By Mya Gosling

The King: A Review/Rant in Tweets shakespeare news The Shakespeare Standard theshakespearestandard.com shakespeare plays list play shakespeare

On November 2nd I sat down, via Skype, with my pocket dramaturg Kate Pitt to watch Netflix’s The King together. Having been forewarned, we sat down with alcohol.

Let’s clear this up right now: The only thing fundamentally wrong with The King is that it claims to be an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry IV parts 1 & 2 and Henry V. This is its original sin, albeit one only obvious to people familiar with the plays. Had the creators envisioned The King as an independent mud-and-blood period piece, covering the same historical events as Shakespeare’s plays but not explicitly based on them, I probably would have enjoyed it. However, by yoking their piece to Shakespeare, The King‘s creators effectively shot themselves in the foot with a longbow (if that’s even physically possibly) by inviting viewers to constantly compare it with the source material.

Things were not helped by scriptwriter and Falstaff actor Joel Edgerton’s comments on Shakespeare:

“We’ve written ‘Henry IV’ and ‘Henry V’ as a period film, but with our own dialogue. For lack of a better word, [it’s] ‘Game Of Thrones’ meets Shakespeare only in that, you can watch ‘Game Of Thrones’ and understand what’s going on. I feel like, with complete deference to Shakespeare, there is something that happens when even the most intelligent people watch Shakespeare. They feel stupid, because he does the kind of roundabout version of telling you simple things. So, we just wanted to let the audience understand exactly what’s going on, and not just some people, but everybody,” he explained. (Source: Indiewire.com)

I’m not going to dwell on this too much, but the idea that “even the most intelligent people” can’t understand Shakespeare’s language is infuriating on many, many levels. Yes, Shakespeare can be totally unintelligible, but that is almost entirely the fault of the method of delivery, rather than the raw material. Do you have to try a bit harder to understand Shakespeare than “regular” English? Yes, unquestionably. But that doesn’t make it NOT WORTH TRYING.

So, to sum up: I’m all in favor of making Shakespeare accessible to new audiences who otherwise would not be exposed to his works. That’s why I’m drawing this comic, after all. However, if you’re going to do that, you have to at least vaguely respect the source material. Otherwise you’re just making a rod for your own back. I’ll address the main rod The King made for itself later on, but for now, and for your entertainment, here is how Kate and I processed our experience on Twitter.

Sitting down (long-distance) with my long-suffering pocket dramaturg @KatePitt to watching #TheKing and regrets are being had.

— Good Tickle Brain (@GoodTickleBrain) November 2, 2019

If you watch with titles the first one is “[man continues groaning]” and this BODES ILL.

— Kate Pitt (@KatePitt) November 2, 2019

Half an hour into “The King” and it’s truly remarkable…. It’s truly remarkable how they’ve managed to strip out ALL the cool, fun stuff from Shakespeare.

— Good Tickle Brain (@GoodTickleBrain) November 2, 2019

Like… It’s not just doing violence to Shakespeare. It’s doing violence to good story telling. Look at me not caring about any of the characters.

— Good Tickle Brain (@GoodTickleBrain) November 2, 2019

By “the cool, fun stuff”, I was referring specifically, at the point, to the entire plot of 1 & 2 Henry IV. First of all, let’s talk about my boy Hotspur. In 1 & 2 Henry IV Hotspur is Hal’s main antagonist, an entertainingly hot-headed warrior who only cares about death and glory and wants everything to happen NOW. He is held up as the flower of knighthood, and his eventual death at Hal’s hands is a major step in Hal’s redemption arc and evolution into the king he will eventually become.

In The King, Hotspur briefly lips off to Henry IV before getting killed unceremoniously by Hal in single combat before the battle of Shrewsbury. His character is barely established and his death at Hal’s hands does not result in Hal regaining some of his father’s respect, as in the play, but rather is seen as robbing his younger brother Thomas of the chance of winning a pitched battle.

Why even bother?

Next, let’s talk about Falstaff. I don’t much care for Falstaff, to be honest, but he plays an important role in 1 & 2 Henry IV. He is the riotous vice figure who has seduced Hal away from his princely responsibilities, and a warm and vivacious rival father figure set up against the cold and reproving Henry IV. His eventual gut-wrenching banishment by Hal is the final step in Hal’s evolution from aimless young man into steely, calculating monarch.

In The King, Falstaff is a war-weary veteran soldier who tries to get Hal to see his ailing father and accepting his princely responsibilities. SO. THE COMPLETE OPPOSITE, BASICALLY. And it gets worse. That climactic rejection of Falstaff at the end of 2 Henry IV? It never happens! Falstaff just hangs around, being morose and morally upright.

Again… why even bother? Why bother lifting the character of Falstaff from the plays if the only thing you are going to retain about him is his name? Why not just jettison the pretense of being in any way connected to the Shakespeare plays and create an original, not-Falstaff character?

The Falstaff problem became even more prominent later on, as you will see. But first…

This is going great, guys. pic.twitter.com/gDKEWKafe3

— Kate Pitt (@KatePitt) November 2, 2019

The answer appeared to be “why not?”

