sixties, the story made it’s way into our modern pop culture through a grand re-imagining.  Dispensing of the Shakespearean text and transporting the story into a modern day setting (in this case the slums of New York City) and adding musical numbers, we were given a fresh new look to the classic story.  While West Side Story may not have any of the classic Shakespearean touches, the themes and the emotion of the story remain intact.  In fact, I don’t think there has ever been a better representation of the underlying themes of the play better than this musical version.  Certainly, the themes of forbidden love and the prejudices that separate our tragic couple are presented vividly here, having the stand-ins of Tony and Maria separated by the street gang rivalries that exist within their lives.  By presenting this in a modern day context, this version of the story helps to make these themes resonate even more for the casual viewer.  The musical was a smash hit on Broadway, but it’s the movie version that really makes the story soar.  Given the grand vision of director Robert Wise and the iconic choreography of Jerome Robbins (both of whom shared the Oscar for Directing that year), West Side Story is both intimate and epic, making it one of the most unforgettable love stories ever put on screen.  Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood give very passionate performances as well as the tragic couple, and Wood’s final scene at the end is memorably heartbreaking.  All together it is a grand scale retelling of a familiar story that I think would have been given the Bard’s seal of approval.

romeo juliet 1968


Probably the greatest straightforward adaptation of Shakespeare’s original play, Italian director Franco Zeffirelli’s version presents the text as it is written with almost reverential treatment.  Given lavish production values and a cast full of classically trained British actors, this version is by far the closest Hollywood has actually come to making a true, unedited version of the play.  The best bit of casting though belongs to the main characters themselves, mainly because Zeffirelli actually cast teenage actors.  Albeit, the actors playing Romeo and Juliet are just a tiny bit older than they are in the text; they had to be at a legal age in order for Zeffirelli to include brief moments of nudity in his film.  But, even still, we buy the fact that these two characters are young and deeply in love.  Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey are certainly the least experienced members of a veteran, stage bred cast, but they still manage to hold their own and carry the picture.  Sometimes the lack of experience on their part does show up unfortunately, particularly at the climatic death scene, but the two of them do make it up with the earnestness of their performances.  In particular, the two do manage to nail the pivotal balcony scene.  Whatever shortcomings the actors may have, they are served well by Zeffirelli’s lavish direction.  It wasn’t the director’s first adaptation of Shakespeare (he had made The Taming of the Shrew the year prior with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton) nor was it his last (his 1991 adaptation of Hamlet, with Mel Gibson), but this version of Romeo and Juliet was perhaps his greatest work, and certainly the most authentic retelling the big screen has ever seen.

romeo juliet 1996


Probably the most notorious retelling of Shakespeare’s play, Australian director Baz Luhrmann’s version is a hyper-stylized take on the original text.  Luhrmann keeps the Elizabethan language intact, but he sets the story in the modern day with the warring Montague and Capulet families depicted as street gangs terrorizing the fictional beachfront city of Verona, California.  Trust me, West Side Story this is not.  While Luhrmann’s style is unique and beautiful to look at, I am unfortunately of the opinion that it’s a bad fit for the material.  All the eye candy and sporadic editing is just too distracting and takes away from some of the power of the text.  Seeing all these modern clad actors spouting Shakespearean dialogue with editing and cinematography more at home in a music video makes the whole project feel more like style over substance.  What ultimately saves this movie, however, is the cast and in particular, the two leads.  This was a turning point film for the careers of both Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes; he would go on to super stardom the following year with the release of Titanic, and she would go on to become a multi-Emmy winner in groundbreaking TV shows like Homeland.  Here, they deliver outstanding performances as the doomed lovers that feel more natural and assured than any version before, or really after.  Again, they are older here than in the text (both in their 20’s) but the acting is so good, it really doesn’t matter in the end.  Their performances are emotional and captivating, indicative of how talented they had become as performers.  While the movie itself is jarring, the performances help to save it in the end, delivering probably the most heartrendingly raw and intimate versions of the characters we’ve ever seen.

romeo juliet must die


Just to show the universality of awareness that Shakespeare’s play has on the culture at large, this thriller starring acrobatic and martial arts trained Chinese actor Jet Li and singer/actress Aaliyah shows how you can even implant the story into an action movie.  The story is what you would expect from a film like this; Jet Li is an undercover cop investigating the murder of his brother, and while on the job, he ends up falling for the daughter of the very mob boss he’s trying to take down, leading to a forbidden romance that leaves all of them in danger.  Now if you’re looking for an authentic retelling of Shakespeare’s play, this is not it.  It’s just a silly action thriller with a love story at it’s center.  It also has a happy ending, which is definitely not true to Shakespeare’s original intent.  But even still, it is interesting to see how pervasive the story has become, where it can even appear as the basis for an action thriller.  Certainly the filmmakers want to invoke the Shakespearean connection with a title like Romeo Must Die.  But, that’s where the connection ends.  Basically, the only link it has apart from that is the theme of forbidden love; although in this case, it is a love that prevails in the end.  Jet Li is in fine form here, especially during the well-choreographed fight scenes, and Aaliyah (who’s short-lived career was tragically cut short the following year in a plane crash) is likable as well.  In fact, the best thing you can say about the romance in this movie is that the two of them do indeed have chemistry, and you want to see them together in the end.  That’s something that most other romantic movies wished they had.  So, in the end, not a great adaptation of Shakespeare but a more than passable homage.

romeo juliet seals


No joke people, this is a real thing.  There is actually an animated, musical retelling of the story of Romeo and Juliet, with seals and other sea creatures starring in the roles.  And if there was an adaptation that would rile up Shakespearean purists the most, it would be this one.  It does everything cliched thing that sub-par animated movies do; replacing wit with slapstick and pop-culture references and taking short-cuts in storytelling in order to pander to a younger, G-rating audience.  But, even with all these faults, the story still does keep many of the traits of the original story intact, like the iconic balcony scene (here depicted as a cliff-side overhang) and even Juliet poisoning herself in order to appeal to the warring factions to stop fighting and let her be with Romeo.  Unfortunately, the end result feels more exploitative of the material rather than respectful.  The film is actually more interesting as an example of independent film-making than as a movie itself.  It was made by former Disney animator and director Phil Nibbelink (The Great Mouse Detective, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and An American Tail: Fivel Goes West to name a few credits), who crafted the film entirely by himself in his own home studio, using Flash animation software on his computer.  With the knowledge that this movie was made by hand entirely by one person, you can’t help but be impressed with the final product.  Even though it is far from Disney quality, the final film does have a very polished look, and you can tell that Nibbelink put his heart into it.  The final result is admirable, but not a great representation of Shakespeare’s classic.  The characters of Romeo and Juliet are especially not served well, as they are merely one-dimensional caricatures.  A neat independent oddity, but no where near worthy of the legacy.

romeo juliet 2013


This marks the most recent iteration of the play, and it’s one that goes back to the basics.  Set in it’s appropriate time period and with a lavish production and elite cast behind it, this one looks on the surface like a very commendable retelling of Shakespeare’s work.  It even has a screenplay adaptation done by Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes.  Unfortunately, this retelling has none of the passion found in Shakespeare’s writing, nor the wit of most of Fellowes’ scripts.  Part of the problem with this production is the performances.  Everyone in this production is either over-acting or under-acting, and the latter is especially true for the titular lovers.  Douglas Booth is as vanilla a Romeo as we have ever seen, and Hailee Steinfeld shows none of the charisma here as Juliet that she showed so well in her Oscar-nominated performance in the Coen Brothers’ True Grit (2010).  It’s clear that the movie is trying too hard to feel epic and grandiose, but in the end it just underwhelms Shakespeare’s text and like Baz Luhrmann’s version, favors style over substance.  It’s pretty, but bland.  Here, we get Shakespeare by way of Hollywood, and it’s clear by both the direction as well as the marketing behind this movie that the producers were trying to aim this movie version towards the Twilight fan base.  Overall, it’s a waste of good talent and a shameless exploitation of a classic story that adds nothing to the overall text and merely just exists to pander to a niche audience.

So, even though Romeo and Juliet the play has had an up and down history on the big screen, it is clear that the characters have been well served by Hollywood, as they have risen to icon status over the years and continue to influence love connections in romances to this day.  And it is amazing how even 400 years after it was first written, that it still remains a relevant story today.  As long as there are struggles between warring classes across the world, there will always be those who choose to break from their tribes and build bridges through love.   It’s an idea that probably was best brought to the screen in West Side Story, which is rightly regarded as an all time great film.  But as far as adaptations of the original text go, you’ll probably find Zeffirelli’s to be the most faithful and engaging, although the best versions of the characters themselves may actually be the ones found in Baz Luhrmann’s erratic adaptation; and that’s solely because of the strength of the actors’ performances.  But, these are only examples that stick closely to the original source itself.  You can find shades of Romeo and Juliet in almost any modern love story; in particular, the ones involving couples who come from different walks of life.  As long as forbidden love remains a relevant thing in our culture, the power behind Shakespeare’s original classic will live on.  Interestingly enough, it’s not even considered Shakespeare’s greatest work by some of the Bard’s most dedicated fans, which could go to either Hamlet  or King Lear, depending on who you talk to.  The fact that Romeo and Juliet continues to be Shakespeare’s most widely popular and most-often adapted play is really a big testament to the power of love.

