Opinion: What ‘The Northman’ is really about

(CNN)”The Northman” isn’t an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.”

Instead, the film — with an all-star cast that includes Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Anya Taylor-Joy, Ethan Hawke, Björk and Willem Dafoe — is an adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s sources, the legend of Amleth in the medieval historian Saxo Grammaticus’ “History of the Danes.” “The Northman” overleaps “Hamlet.”

Yet people today usually only know of Saxo because of Shakespeare. Debuting in the US on April 22, one day before the annual celebrations of Shakespeare’s birthday on April 23, “The Northman” exploits the same Shakespearean text it avoids.
“The Northman” is a Shakespherean adaptation — note the spelling — a retelling inspired by materials that aren’t Shakespeare’s texts but are widely known today in relation to Shakespeare.

Nicole Kidman in ‘The Northman,’ 2022. Aidan Monaghan / © Focus Features / courtesy Everett Collection
Nicole Kidman in ‘The Northman,’ 2022. Aidan Monaghan / © Focus Features / courtesy Everett Collection
It’s a different kind of Shakespherean adaptation than one of the most famous of this genre: Stephen Spielberg’s “West Side Story.” That’s a 2021 remake of a 1961 film adaptation of a 1957 stage adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” which was a 1595 stage adaptation of a 1562 English poem that translated a 1560 French translation of a 1535 Italian novella. Where “The Northman” elides Shakespeare’s text, “West Side Story” is a refraction of adaptations.

We’re in an era of Shakespherean adaptations filled with elisions and refractions. In an elision, the middle drops out. “The King” on Netflix leveraged Shakespearean associations with England’s Henry V to generate an audience while shunning Shakespeare’s actual text. It told the same story as Shakespeare, but in modern language.

A refraction is a never-ending infinity mirror reflecting Shakespeare into the abyss. There’s adaptation refraction in the Netflix series “House of Cards,” an American streaming television adaptation of a British cable adaptation of an earlier novel adaptation of “Richard III,” Shakespeare’s play of politics, ambition and villainy (itself based on earlier English plays and histories).

Joel Coen’s “Macbeth” is a straightforward adaptation. It just gets bonus points because Denzel. “Succession” and “Empire” are King Lear in the corporate world — regular adaptations. Nothing to see here. “Ophelia,” starring Daisy Ridley, told the story behind her story in Shakespeare’s play. These shows work like older adaptations, such as Akira Kurosawa’s “Throne of Blood” (based on “Macbeth” from 1957), Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” (on “Hamlet” from 1966), Julie Taymor’s “Titus” (on “Titus Andronicus” from 1999) and Vishal Bhardwaj’s “Omkara” (on “Othello” from 2006): rewriting Shakespeare’s stories in modern settings, shifting them from the theater into new media, performing the plays in business casual, riffing on the hidden backstories of characters.

But that earlier age of adaptation has now been enshrined as tradition. What once was radical is now passé. How will writers do something new with Shakespeare when adaptation has been done to death?
They will go deeper into the Shakesphere — the massive realm of sources, contexts, performances, criticism, adaptations and appropriations surrounding the plays and poems Shakespeare wrote. He is the sun that holds this system together but, in this new era, fly too close and you might get burnt.

Season 8 finale of “Game of Thrones”
Season 8 finale of “Game of Thrones”

“Game of Thrones” had both refraction and elision. HBO made a television adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s novels, which adapted the English history that Shakespeare wrote several plays about, called the Wars of the Roses. Yet Martin didn’t adapt Shakespeare’s plays directly. He went around Shakespeare to the history behind his plays. (HBO and CNN share a parent company.)

Or, Shakespherean adaptations side-step his texts to go into the playwright’s life. Films like “All Is True” and television shows such as “Upstart Crow” and “Will” adopt the approach of “Shakespeare in Love,” reading plots and characters from the plays back into the biography of their author.
In contrast, “Station Eleven” turns to Shakespeare’s afterlives. The HBO show — a television adaptation of a novel by Emily St. John Mandel — doesn’t adapt one of Shakespeare’s plays, but tells the story of a post-apocalyptic Shakespearean acting troupe.

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