….. OK I kind of enjoyed the bishop from “The Princess Bride” trying to give the Salic Law speech. @KatePitt enjoyed the shade Henry threw at the Salic Law speech, but that’s because she doesn’t appreciate the finer things in life, like the Salic Law speech.

— Good Tickle Brain (@GoodTickleBrain) November 2, 2019

Thousands of good speeches in these plays and you decide keep the one that is absolute rot…

— Kate Pitt (@KatePitt) November 2, 2019

HUSH, YOU.

….but also you might have a point.

— Good Tickle Brain (@GoodTickleBrain) November 2, 2019

Kate and I will NEVER agree on the Salic Law speech, and that’s OK! People are allowed to like different things! In this case she’s wrong, but that’s OK! People are allowed to be totally wrong sometimes!

Ok so nobody who follows me is going to be able to answer this question, but if you didn’t know the plays and the history… would this be vaguely enjoyable? My impression is that the storytelling is inherently crap but I am, admittedly, biased.

— Good Tickle Brain (@GoodTickleBrain) November 2, 2019

This is the million dollar question as far as I’m concerned. I’ve heard, anecdotally and in person from people not familiar with the Henry IV and Henry V plays, that The King is, actually, quite enjoyable. I’m not going to dispute that. I’m just completely unable to set aside my familiarity with the plays and view The King through a neutral, non-biased lens.

Approaching the hour mark. Here’s my impressions so far…

THE GOOD: It’s kind of pretty. There was a cool mechanical bird prop.

THE BAD: Everything else, especially every single word coming out of everyone’s mouths.

— Good Tickle Brain (@GoodTickleBrain) November 2, 2019

This was a little harsh. The visuals were, in fact, very pretty, and the acting was, allowing for the truly crushing limitations of the script, more than acceptable. But now… now for the Turn. Now for the moment when any goodwill I might have been harboring towards this film evaporated. Are you prepared?

OK FALSTAFF IS GOING TO FRANCE WITH HENRY BECAUSE HE’S A RELIABLE SOLDIER WHO RESPECTS WAR WHAT THE ACTUAL DUCK I AM POSSIBLY HAVING A MINOR FIT OVER HERE

— Good Tickle Brain (@GoodTickleBrain) November 2, 2019

IT’S GETTING WORSE, FOLKS. SEND HELP.

— Good Tickle Brain (@GoodTickleBrain) November 2, 2019

Let’s just put this in perspective. Making Falstaff, the drunken, lazy coward who describes his foot soldiers as “food for powder”, who pretends to be dead in order to avoid fight, and who desecrates a corpse in order to falsely claim battlefield honors, suddenly the tried and tested veteran warrior whose input King Henry values so much that he asks him come to France as a military adviser… this is akin to someone remaking the Star Wars movies but rewriting them so Darth Vader is Luke’s loving and ever-present father who teams up with his son to bring down the Evil Empire. It’s fundamentally NOT what the character is and flagrantly disrespects the source material. Give him a different name or something, fine, but do NOT call him Falstaff or pretend that he is in any way related to Shakespeare’s Falstaff.

Anyways. Moving on…

Backing up a bit, this was my reaction to Falstaff being asked to accompany Henry to France. pic.twitter.com/OZBKjUrJ6M

— Good Tickle Brain (@GoodTickleBrain) November 2, 2019

pic.twitter.com/nWCXjj77Uh

— Kate Pitt (@KatePitt) November 2, 2019

Robert Pattinson as the Dauphin is the only person in this film treating it with the respect it deserves, i.e. none at all.

— Good Tickle Brain (@GoodTickleBrain) November 2, 2019

This really sums up the experience. pic.twitter.com/5kcDpE3WTJ

— Kate Pitt (@KatePitt) November 2, 2019

Robert Pattinson’s Dauphin (a) had a ridiculous “Monty Python French Knight” accent, and (b) clearly decided the only way he’d make it out of this movie alive was to chew the scenery to shreds. He was comparatively delightful.

Meanwhile, Falstaff has lectured King Henry on the horrors of war and how you shouldn’t kill your prisoners even if its strategically the right decision.

FALSTAFF HAS BEEN SET UP AS THE MORAL COMPASS OF THIS FILM AND THAT’S ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT IT HELP ME IT BURNS

— Good Tickle Brain (@GoodTickleBrain) November 2, 2019

To make matters worse, Falstaff then proceeds to single-handedly come up with the entire battle strategy for the English army at Agincourt.

Hey, so, FALSTAFF is masterminding the English victory at Agincourt, just thought I’d let you know that up front just in case I get too drunk to coherently tweet further.

— Good Tickle Brain (@GoodTickleBrain) November 2, 2019

Live reactions from the front, where Falstaff’s aching knee predicts the rain that will ultimately help Henry win the battle: pic.twitter.com/cY3CwNdtAN

— Good Tickle Brain (@GoodTickleBrain) November 2, 2019

This is what happens when you let Falstaff co-author the script. 🙄 https://t.co/FJxDvda5y1

— Good Tickle Brain (@GoodTickleBrain) November 2, 2019

They went to the trouble of hiring a military advisor and then…just ignored him/her in favor of dramatic knee-based prognostication.