Evolution of Character – Count Dracula

dracula vlad

Every year when the Halloween season comes around again, we start to spotlight and celebrate the iconic monsters that populate the traditions of the holiday.  You’ve got your zombies, your demons, your Frankenstein monsters, and your warewolves.  But the monster that is the most iconic of the bunch seems to be the vampire, which is currently seeing a resurgence (for better or worse) in pop culture.  Thanks to stories like those in the Twilight series, younger audiences in particular are now looking at vampires as not only fascinating monsters, but also as desirable role models as well; which unfortunately is a sad reduction of the real menace and attraction that vampires have had in pop culture in the past.  Vampires have made far better villains in the past than instead of being the superheros that they are in today’s young adult driven media.  And no better vampire figure made menace and evil look so good on the big screen than the great Count himself, Dracula.  Though Dracula is larger than life and among the most imaginative monsters around, he is actually based off of a real life historical figure.  Vlad Tepes III, Prince of Wallachia, ruled his kingdom in modern day Romania in the late 15th century, becoming a valuable ally for christian Western Europe in repelling Turkish invaders.  However, though he was a popular king in his time, history has instead focused more on the brutality he showed towards his enemies, much of which has defined the legend around him.  Dubbed Vlad the Impaler, due to his common practice of impaling people on spikes outside his Transylvanian stronghold, the man’s legacy became one of blood-soaked terror.  Legends soon sprang up around the man, including one’s where people believed that he drank the blood of his enemies.

Like most legends, these were exaggerated accounts, but over time they managed to catch the interest of a gothic Irish novelist named Bram Stoker, who distilled all of the legends of Vlad the Impaler and crafted them into his now legendary 1897 novel, Dracula.  Taken from the name of Prince Vlad’s ancestral house name, Draculesti, Bram Stoker crafted what would eventually become the first true literary representation of a modern vampire.  Though vampirism had been present in literature for centuries before, Stoker is the one who set much of rules and mythology behind the creatures.  The idea of vampires being immortal and able to infect others once they are bitten came from Stoker’s novel, as well as the ideas that vampires rest during daylight in coffins and cannot cast a reflection in any mirror.  Whether he planned it or not, Stoker’s novel would become the Bible to which all future depictions of vampires would follow, and over a century after the novel first premiered, it’s influence is still apparent in most if not all vampire stories today.  And the reason for this is probably because the central monster of his story, Count Dracula, is such an iconic and unforgettable creature who can still send chills down the spines of audiences both young and old.  As far as vampires go, there are none who are as frightening, or as seductive, or as commanding as the Count.  And though his character has changed little overall since Stoker’s original novel, it is interesting to see how Dracula has been adapted and re-adapted again to connect with audiences over time, while still maintaining his most essential elements.  In this article, I will be looking at some of the most notable cinematic iterations of the character, and see how well they have adapted and redefined the character over time.

dracula nosferatu 22


The first cinematic telling of the tale came from groundbreaking German expressionist director F.W. Murnau.  Though Murnau sought to adapt the original novel for his movie, he was denied the rights by Bram Stoker’s estate, since they believed that the new cinema art-form was nothing but trash and unworthy of a story like Dracula.  But Murnau was determined to get his vision of the story on the big screen and he worked through a loophole where he could make the same story as long as he changed the names of the characters and the location of the setting.  Therefore, Count Dracula became Count Orlock and the setting moved from England to Bavaria.  But make no mistake, it’s still the same story and Murnau proved exactly why the movie needed to be made in the first place.  The film is remarkably creepy and Gothic, which was quite a feat to accomplish back in the early days of cinema.  Murnau especially makes great use of the shadows to get the more horrific moments of the movie across in subtle ways.  But, what really sells this film is the intensely creepy performance by Max Schreck as Count Orlock.  His performance is so perfect here that it actually led to speculation at the time that the man was an honest to goodness real vampire; something that provided the inspiration for the movie Shadow of the Vampire (2000), starring Wilem Dafoe as Schreck.  I especially love the whole vampire bat motif that the character embodies, which makes him a truly grotesque movie monster.  Though there were objections to the portrayal of Dracula on the big screen beforehand, there were none after seeing the brilliant results in Nosferatu.

dracula bela


Although Murnau’s take on the character may have set a foothold in cinematic history, it was Hollywood that truly made Count Dracula an icon.  Directed by Hollywood shockmaster Tod Browning (Freaks), 1931’s Dracula brought Stoker’s famous character to life better than anyone could have expected, and that is largely thanks to the absolutely perfect casting of Bela Lugosi as the Count.  Lugosi has probably had more influence in defining the character of Dracula than anyone else, other than Bram Stoker of course.  His ability to deliver such menace in his eyes and the simple gesturing of his claw-like fingers brings so much out of the character and it helps to sell the idea of the true horror that this vampire inflicts without ever having to show it.  Bela’s appearance would also influence the character, with his floor length cape and slicked back hair.  But it was his voice that would have the most impact overall.  The movie was made in the early days of recorded sound in movies, and no one had any idea what Dracula would sound like, so it seemed natural that Bela’s deep Hungarian accent would stand out in the film; giving the character an almost melodic and seductive tone to his voice, which fit perfectly for the character.  Every depiction of Dracula since has taken some inspiration from Lugosi’s version, whether it’s the accent or the costume, which shows just how iconic his performance is.  Unfortunately, it was a character he never was able to grow out of, and his latter career found the man typecast in cheaper knockoffs of the original tale.  Still, his performance in the original is beloved today and has made Bela Lugosi a fan favorite to people all over the world.

dracula lee


While Bela Lugosi’s take on Count Dracula may be the most iconic, famed British actor Christopher Lee’s version would become the most prolific.  Lee portrayed the Count in nine different movies over a 15 year period, as well as portraying vampires in many other films as well, helping to cement his reputation as the go-to-guy for vampire movies for a long time.  Made by the England-based Hammer film company mostly during the mid to late 60’s, these Dracula movies were more stylized and graphic than the previous Hollywood versions of the story.  Where Hollywood would imply the horror offscreen, Hammer would display it in all it’s bloody glory.  Indeed, Hammer Films brought out more of the monster in the character of Dracula and helped to cement him as one of cinemas most truly horrifying creatures.  That’s not to say that he was completely savage either.  Hammer was wise enough to cast a quality actor like Christopher Lee in the role, who manages to balance the refined and seductive elements of the character with the more horrific.  He really captures the humanity of the character well in the movies, but is also not afraid to indulge in the animalistic terror that the Count also possesses.  One of the best touches that they added to the character in these films was the way that Dracula’s eye burn red whenever he’s ready to feast on his victim.  It’s a remarkably terrifying take on the character, and this role no doubt helped to shape Lee’s reputation as a memorable heavy in horror movies; something he would bring with him in later roles like Saruman in the Lord of the Rings movies and Count Dooku in Star Wars.  Not only that, but he also managed to give the character the update that he needed in a less innocent time, while still staying true to the character’s roots.

dracula langella


After the gorier versions of Dracula made by the Hammer films, this version directed by John Badham tried to bring the character back to his more Gothic, Victorian roots.  The results were well crafted, if a bit stale.  By no means a bad retelling of the original tale, this one still feels a little lacking mainly because it departs so much from what had made the character so popular over the last few decades.  Instead, this version of Bram Stoker’s tale wants to tell the Masterpiece Theater version of the story, with lush production values and refined, theatrical dialogue.  That’s not to say that they water down the character at all, and indeed the best element of the movie is still it’s central monster.  Frank Langella definitely plays up more of the seductive side of Dracula’s character, making him both charming and alluring.  But, when he does go into full vampire mode, he does manage to come off creepy and menacing.  A break-in scene where he hangs upside down like a bat outside of his victim’s window is an especially frightening moment, and he manages to pull off the dead eye stare very well in that moment.  Unfortunately, the movie is also dialogue heavy in the wrong places, and it would have served the character better to have had a lot more moments play out silently like that creepy break-in scene did.  Interestingly, this is one of the more youthful depictions of the character, showing Dracula as less of the lecherous older man that he had been in previous versions, and more like a dashing young bachelor who can more convincingly seduce his female victims, which Langella embodies very well here.  It’s a flawed retelling, but one where the character still shines through.

