If you're looking for an alternative to this summer's big, bombastic blockbusters, you can't do much better than Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing, a jazzy, laugh-out-loud film adaptation of one of Shakespeare's best comedies. (Watch a trailer for Much Ado About Nothing below.)
At a time when some are lamenting the end of the romantic comedy, Whedon has delivered one of the sleekest and funniest in ages, which is all the more impressive for being filmed in just 12 days at his personal residence. However, he modestly gives most of the credit to Shakespeare himself. "[Shakespeare is] basically pulling apart the idea of the rom-com. Which he is inventing," said Whedon at a recent post-screening Q&A at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. "That, to me, is impressive."
On the surface, Whedon's film takes a number of liberties with Shakespeare's original play. It's safe to assume that the Bard wouldn't have imagined the play's 16th-century Messina setting as a modern mansion packed with cars, guns, snazzy suits, and fizzy cocktails. Or constables Dogberry and Verges as dumb-guy cops who would fit right in with the Reno 911! crew.
But in both text and tone, Whedon is admirably faithful to Shakespeare's play — with a few key exceptions. What alterations distinguish Whedon's modern film version from Shakespeare's original text?
1. Conrade is a woman
Why did Whedon cast Riki Lindhome as Conrade, a character traditionally played by a man? Simply enough, "there was nothing in the text that [prevented me from doing it]," explained Whedon, who slotted the Garfunkel & Oates member and onetime Buffy the Vampire Slayer guest star into the role. The gender swap also influenced Whedon's staging of Don John's soliloquy from Act 1, Scene 3, which he recast as a speech Don John gives while seducing Conrade.
2. Hero witnesses her own "funeral"
Whedon's other major piece of original staging comes during Hero's funeral, which Claudio attends without realizing that Hero is really alive. In Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing, Hero watches the ceremony from afar, and witnesses Claudio grieving her death. The scene "just helped us get to the idea that [Hero] and Claudio could be together and not make you roll your eyes," said Whedon. "You see her seeing him being truly penitent. Then she can forgive him. And we can."
3. Benedick's anti-Semitic reference has been cut
On the whole, Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing is doggedly committed to Shakespeare's original text. (He even managed to turn Claudio's anachronistic, wildly offensive promise to marry his mysterious bride even if she were "an Ethiope" — which Whedon described as "pure Michael Scott" — into one of the film's biggest laugh lines.) But there was one major off-color line Whedon admitted to changing. "I don't have Benedick saying, 'If I do not love her, I am a Jew,'" explained Whedon, quoting a line from the original play. "I thought, 'Yeah, I don't think I'm going to come back from that one. That's not going to sell.'" (In the film, Benedick instead says, "If I do not love her, I am a fool.")
4. Hero spends 100 percent less time twirling
Hero, who spends much of Much Ado About Nothing as a passive victim, is a tricky character for any actress — but Whedon did his best to tone done some of her more ridiculous qualities for actress Jilliam Morgese. "[Morgese] is one of the few people who watched [Kenneth Branagh's 1993 adaptation] before we shot, and she said, 'Apparently I'm supposed to twirl a lot,'" said Whedon. "I'm like, 'We're actually going to take that out.' It is in the text, 'Enters twirling' […] You do what you can. It's Hero. She doesn't have many lines, and she's no Beatrice. But I wanted people to get the feeling that she's definitely someone Beatrice loves, and would hang out with, and is her cousin. Not just, you know, twirly/wilty."