— Kate Pitt (@KatePitt) November 2, 2019

“So, here’s the article I wrote about the efficacy of longbows vs, crossbows, and–“

“WAIT, OMG, WHAT IF FALSTAFF’S KNEE HURTS”

— Good Tickle Brain (@GoodTickleBrain) November 2, 2019

This assumes that experts were consulted, which upon further reflection (~2 secs) may not actually be true.

— Kate Pitt (@KatePitt) November 2, 2019

“We googled it”

— Good Tickle Brain (@GoodTickleBrain) November 2, 2019

It’s not just me who thinks this is stupid, right? RIGHT???

We’ve taken a break before the big battle to replenish drinks and catch up on tweets. Stay tuned to find out if this is “SO BAD IT’S GOOD” or just “SOOOOOO BADDDDDDDD”.

The final verdict probably depends heavily on how much I can drink in the next 48 minutes.

— Good Tickle Brain (@GoodTickleBrain) November 2, 2019

HEY SO THEY’RE SETTING FALSTAFF UP TO DIE HEROICALLY WHILE LEADING THE VANGUARD AND I REALIZE A LOT OF MY TEXTS HAVE BEEN ALL CAPS THIS EVENING BUT I THINK I’M JUSTIFIED HELP

— Good Tickle Brain (@GoodTickleBrain) November 2, 2019

Hey, so I drank enough that the Crispin’s Day speech made me giggle hysterically instead of throwing things at my computer screen.

— Good Tickle Brain (@GoodTickleBrain) November 2, 2019

The St. Crispin’s Day speech, for those of you curious, turned into Timothée Chalamet’s Henry having a dig at Shakespeare by starting with “You expect of me a speech”?” before screaming “MAKE IT ENGLAND” over and over again for a couple of minutes.

We’ve got all “slow motion battle in mud and rain with muted sound” and I’ve honestly never missed Branagh so much in my life.

— Good Tickle Brain (@GoodTickleBrain) November 2, 2019

We made it through the battle, folks. Falstaff is heroically dead (unless he pulls a surprise “embowelled” in the next few seconds, which I seriously hope he does not.) pic.twitter.com/C2HtuLYVSh

— Good Tickle Brain (@GoodTickleBrain) November 2, 2019

Last minute “woke Republican princess Catherine” and last minute gratuitous political intrigue failing to salvage the sinking ship here…

— Good Tickle Brain (@GoodTickleBrain) November 2, 2019

So, the characterization of Catherine (here spelled with a C) was clearly an attempt to address the admittedly overwhelming dominance of men in both Western history in general and Shakespeare’s history plays in particular. To compensate, this Catherine was smart, savvy, competently bilingual, political astute, progressive, and totally in control.

Which… great, but also way too little too late.

IT’S OVER. WE’RE STILL ALIVE.

Ladies and gentlemen, my long-suffering pocket dramaturg @KatePitt has now sat through BOTH “The King” AND Ethan Hawke’s “Cymbeline” with me. If that’s not true bravery and loyalty in the face of overwhelming horrors, I don’t know what is.

— Good Tickle Brain (@GoodTickleBrain) November 2, 2019

I have supped full with horrors.

— Kate Pitt (@KatePitt) November 2, 2019

I have drunk and seen the spider.

— Good Tickle Brain (@GoodTickleBrain) November 2, 2019

Forever farewell the tranquil mind!

— Kate Pitt (@KatePitt) November 2, 2019

Just for the record, Kate and I agreed that the Ethan Hawke Cymbeline was, actually, worse.

Now, before I am accused of being a Shakespeare snob, let me just say that I am open to the possibility that The King is a great, entertaining film. Indeed, I’ve come across a lot of positive responses to it, including from people whose opinions I respect and value. I’m definitely not saying the film is trash.

UPDATE: I asked one of my non-Shakespeare friends what he thought of #TheKing, and he genuinely LOVED it. So, in the interest of fair reporting, if you are not aware that this film was set up in direct comparison and opposition to the Shakespeare plays, it MIGHT be good. 🤷 https://t.co/dqacRMBRQ1

— Good Tickle Brain (@GoodTickleBrain) November 3, 2019

I also wish to add that if any of my followers liked this film… THAT’S COOL. People are allowed to like different things! I dislike many things but am glad they exist b/c they help introduce people to Shakespeare. So, while it did NOTHING for me, I am glad #TheKing exists.

— Good Tickle Brain (@GoodTickleBrain) November 3, 2019

What I am saying is, as a piece of drama explicitly set up in direct comparison with and opposition to Shakespeare’s plays…. the film is trash and I kind of hated it. But I had a REALLY FUN TIME hating it. Make of that what you will.

Read more here:: https://goodticklebrain.com/home/2019/11/3/the-king-a-reviewrant-in-tweets

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