dracula nosferatu kinski


Departing from the Hollywood image of the Count that had become more or less standardized over the years, German director Werner Herzog decided to take the character of Dracula all the way back to his cinematic beginnings and undertake a remake of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu.  While many people would scoff at the idea of wanting to remake a beloved classic like Nosferatu, it actually seems like the perfect project for an unpredictable and button-pushing director like Herzog.  Add to the mix a performance by the equally experimental and temperamental German actor Klaus Kinski as the titular vampire and you’ve got a remake that is worth seeing.  The end results are mixed; amazingly the movie is only half as scary as the original, which is not good given all the advancements in cinema since the original was made.  And I think that’s largely due to Herzog’s inability to make this movie stand out against it’s predecessor.  You can sense the director’s affection for the original, but by emulating it so much, his film lacks any identity in itself.  However, where the movie does excel is in Kinski’s performance as Count Orlock.  While not as creepy as Max Schreck’s version, it is still nevertheless a bizarre and engaging performance that’s well suited for the character, as well as for the notoriously oddball actor.  He embodies the character perfectly, and even manages to find some depth in the performance that wasn’t there originally in Schreck’s portrayal.  As far as remakes go, the movie could have done a lot worse, and it does still works for the most part by staying true to the depiction of it’s central vampire.  Still, if you had to choose between the two, I would still recommend the original, and only check out this version for Kinski’s performance.

dracula oldman


Lugosi may have set the standard for the character, and Christopher Lee may have given the character his frightening backbone, but if I were to pick the greatest single portrayal of the character of Count Dracula, it would be this remarkable performance by Gary Oldman.  Oldman truly proves why he is one of the greatest actors of our time with this multi-layered, nuanced, and just downright terrifying portrayal of Dracula in the movie directed by Francis Ford Coppola.  In many ways, his performance is an amalgam of all the previous versions of the character all put into one.  His early scenes as the incredibly creepy, ashen-faced vampire contains echos of Lugosi and Lee’s versions within it, played out in a wonderfully over-the-top fashion that’s all Oldman’s own.  And then when the movie shifts to it’s London-based second half, we see Oldman embody the seductive, youthful version of the character that Frank Langella first brought to the screen.  And Gary Oldman manages to infuse all of these elements together perfectly in a remarkably soulful performance.  This is a Dracula that brings in all the familiar elements, but is brought to life in a way that we’ve never seen before, making this version feel wholly unique.  If only the movie surrounding the performance was better.  While not terrible by any means, Coppola’s movie does feel disjointed at times, especially when Dracula is not front and center.  It’s also a really bizarre movie too, with many scenes taken to such outlandish extremes, that it sometime feels exploitative (not to mention that it features Keanu Reeves embarrassingly trying to work a British accent into his performance).  Still, Gary Oldman is the absolute highlight of the movie, and elevates the piece as a whole.  It’s probably well suited that the movie is a little on the messy side, because it makes his groundbreaking work in the role stand out all the more.

dracula hotel


Certainly an odd pick to include with all the others in this article, but I chose to highlight this version of the character because it illustrates the impact that the character has had in pop culture and on Gothic horror tropes in general.  This animated film focuses on a luxury resort run by monsters for monsters, with Dracula himself is the owner and caretaker.  Naturally, there are in-jokes to be had regarding the monstrous inhabitants of the titular hotel, and the filmmakers actually show off a particularly extensive knowledge of all the different monsters that they are spoofing.  Like many people have said, spoofing is the highest forms of flattery, and that’s exactly what goes on in Hotel Transylvania.  While nowhere near Disney/Pixar in quality, this film is surprisingly better than it has any right to be, especially considering that it features Adam Sandler in the role of Dracula.  The reason for this is because of the quality of it’s humor.  Hotel Transylvania does an effective job of taking many notable elements of Dracula’s persona and turning them on it’s head.  And indeed there are clever nods to past versions of the character, like Sandler laying on the thick accent that Lugosi made popular, or the glowing red eyes that Christopher Lee had introduced.  It all brings together a version of the character that can exist within a PG-rated cartoon, without feeling like an insult to previous versions.  Indeed, this movie does a better job of poking fun at Dracula movies than what Mel Brooks failed to do with his Dracula, Dead and Loving it (1995); a rare misfire for the usually reliable humorist.  Is Hotel Transylvania a great movie?  No, but it serves as a fine introduction to the character for younger audiences.

Dracula has had a long history as an icon for both cinematic and literary horror, and his legacy shows no signs of stopping.  Even this very week we are getting a new film called Dracula Untold (2014) which gives the vampire the Game of Thrones treatment by drawing upon more of the historical figure of Vlad the Impaler and infusing him with all of the famous tropes of the modern Dracula character.  What is interesting about the character today, however, is that he’s managed to become not just a defining character within his own story, but pretty much the symbol of the Halloween season itself.  Dracula has managed to outshine all other Halloween monsters to become the leader of the pack, and is usually depicted as such in many Halloween themed films; particularly the ones aimed at kids.  The fact that Dracula has become an accepted movie monster in kids entertainment just shows you how far flung his influence has been.  And the reason why Dracula has had such a deep impact in our pop culture is because of the many great cinematic incarnations he’s had.  From the creepy re-imagining of Nosferatu to the iconic portrayals by Lugosi, Lee, and Oldman, he’s a character that has deservedly “staked” his claim in our collective imaginations.  And what makes him so interesting is the fact that he embodies all the things that we fear the most; the danger of the unknown and loss of innocence.  No one else embodies the idea of vampirism better than the Count and one wishes that his creepy, seductive presence would take a hold once again over all of these recent cinematic vampire wannabes.  You know why true horror fans always gravitate towards Count Dracula in the end?  Because Dracula doesn’t sparkle.

Evolution of Character – Tarzan

Tarzan Portrait

Around the turn of the 20th century, before cinema became the dominant form of entertainment in our culture, pulp novels and comic strips was where you would find story-tellers presenting grand adventures in far off exotic places.  During this period of time, you would’ve seen a flourish of imagination and invention in print from the minds of great writers like H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, and Arthur Conan Doyle; men who not only dreamed of fantastical worlds here on earth, but also out in the cosmos as well.  But, it wasn’t just these European authors who were crafting these grand adventures for readers around the world.  An American author by the name of Edgar Rice Burroughs was also becoming a popular name in adventure story-telling.  Burroughs was something  of an adventurer himself, having been raised in the American West his whole life, and many of his travels across the wilds of frontier probably had an influence on his writing later on.  When he began his career as a writer, he created two characters that would come to define his body of work and leave a legacy for years to come.  Those characters would be John Carter of Mars and Tarzan, the Ape Man.  Of course, Burroughs publications could not have come at a more opportune time, because just as the John Carter and Tarzan novels were hitting the shelves, movie cinemas were coming into existence and Burrough’s novels provided the perfect material for adaptations.  Strangely enough, it was Tarzan who would make the quick transition to cinema and not John Carter.  Carter had to wait nearly a hundred years for his first trip to the big screen; the disastrous 2012 film from Disney that now stands as one of the biggest flops in film history.  But, while Carter has faded from memory, Tarzan has remained relevant, and continues on to today.

And it’s a wonder given Tarzan’s limitations as a character.  He speaks very little and he stays more or less the same person, although he does learn more as time passes.  Tarzan’s story revolves around the common nature vs. nurture concept, where a human being is raised by apes in the jungles of Africa and grows up to become more animal than man.  What’s more, when he finally encounters other human beings, he reacts to them in ways that go beyond normal human societal interactions, mainly because he’s never learned anything about manners or human boundaries.  All the things that makes a human being function in society is absent in Tarzan, because all he knows are the rules of the jungle.  But even despite this, Burroughs also examines through the character what makes all of us human at our most instinctual levels, which mainly comes through in Tarzan’s curiosity and through his compassionate ability to love, especially when he encounters his beloved companion, Jane Porter.  Without Jane’s interactions in the story, Tarzan would have come across as a feral animalistic character, and by growing the bond between the two, we see an interesting contrast between a Tarzan who was raised in the wild and a Tarzan who has been civilized by society.  Burroughs shows us that society has constructed all humans based upon it’s own standards, but when you take all of that away, you see what really make us all the same down to our core.  We are all curious creatures and compassionate people who do what we can to survive, and it’s only societies expectations that makes us different from one another.  Now, as Tarzan has made it to the big screen, some of those concepts have translated over, thanks in small part to the guiding hand of Burroughs on some films, while others have missed the mark completely.  In this article, I will be looking at some of the notable interpretations of the character on the big screen, and see how well they have translated Burrough’s vine-swinging hero over the years.

tarzan 1918


From it’s first publication in 1912, it didn’t take long for the Tarzan series to make it to the screen.  In 1918, audiences got their first glimpse of the famous character in action.  The role was filled by actor Elmo Lincoln, whose muscular physique probably helped him in getting the part.  Lincoln certainly has the build for the character, although his age proves a little problematic, given that he’s a bit too mature to be playing the more youthful and agile hero.  But, at the same time, the silent production is fairly limited in scope, so Lincoln’s portrayal here perhaps fits more into the design of what the filmmakers had to work with.  He does capture some of that wildness of the character, as well as some of his wide-eyed wonder of the outside world.   But at the same time, the movie’s limited narrative prevents us from ever delving deeper into the character, and I’m sure that much of the intent behind the film was just to bring Tarzan from one fight scene to another.  Still, it proved to be as popular as the novels and Elmo Lincoln would continue playing the character in four more movies, the last being The King of the Jungle (1927).  And Lincoln’s status as cinema’s first Tarzan still is significant considering how long a legacy the character has had in the movies.

tarzan weissmuller


Not long after the silent Tarzan’s did we get our first talky, as well as a new actor donning the loin cloth who would leave an indelible impact on the character for years to come.  Johnny Weissmuller was an Olympic swimmer before he won the part of Tarzan, and no doubt his athletic build played a part in that casting.  The remarkable thing about his performance though is how well Weissmuller fits into the role.  Truly, Weissmuller plays the part of Tarzan so well, that it’s as if he was always meant to be the character.  He’s savage but also sweet and he exudes incredible charm in the role.  Playing perfectly off of his co-star Maureen O’Sullivan (in the role of Jane), Weissmuller brought the character fully to life and more than anything, also managed to be true to Edgar Rice Burrough’s original intent with the character; at least with the first couple films in the series.  When we usually think of the character of Tarzan today, more than likely this is the version of the character that pops into mind, and that’s a good sign of Weissmuller’s legacy as the character.  Weissmuller also added something to the character that was completely original and not from the original text at all; this being Tarzan’s famous yell.  In  addition to being a world-class swimmer, Weissmuller was also known for his ability to yodel, which he somehow managed to work into the film fo the better.  Now, because of Johnny’s contribution, we expect that trademark yell to come from the character in every outing.  Sometimes Weissmuller’s own recordings get recycled when an actor can’t pull off the yell.  Weissmuller would play the character in 12 films over 16 years, which is a feat that is still unmatched to this day.

tarzan lex

LEX BARKER from TARZAN Series (1949-1953)

Not to let their prized franchise go after Johnny Weissmuller called it quits in 1948, parent studio RKO looked to recast the character, and they did with rising actor and war veteran Lex Barker.  Though Lex shares a physique similar to that of Weissmuller, his performance as the character lacks the same charisma.  This is more due to the fact that the filmmakers were running out of ideas for the character on the big screen, and less so to do with Lex’s talents as an actor.  Truthfully, Lex got better as the character as the series went along, but he only ended up making 5 films in the end.  Still, it came at a time when the series was getting campier and more outlandish, putting Tarzan in situations that strayed far from the original novels.  To Lex’s credit, he did keep true to the character by making the physical action scenes intense and believable as well as displaying much of the humanity of Tarzan in the quieter moments.  The Tarzan films continued to be popular during his time, but it was short lived considering that the television era was right around the corner.  Tarzan would make the transition to the small screen as well, but Lex’s time as the character was limited to his big screen appearences.  His time as the character would also mark the last of the classic era Tarzan story-lines, which more or less stayed consistent over the years in that classical Hollywood sense.  The adaptations that followed would stray off in very different directions and would also be reflective of the eras that they were made.

tarzan mike henry

MIKE HENRY from the TARZAN Series (1966-1968)

Made after several lesser adaptations for TV and film, the next big attempt at adapting the character came in the late 60’s, with muscular action star Mike Henry in the role.  This is a considerably different kind of Tarzan, played more as a lustful strongman rather than the playful jungle crusader that Weissmuller and Barker portrayed him as.  Henry’s performance also strangely gives him a full vocabulary, which is a departure from the “Me Tarzan, You Jane” days of the character.  This is probably because of the campy style that the filmmakers were trying to go for.  Here, Tarzan’s more Superman than Ape Man, defending the jungle as it’s savior.  Unfortunately, Mike Henry’s talents as an actor are limited and he’s more or less there to fill the image of the character rather than give it any depth.  The trio of film’s that Mike Henry starred in definitely have a campy 60’s feel to them, and you can imagine many of these same kinds of story-lines playing out on a weekly TV series as well.  The production values of the movie also reflect a time where filmmakers were starting to move away from the studio system and were doing things their own way.  The best thing you can say about these 60’s Tarzan movies is that they brought the series out into the wild.  Most scenes were actually filmed out in a real jungle and not on a soundstage, which does help to make it feel more genuine.   If only that same care was given to making the character feel more authentic.

tarzan bo


Considering the 1970’s were a period of free expression and sexual awakening, it seems natural that a film centered around Tarzan would be reflective of that.  Probably the only film in this retrospective to focus solely on the relationship between Tarzan and Jane, Tarzan, The Ape Man is also by far the most sexually explicit.  What’s interesting is that this is a film told from Jane’s point of view, which gives us an interesting look into how someone from the modern world observes and reacts to a being like Tarzan.  Of course, due to the nature of this movie, Tarzan is mostly observed by Jane (Bo Derek) as an object of desire.  The film is not pornographic, but it definitely doesn’t shy away from the subject matter either.  There are plenty of scenes in this movie that are meant to titillate the audience, but strangely enough they actually work within this film.  Miles O’Keeffe does bring the character back to his more primitive roots and as a result makes the character of Tarzan more likable.  Observed through Jane’s perspective, we come to understand why she sees this strange being as someone who should be loved rather than feared.  The production of the film also backs up the erotic nature of the film, by capturing the lavishness of the jungle setting.  The film does deliver on it’s R-rated promise of a mature retelling of Burrough’s original story.  Not only that, but it also gives us a Tarzan who looks and acts the part closer than what had been done before.  If only the film captured more of what the character was about that what he represents, which in this film is more or less a sexual object.

tarzan greystoke


As blockbuster and prestige film-making began to become more prevalent in the 1980’s, many filmmakers started to look for older properties that would be worthy of an update for modern audiences.  And while Tarzan never really disappeared over the years, director Hugh Hudson saw something untapped in the character’s back-story that he thought would be worthy of adaptation.  In Greystoke, we look more into Tarzan’s origins, and how he became who he is.   Taking the cue from Burrough’s own novels, we learn that Tarzan is actually a descendant of one of England’s most affluent and influential families, and his disappearance was the result of him being the only survivor of a shipwreck off the African coast.  Long thought dead, Tarzan grew up raised by a pack of gorillas and has learned to live as one of them for all the years since.  An expedition that includes Jane Porter (Andie McDowell) finds him in the wild and they attempt to bring him back to England and civilize him so that he can claim the inheritance that he’s due; a task that proves to be more difficult than they realize.  The great thing about this film is that it’s the first really earnest attempt to capture the spirit of the original novels, rather than exploiting it for entertainment purposes.  Lambert looks the part and tries his best to capture the spirit of the character.  Unfortunately, despite it’s lavish production values, the movie does drag quite a bit, especially when the focus is off of the main character.  Still, Lambert does make Tarzan an interesting character here and the film is a gorgeous production that while not very exciting, is still the most interesting movie in the series thus far.

tarzan disney


It may seem unusual for Disney animation to take a chance on adding the King of the Jungle to their roster of characters, but when you see the way Tarzan swings effortlessly through the trees in this film, you can understand why they did it.  Indeed, Tarzan may have always been destined to be an animated character, because only in that format can you capture his true agility in his natural environment.  Disney Animation developed a whole new computer generated technique called Deep Canvas, which enabled the hand-drawn Tarzan to fly freely through CG-animated and painted backgrounds in a truly spectacular way.  But apart from the artistic achievements of the film, the movie also manages to make a memorable Tarzan as well.  Actor Tony Goldwyn does an effective job of voicing the character, being both funny and heartfelt, without ever feeling false.  He especially captures the playfulness of the character in his vocal performance, and makes Tarzan feel consistent throughout, whether he is speaking to the the human characters or to the apes.  The fact that the apes can talk back in this film is another benefit to having an animated Tarzan.  Disney’s Tarzan also pays tribute to past versions, with the famous Weissmuller yell featured prominently in this film.  Time will tell how this one stands up against other classic versions of the character, but there’s no doubt that Disney’s take on the character is certainly one of the finest.

Edgar Rice Burrough’s classic character has certainly left a strong impression over the years, and I’m sure that he will continue to be around for a long time to come.  The interesting thing is that Tarzan can be perfectly molded into any time period that you want to put him in.  While the classic versions, as well as the Disney and Greystoke adaptations, set their story-lines in the same Victorian era that the books were written in, there are others like the 1981 Tarzan that brings the character up to the modern day.  Likewise, a new animated film from Germany is currently playing in limited release right now and it too has also brought the character into a contemporary setting.  The reason why Tarzan seems so adaptable to different time periods is probably because of the timeless nature of his story.  Indeed, the concept of someone growing up in the wild is not too outlandish.  We’ve heard about many cases of feral children being found in the wilderness over the years, so the idea of a man raised by apes can seem logical, albeit still purely in the realm of fiction.  What I see from all of his cinematic interpretations is a heroic character that feels believable while at the same time extraordinary.  And Tarzan is certainly at his best when the movies stay true to what Edgar Rice Burrough’s intended for the character.  My hope is that many filmmakers take that idea to heart and keep the Ape Man swinging for many years to come.

Evolution of Character – King Arthur


A good old fashioned medieval tale is something that has always been a favorite sub-genre in Hollywood.  Whether it is based in history or in the realm of fantasy, epics surrounding the adventures of kings and knights go back to the very beginning of cinema.  You can track an interesting progression through the years as the Middle Ages would inspire swashbuckling adventures throughout early cinema; starring the likes of Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn.  These movies soon led to the grandiose period epics of the 50’s and 60’s, where history and pageantry reigned on the big and wide screens.  In the 80’s, we got the boom of Fantasy epics, with movies like Dragonslayer (1981), Ladyhawke (1985), and Legend (1986) borrowing heavily from the Middle Age aesthetic.  This then led to a period of gritty historical films set in the same time period, like Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1992) and Mel Gibson’s Braveheart (1995).  The fantasy genre made yet another return with the Lord of the Rings trilogy in the 2000’s and today we are seeing the same genre hit it big on television with Game of Thrones.  Suffice to say, whether it’s fantasy or history, we just love watching medieval stories.  And no character better defines that bridge between the historical and the fanciful on film than the King of Camelot himself: Arthur Pendragon.
King Arthur’s legendary status is interesting because no one quite knows where it exactly started.  Some believe that Arthur is based off of a real 6th century ruler in early British history, while others believe that he’s merely a fictional character transplanted by the invading Normans in their literature.  Whatever his origin, Arthur has nevertheless become one of the most iconic characters to ever come out of medieval culture.  To this day, the character still symbolizes the ideal of true kingship, and he has usually served as the model for most monarchs in literature.  While there is no set original text from which to adapt Arthur’s story from, there have been some plot elements that have been turned into canon over time; such as his pulling Excalibur from a stone to prove his true claim to the throne, his rivalry with the witch Morgana, his friendship with the wizard Merlin, and his fall after the betrayal of his queen Guinevere.  These elements have become expected in most Arthurian stories, though not every adaptation is necessarily bound to it.  In fact, film adaptations of the King Arthur legend are about as varied as any other genre of film.  It’s actually very fascinating to see how many unique ways you can make a movie about the same character.  Below, you will find my examination of some of the most notable film adaptations over the years, and how they’ve managed to define our own modern view of King Arthur.
Although King Arthur and his knights had made appearances in many silent adventures and serial swashbucklers of Hollywood’s early years, it wouldn’t be until this particular feature that the kingdom of Camelot would be fully realized.  The film is notable because it was the first widescreen production made by MGM, and it’s clear why this production holds that distinction.  It’s a grand, epic scale retelling of the Arthurian legend shot on location in England with a cast of then A-list movie stars.  However, like most of these early productions, the film is less about Arthur himself and more about the knights who serve him.  In particular, the love story between Lancelot (Robert Taylor) and Guinevere (Ava Gardner) takes center stage.  The film does give Arthur a prominent place in the story, however, and it does show his strength as a leader.  Mel Ferrar looks the part well enough, with his chiseled face and commanding stature, but unfortunately he never is quite able to shake off his New Jersey accent.  This makes his performance a little distracting at times, and unfortunately causes the film to suffer.  Though the movie is beautiful to look at, it is firmly a product of it’s time.  King Arthur would have to wait a bit longer to receive his due on the big screen.
Finally, a film devoted entirely to the character of King Arthur.  Based off the novels The Sword and the Stone and The Once and Future King by English author T.H. White, the story follows the adventures of Arthur during boyhood, before he knew of his noble lineage and was working as a squire to lesser knights.  In the books, he is tutored by the wizard Merlin and soon is led to the mythical Sword in the Stone, from which he pulls Excalibur and proves he is the true heir to the throne.  Given that Walt Disney Pictures is known for their fairy tale adaptations, this one seemed a natural choice for them.  Interestingly though, the film is unlike most other medieval tales and it’s even unique among Disney movies as well.  This is a film about the relationship between a teacher and his student, which is something that you rarely find central to any movie’s plot.  Of course, there is magic involved, but most of the film is devoted to Wart (as Arthur is called in this movie) learning that there is more to life than just being a knight; lessons of wisdom that will someday influence him when he becomes king.  It may not be one of Disney’s most heralded films, but there is still plenty to like about it.  It’s colorful and the characters’ relationships are wonderfully constructed, especially between Wart and Merlin.  Also, the film is unique for it’s sense of humor.  It was the first animated film to use anachronistic humor and pop culture references, something that has become common in animated films since, like Aladdin (1992) and Shrek (2001).
With a legendary, grandiose story like the tale of King Arthur, it seems natural that it would inspire a musical retelling.  Adapted from the same T.H. White novels and the Lerner & Loewe Broadway musical, this grand scale production was made at the tail-end of the epic musical craze of the 50’s and 60’s.  Stylistically, it is very different from what you would expect of the era, given it’s grittier production design and darker cinematography.  The film feels a little disjointed because of this, given Lerner & Loewe’s bouncy musical score.  The odd juxtaposition was probably made because of the changing styles of the times, as late-sixties film-making became less light-hearted.  Unfortunately, none of the Broadway cast made it into this film, including it’s original stars Richard Burton and Julie Andrews.  This film did however do right by the casting of Arthur himself.  Richard Harris gives a commanding performance as the character, balancing both the charming aspects of Arthur as well as the menacing aspects.  And he can sing very well too.  The film focuses again on the betrayal of Guinevere and his trusted knight Lancelot, both played by real-life couple Vanessa Redgrave and Franco Nero; but here the focus is on the turmoil Arthur feels over losing trust in those he loves, which Harris captures beautifully.  Though not as good of a musical movie as it could have been, there’s no doubt that King Arthur was served well by Mr. Harris’ performance.
As odd as it may seem, the men of Monty Python may have come closer to authentically portraying the Arthurian legend than anything before it.  At least they certainly got the dinginess of medieval times down exactly.  It would make sense in this time period that Arthur would be identified as King because “he hasn’t got shit all over him.”  The film is a comic masterpiece and one of the most oft-quoted movies of all time.  I also love the way that it both celebrates Arthurian legends, and mocks them relentlessly, often at the same time.  Graham Chapman perfectly encapsulates this kind of idea in his portrayal of Arthur, making the king both noble and incompetent simultaneously.  And in this kind of medieval world, every iconic element of Arthur’s story gets sent-up.  Whether it’s hacking a stubborn Black Knight to pieces, or searching for an elusive shrubbery, or tossing Holy Hand Grenades, nothing is seen as too ridiculous in this story, and it’s all hilarious.  At the same time, the movie points out that the very nature of these legends are ludicrous, especially as role models for modern government and traditions in British society.  They make as much sense today as a man playing dress up and pretending to gallop around while clapping coconuts together. Truly, how can one be called a king just because some “watery tart threw a sword at you” in some “farcical aquatic ceremony?”
Director John Boorman proudly took the biggest step forward in making a genuine epic film centered entirely around King Arthur.  His Excalibur is seen as one of the movies that started the fantasy film Renaissance of the 1980’s, and the film holds up very well today.  It embraces every single aspect of the Arthur legend, from both the mystical elements, personified in the characters of Merlin (Nicol Williamson) and the evil Morgana (Helen Mirren), to the historical authenticity of it’s time period.  Nigel Terry also portrays an Arthur that we’ve never seen before; that being the reluctant warrior who grows into his role of king and ultimately earns the trust of all his knights through strength of wisdom.  Terry’s performance may be the best version of the character we’ve seen overall because of the many nuances that he brings to it.  This film is one of the best examples of the genre because of the way that it embraces everything that we come to expect from a fantasy and pushes it into directions that we never expected it to go.  Boorman is known for his very gritty and sometimes odd-ball style, best shown in his early thrillers like Deliverance (1972) and Zardoz (1974).  Excalibur feels right at home with those movies, and has an almost dream-like quality to it’s narrative and production design.  If you want to see the most earnest attempt to make an authentic film about King Arthur, than this will be the movie that’ll satisfy all your needs.
First Knight is a noble attempt to craft a very ambitious Arthurian tale, but it falls short in many ways.  Again King Arthur is relegated to the background as Guinevere (Julia Ormond) and Lancelot (an oddly miscast Richard Gere) takes center stage with their secret romance driving most of the plot.  The film also dismisses most of the mystical elements of the legend as well.  Merlin is no where to be seen, and traditional villains Morgana and Mordred are replaced by disgraced Prince Malagant (Ben Cross), who proves to be a very ineffective antagonist.  Not only that, the film’s tone is all over the place, probably because it was made by former comedy director Jerry Zucker (of Airplane and Naked Gun fame) who probably didn’t have the confidence to make a period drama.  So why is this film still a noteworthy adaptation of the Arthurian legend?  Because it has Sean freaking Connery as King Arthur.  The man carries the weight of this film on his shoulders, and is easily the best thing about this movie.  Connery just looks absolutely right playing the aging Arthur.  If you made a shortlist of all the actors who were tailor-made to portray the King, Connery would certainly be near the top.  If only this film had been made while Sean was still in his 007 prime, but still, he makes the most of his time in this movie and the film is better off for it.  First Knight is a flawed retelling of the legend, but it does deserve credit for giving us the ideal version of King Arthur that we’ve always wanted.
The most recent adaptation of the legend gives us what is probably the most historical version of the character to date.  This movie takes us to the very beginning of Arthur’s origins, showing him as a Roman legion general who defends the people of Britain from invading Vikings once the Roman Empire’s influence has left them.  Accompanied by his centurion knights including, Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd), and allied with the Saxon queen, Guinevere (Keira Knightly), they repel the Viking king Cerdic (Stellan Skarsgard) as his vast army.  Once again, we get the right kind of actor in the role of Arthur.  Clive Owen is definitely likable here and he has a commanding presence on screen.  Unfortunately, the film seems more preoccupied with the action sequences in the narrative rather than the character development.  The film was made in the post-Gladiator (2000) era, and it certainly feels like a movie crafted a little too quickly to cash in on the success of that previous film.  While I do credit the movie for at least trying to do something different with the legend of King Arthur, I just wish they had made something that was a little more interesting.  Instead, we get a flimsy plot holding together a collection of action scenes.  Clive Owen does what he can as Arthur, but the movie never gives him any room to delve deeper into the character’s motivations.  In the end, we end up with an ambitious take on the legend that never really lives up to it’s potential.
Looking at the whole of King Arthur’s trips to the big screen, it’s very interesting to see how varied the different versions are.  I, in particular, found the ones that centered on the King himself to be the ones that stood out the best.  Boorman’s Excalibur best personifies how to adapt the legend to the big screen, though other individual films do give us worthy versions of the king as well, like in Sean Connery and Richard Harris’ versions.  I think the best way to portray the legend of Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table is to fully embrace all the aspects of the story; even the most fanciful versions.  After all, Arthur is a larger than life character and his story should reflect that.  I particularly love all the inclusions of Merlin in the story-lines, especially when the movies focus on their long standing friendship.  You take that away and you make Arthur just another ordinary king.  I’m sure we’ll see many more adaptations of the legend in the years to come, and hopefully more of them will follow along with that same principle.  Long live King Arthur.

Evolution of Character – Sherlock Holmes


One thing that we really gravitate towards in our culture are larger to life heroes.  There’s just something about extraordinary people righting problems in the world through extraordinary means that we find so appealing.  Or maybe its the idea that all of us may have some untapped power within us that can someday be useful.  Having super powers are an interesting concept that has come out of literature and cinema over the years, but not every great hero is defined by this.  Sometimes just pure talent can make a hero appealing.  And likewise, how we use theses talents that are given to us is also what separate us from being either the good guy or the bad guy.  While heroes have been around throughout the whole of our literary history, the idea of dissecting what makes a hero who they are is a far more modern concept.  Today, it is no longer the larger than life aspects that we find interesting in our heroes, but rather the things that ultimately make them human.  Comic books have done a great job of defining the ideals of a super hero, but to see where these concepts of modern day heroics have came from, you only need to look back at what is probably the first modern super hero: Sherlock Holmes.
Created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the late 19th century, Sherlock Holmes was a character unlike any seen before in literature.  He was an eccentric yet extremely intelligent private detective who could solve crimes in ways that most other people couldn’t. The brilliance of Doyle’s creation was that Sherlock’s unconventionality enabled him to observe the world in ways that conventional Victorian society wouldn’t have understood and find the answer in places no one would’ve expected.  Not surprisingly, Sherlock Holmes was an enormously popular character in his time and has continued to stay strong in our culture over a hundred years later.  Not only that, he has inspired other super detectives throughout the years like James Bond and Batman, who in various degrees are the Sherlock Holmes of their times.  Hollywood has likewise seen the value in this character and have adapted Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic stories again and again for the big screen.  Thankfully, Sir Arthur wrote numerous novels as well as countless short stories with the character, which has given filmmakers plenty of material to draw from.  I’ve looked at a few of these different adaptations and it’s interesting to see how the character has evolved with the times and yet has still retained his popularity.  So, let’s take a look at the evolution of Sherlock Holmes on film.
Though there were many films based off of Arthur Conan Doyle’s books during the silent era of film-making (some even written for the screen by Doyle himself), it wouldn’t be until Hollywood jumped in when Sherlock Holmes became a box office success.  Produced by 20th Century Fox, the Sherlock Holmes series turned into a profitable franchise that also turned it’s lead, Basil Rathbone, into an A-list movie star.  Though he had been around as a contract player at Fox for many years before, Rathbone’s career would be redefined by Holmes.  Rathbone could not have been more perfect for the character; perfectly capturing the English-ness of Sherlock Holmes, while still making him appealing for American audiences.  Likewise, for Sherlock to work as a character, he needed to have the support of a strong supporting cast, particularly when it comes to Sherlock’s trusty companion, Dr. Watson.  Here, Watson is played by British actor Nigel Bruce, and while Bruce’s performance is perfectly fine, there is something lacking in the translation of the character.  In these film, Watson is just there to stand by, amazed at Holmes genius, which isn’t entirely true to the original character, who was more helpful in the books.  But when it came to Sherlock himself, Hollywood couldn’t have done any better.  Rathbone would go on to make 15 movie in the series, and would be the standard on which all other adaptations would be judged by in the years to come.
Despite the enormous popularity of the Fox/ Rathbone Sherlock films, there weren’t many other film adaptations of the famed detective, until this British production.  The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is fascinating more for it’s production than as an actual film, considering all the problems that happened behind the scenes.  The film was made by the legendary Billy Wilder, who was a big fan of the Holmes novels and he wanted to give his best shot at the material in a lavishly detailed production.  The film unfortunately went over-budget and over-schedule quickly, and the reported original director’s cut of 3 1/2 hours was sliced down to a little over 2 hours by the studio, making the final film feel disjointed and incomplete.  The cast is serviceable enough, but not particularly memorable.  British actor Robert Stephens definitely looks the part, but he lacks the charm that Basil Rathbone brought to the role.  Watson comes off a bit better, though.  Played by actor Colin Blakely Watson is more like the diligent partner from the books here than the befuddled companion that Nigel Bruce had played.  Also noteworthy in this adaptation is the presence of Sherlock’s meddlesome brother, here played by legendary actor Christopher Lee.  Though not a terrible film by any means, it unfortunately doesn’t work as an adaptation of the classic novels, and seems to be an odd fit for director Wilder, the man who gave us the likes of Sunset Boulevard (1950) and Some Like it Hot (1959).
Speaking of people named Wilder, actor and writer Gene Wilder took his own stab at making a Sherlock Holmes film.  Though, unlike previous efforts, this was not meant to be a serious adaptation.  As you can see from the title, this movie is not about Sherlock Holmes, nor is it about the character’s actual brother from the books, Mycroft.  No, in this movie Gene Wilder is playing an entirely made up character named Sigerson Holmes, who basically is looked at as the “black sheep” of the Holmes household.  In this movie, Sigerson means to show how much smarter he is than his brother by solving a case on his own, with some very disastrous results.  Sherlock does appear in the movie, played by actor Douglas Wilmer, but he’s primarily a secondary character at best.  This film is not meant to be a true adaptation of Doyle’s novels as it is obviously a parody, but still one that draws inspiration from the subject that it’s mocking.  Wilder is typically zany here, and is well supported by other comedic actors like Madeline Kahn and Marty Feldman, but the movie doesn’t have the same comedic balance that say Young Frankenstein (1975), another parody film that Wilder headlined, had.  Apparently this film was passion project for Wilder (he wrote and directed it as well), which kind of explains why the final product lacks focus.  It’s interesting more as a parody of the archetypes of a Sherlock Holmes mystery than as story on it’s own.
This film was the first serious production by a major studio for the classic character in many years, and even included the involvement of Steven Spielberg as a producer. Directed by Barry Levinson and written by future Harry Potter-helmer Chris Columbus, Young Sherlock Holmes takes us back to the detective’s youth, showing how he would become the man he was destined to be.  With a young John Watson by his side (played by Alan Cox), teenage Sherlock uncovers a mystery surrounding a mysterious cult, which soon leads to some supernatural encounters.  While the film is lavish and impressive, I couldn’t help but feel like there were some missed opportunities in the plotting of the story.  One, the film doesn’t develop the characters of Sherlock and Watson much, and instead just paints them in broad strokes, showing that they’ve always been the way they are from the very beginning.  Two, the film gets bogged down in it’s production values, choosing to indulge in spectacle, particularly towards the end.  The thing that does work best in the film however is Nicholas Rowe’s performance as Sherlock.  For the first time since Rathbone’s portrayal, we see the awkward social misfit whose genius comes out in unexpected ways in this version.  Tonally, the film gets the character right and in that regard it succeeds as an interesting version of the character.
It seems like an odd choice for Disney to translate the world of Sherlock Holmes into animation, given the original’s sometimes violent nature.  Thankfully, they had the childrens’ books by author Eve Titus to draw from, which themselves were loving homages to Doyle’s original work.  But, make no mistake.  Even though they are portrayed as mice and the story is based around an entirely different character, this is still a Sherlock Holmes film at heart.  Following the adventures of Basil of Baker Street, The Great Mouse Detective is a sadly under-appreciated animated film, overshadowed by some of Disney’s more famous productions.  It follows all the basics of a Holmes mystery perfectly and Basil is just as appealing as the famed detective itself.  Despite the G-rating this film received, it is also surprisingly dark and frightening at times.  Basil is voiced by Barrie Ingham, who does a great job of capturing that Rathone-inspired cadence in the character, bringing all the charm as well as all the narcissism and eccentricity that Holmes was famous for.  The film also features the great Vincent Price in the role of the villainous Ratigan, in what is probably one of the best vocal performances in any Disney film.  For many people in my generation, this movie was probably our introduction to the world of Sherlock Holmes, and it’s not an unworthy way to start out either.  Also of note, Sherlock Holmes himself does appear in silhouette in some scenes, and his voice is supplied by non other than Basil Rathbone, through archive vocal tracks taken from the original movies.
Sherlock Holmes has stayed in the public consciousness continuously over the years, but the films that brought him back to popularity in a big way recently were these two productions, both directed by Guy Ritchie.  Riding high off the success of the Iron Man franchise, Robert Downey Jr. took on the famed character, this time bringing out more of the oddball aspects of the character.  The Ritchie Sherlock Holmes films are by no means faithful adaptations of the classic novels, nor are they trying to be.  These movies give us Sherlock Holmes, the action hero, and less of Sherlock Holmes, the super sleuth.  But, with an actor as skilled and as charming as Downey, it’s a version of the character that is still worth watching.  Despite the bombastic nature of Ritchie’s direction, the film does do a good job of portraying the character himself.  Holmes is once again the social misfit who can see the world differently from others, which Downey especially indulges in with hilarious flourish.  Better yet is the portrayal of Dr. Watson in the movie, this time played by Jude Law.  Watson, like Sherlock, has been beefed up into an action hero, which I think works better in Watson’s favor, showing him as more of an equal to Holmes than as his faithful helper.  They may not be true to Doyle’s original vision, but these films are still enormously fun, and they especially do right by the characters, helping to modernize them for contemporary audiences.
I may be cheating a bit by including this version of the character in this profile, considering that it comes from a TV series and not a movie.  But given that each episode of this current BBC series is feature length, I feel that it deserves a place among it’s big screen peers.  The Sherlock TV series took the risky direction of taking Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic stories and adapting them into a modern day setting.  Remarkably, show creators Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat have managed to make the setting work and it shows that Doyle was clearly ahead of his time as a writer.  Probably the biggest reason for the shows success is the casting of Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock.  The actor just feels custom made for the role, and he has come to own the part just as strongly as Basil Rathbone did many years ago.  I particularly like the way that Sherlock tries hard to connect with people on a human level in the show, even though it annoys him when interferes with his methods; something that has never been explored effectively from the novels until now.  Another great part of the show is the casting of Martin Freeman as Watson.  Like Jude Law’s version of the character, Freeman’s Watson is less of an observer and more of Sherlock’s other half; someone there to ground the detective into the real world.  Cumberbatch and Freeman have unmatched onscreen chemistry, which I think has really been the reason for the show’s success.  Thankfully, the series has become a huge success both in it’s native England and abroad, and it did it by staying true to it’s roots, while at the same time making it work for modern tastes.
Few other characters have had the lasting legacy that Sherlock Holmes has had over the years, and the best thing about it is that it’s just getting stronger.  Amazingly, Arthur Conan Doyle was never as proud of his Holmes novels as he was over his work in historical fiction.  I’m sure what the author couldn’t see was the way that his hero would inspire many other characters over time.  Though Sherlock’s talents were plausibly built over a lifetime of work, it nevertheless made him stand out as extraordinary to readers.  I’m sure that comic book writers were inspired Sherlock’s extraordinary gifts when they created heroes of their own.  While some had supernatural talents that far exceed anything that Holmes was capable of, they nevertheless follow the same example of making those talents work for the greater good and the ultimate truth.  Likewise, the idea that any hero is susceptible to going the wrong way in life based on their decisions was also one that was explored in Doyle’s novels.  You can see examples of equal but opposite villains in many comic book narratives throughout history, which harkens all the way back to the dynamics between Sherlock and his arch-nemesis James Moriarty.  It’s a strong legacy that continues to get stronger and is reaching another high point today with the Guy Ritchie films and the BBC series (which ends it’s 3rd season here in America this weekend).  Like the best characters in our cultural history, Sherlock Holmes will always be timeless and will continue to stand out as one of cinemas defining heroes.

Evolution of Character – Ebenezer Scrooge


Hollywood has run into the habit of reusing ideas and stories over and over again, which has led many people to believe that the industry is devoid of original ideas.  While some films can feel flat and unoriginal, it is still understandable why Hollywood continues to recycle old properties.  And whenever something original does appear in the film market, it will likely spawn it’s own franchise and continue the cycle once again.  Many filmmakers often look to works of literature or historical documents for inspiration and they usually make an adaptation of something that has already been attempted by someone else.  The most interesting thing about multiple adaptations are the different variants that we do see portrayed in the characters of the story, and how they both define and redefine the stories through the multiple versions.  That is why I am starting this new series of articles where I look at characters that have made it to the silver screen multiple times through different interpretations, and examine how well they have stayed true to their roots and/or how they’ve been redefined over time.
Because we are now days away from Christmas, I thought that a worthy candidate to examine in this article would be Mr. Humbug himself, Ebenezer Scrooge.  Scrooge, the main protagonist from Charles Dickens’ perrenial classic, A Christmas Carol, has been one of the most widely reused characters in cinema history.  It seems like there are hundreds of cinematic versions of A Christmas Carol, all with Scrooge at the forefront, as well as many Christmas themed films that feature some Scrooge-esque character in some fashion.  No matter where he turns up, Ebenezer Scrooge has almost become as recognizable a Christmas icon as Santa himself.  And it’s not hard to see why.  The story of a cynical, uncaring old man who hates Christmas until he is visited by three ghosts on Christmas Eve and is shown the true purpose of the holiday is a heartwarming story for anyone to enjoy at this time of year.  The narrative is less about the Christmas season, and more about how we treat our fellow man; a lesson that Scrooge is in desperate need of learning.  Dickens wrote the story to highlight class inequality in his time, but unlike many of his other stories, Christmas Carol has a more optimistic outlook.  It’s Scrooge’s redemption that we find so inspirational and it’s no wonder why so many filmmakers have wanted to tackle this story over the years.  I have chosen a few of the more notable adaptations of the character to look at and see how they have come to define the person that is Ebenezer Scrooge.
While A Christmas Carol has been adapted many times in cinema before this 1951 British production, this was the one that really left a mark and has gone on to become a universally beloved classic.  The film itself is well done and treats the source material with the respect that it deserves, but what makes it particularly memorable is the performance of actor Alastair Sim as Scrooge.  Talk about someone making the role all his own.  Sim’s performance is exactly what you want to bring old Ebenezer to life.  He’s intimidating and cruel during his harsher earlier moments in his office, but vulnerable and sympathetic when he takes his overnight journey with the ghosts.  Sim balances out both of these aspects perfectly, and always takes the role seriously.  While the acting style may seem old-fashioned to today’s audiences, it still comes across as charming, and is very much a representation of the old, classic Hollywood style.  No one can be sure if this is the way Charles Dickens wanted the character to be portrayed (he may have taken issue with some of the softening of the story’s darker themes), but Sim’s performance just feels right.  His work in this film has been the measuring stick for every version of Scrooge that has come after, and it’s easy to see why.  His version of Scrooge may not be the most interesting, or the most intense, but it is a version that probably defines the essentials of the character most clearly.
In between the Alastair Sim version of the character and this one, there were very few cinematic adaptations of the story.  The only noteworthy adaptation in between was an animated version where Scrooge was played by Mr. Magoo.  But in 1970, British filmmaker Ronald Neame took upon a lavish, musical version of Dickens classic story and cast Albert Finney in the iconic role.  Now, while the film features some beautiful set pieces and portrays it’s time period very well, the movie still does have a lot of flaws that keeps it from becoming a true classic.  One of the problems that I think hurts the film the most is the portrayal of Scrooge himself.  Albert Finney is a fine actor, and I don’t fault him for trying here, but his performance just doesn’t feel right for the character.  He portrays Scrooge more like a caricature of an old man rather than as fully-fledged human being.  In Dickens novel, we come to understand that much of Scrooge’s miserliness has come from a lifetime of hardship and disappointment, which has made him cold and uncaring.  Finney just boils that down to a permanent scowl and an aching back in his portrayal.  While the film looks nice, it feels hollow and I think that’s the fault of the filmmakers missing the point of the story.  You can make the film work with a more light-hearted tone, but it helps more when your main character feels authentic and less cartoony.
Speaking of cartoons, Disney Animation tackled Dickens story as well with their stable of classic characters filling all the roles.  Eternally optimistic Mickey Mouse was naturally cast as eternally optimistic Bob Cratchit; Goofy portrayed Scrooge’s deceased partner Jacob Marley; Jiminy Cricket stepped in as one of the Ghosts, as did Willie the Giant.  But, of course the role of Scrooge had to belong to Donald Duck’s wealthy uncle, who naturally was inspired originally by the classic character.  Scrooge McDuck was created by artist Carl Barks for the Donald Duck series of comic books in 1947, and surprising it took him this long to make it to the big screen.  The long wait proved to be worth it, as Scrooge McDuck fills the role perfectly.  Voiced by actor Alan Young, Scrooge is definitely the star of this adaptation and is even able to steal the spotlight away from the likes of Mickey Mouse himself.  It’s very likely that for anyone who grew up in the last 30 years (myself included), this was the version of the classic that we first became familiar with.  And that’s not a bad thing either.  It is a remarkable feat by the Disney company to tell the entire story in only a 25 minute run-time, and still get the essence of the story right.  I think that mainly has to do with having a Scrooge at the center that we can care about, which Scrooge McDuck indeed is.  His presence here was so effective in fact that McDuck was given his own TV series, Duck Tales, which has made him one of Disney’s more popular characters in recent years.
George C. Scott is an actor known for his intensity, which he brings to every role of his whether it requires it or not.  So, when this made for TV movie cast him in the role, you would think that Scott would have portrayed a very rough around the edges Scrooge.  But what is surprising about his performance here is actually his restraint, which as a result is a great benefit for the adaptation as a whole.  Like I mentioned before, Scrooge is a man who has gone through a lot of heartbreak and disappointment in order to get where he is, and that’s what has turned him into a miserable person.  George C. Scott captures that aspect of the character much better than Albert Finney did, and for that matter, even Alastair Sim.  This Scrooge proves to be the deepest and most interesting to date, because the production and the actor portraying him pull back the layers to show the man behind the rough facade.  This version of the story focus a lot more on who Scrooge really is and how every moment of his life has shaped he is today, and how that knowledge can help him to change.  Again, Scott treats the character with respect and dignity, which makes him all the more fascinating.  It’s unusual to find a film made for television that actually has this kind of depth to it, but that’s the result of having a quality performer at it’s center.  Scott could have gone over the top, but by showing restraint, he helped to redefine the way we see the character.
The great thing about adaptations is that if the story is strong enough in it’s overall themes, you can re-imagine it in any time period or setting that you want, as long as it stays true to the heart of the original intent.  With the 1988 comedy Scrooged, we find the classic tale depicted in a contemporary setting, with Ebenezer Scrooge re-imagined as a callous and self-absorbed TV executive named Frank Cross, played by the always brilliant Bill Murray.  Murray may not be the crotchety old man that we always associate with Scrooge, but he does perfectly capture the sharp cynicism of the character, in some very hilarious ways.  The film, directed by Richard Donner, is surprisingly dark for a comedy, and is definitely not geared towards a family audience like the other films I highlighted.  But thanks to Bill Murray’s excellent performance, we still get the essentials of A Christmas Carol here, particularly in the portrayal of Frank Cross’ redemption.  The particular highlight of the film is Bill Murray’s long winded monologue at the end, where he interrupts his own adaptation of the classic story, which is being broadcast live on TV, to show the lesson he has learned about the holiday spirit.  It’s silly and over-the-top, but man does Murray deliver it well, and the holiday spirit it inspires is infectious.  This scene in particular is why the film has become a beloved holiday classic on its own, and it shows that even Scrooges in our present day can still capture the imaginations of their audience.
Charles Dickens meets the Muppets.  Not a match that you would ever think would work, and I would be lying if I didn’t say that it doesn’t entirely come together perfectly here.  But, The Muppets Christmas Carol does have a lot of charm and actually manages to do a little-hearted take on the source novel that still retains much of the story’s core darkness.  And where I think the movie succeeds the most is in the casting of actor Michael Caine in the role of Ebenezer Scrooge.  Caine’s performance manages to be as light-hearted as Albert Finney’s, but retains the restraint of George C. Scott performance.  And it’s a balance that makes him a perfect fit for this sort of film.  I mean c’mon; his co-stars are all Muppets.  The fact that he’s able to look at these characters like they were real human beings and make it believable is just a testament to just how good of an actor he is.  At the same time, Michael Caine’s performance helps to ground the production as a whole, making the film work as a worthy adaptation of Dickens’ story, for the most part.  The film only suffers when it tries to inject some unnecessary modern jokes and gags into the narrative, but these are thankfully very minor.  Like with Mickey’s Christmas Carol, this is a version of the story that I’m sure many people were introduced to as kids, and thanks to Caine’s stirring performance, it a version that helps to helps to stay true to the character of Ebenezer Scrooge.
The most recent incarnation of the story-line brought Dickens’ classic into the digital age through motion capture technology.  Directed by Robert Zemekis, this film looks nice and portrays the classic Dickensian setting on a grand scale, but the motion capture technology used on the characters proves to be problematic.  While it is neat to see an actors physical performance translated into a digital character like it does here, it has the unfortunate effect of making the characters look plastic and hollow.  There comes a point where the characters reach what is known as the “Uncanny Valley,” where audiences sees something that looks real but they know it’s not, and as a result are repulsed by it.  That’s the unfortunate problem with films like this one, but the character that works surprisingly well in this movie is Scrooge himself.  It’s probably because he is being played by Jim Carrey, an actor known for his physical comedic styles, and he helps to make the character feel much more alive as a result.  Jim Carrey’s performance is a welcome standout in this problematic film and hopefully it will not be forgotten even after people loose interest in the motion capture mode of film-making over time.
As you can see, there are many different ways in which you can bring a character to the big screen through multiple adaptations, and what helps them stand out from one another shows us all the many layers you can add to the same individual.  Ebenezer Scrooge is fascinating not just as a Christmas icon, but also as an individual person.  We all like stories about redemption, even when it’s aided by something as unlikely as visits from the supernatural, and this has been the appeal behind the story all these years.  Even when you do the flipside of the story, like in It’s a Wonderful Life where a good man has to learn about his own value in order to be redeemed on Christmas Eve, we can still see the impact that this classic story has had, even when it’s not readily apparent.  Thankfully there have been some great Scrooges brought to the big screen over the years.  While I have a special attachment to the Scrooge McDuck version from my childhood, I nevertheless value George C. Scott’s multi-layered portrayal and Alastair Sim’s classic version of the character.  And who doesn’t love it when Bill Murray lets loose in his version.  Most likely we’ll be seeing old Ebenezer again on the big screen; probably sooner than later.  But, for this Christmas season, I’m sure that some of these versions will definitely be on many of your holiday playlists.