In All Things Pop Culture, Reinterpretation is the Key to Relevancy

It’s done. The latest interpretation of Batman, the Dark Knight, the Caped Crusader, has run its course. Christopher Nolan’s hard-boiled take on the comic book staple delved into the character’s psychological hang-ups, his ever-evolving roles as Batman and Bruce Wayne. Nolan questioned Batman’s role in society, why he continually decides to fight, and what function he plays in a public and political hegemony. The exploration of the mind, of perception and its various underpinnings was nothing new for the director of Following, Memento and Insomnia, and the series provided an opportunity to explore these ideas with a big budget and established icon.

Beyond his own oeuvre, Nolan’s take on the character explores the Batman of today. It’s a Batman of a post-9-11 world, a society built on unwavering ideologies, mass hysteria, mistrust of power and the looming threat of terrorism. The series reinterprets a Batman both of Nolan’s mind and of our own time.

But it has always been this way for film adaptations. Or at least, the ones that stay relevant. And it has always been this way for Batman. Clear ideologies have maintained their course across each of the franchise’s various incarnations and resurrections. The campy ’60s version fit in with the rise of the spoof film, in addition to the more whimsical takes on comic characters that were taking hold at the time (think the Justice League cartoon). Tim Burton’s version (1989) gripped a darker side of the character inspired by Frank Miller’s Year One, combining the tortured duality of the Bruce Wayne, caught between his private and public selves. The inner torment resonated with the emerging, more culturally sensitive Generation X that stood in contrast to the flat action heroes of the ’80s.

Joel Schumacher’s version (1997) and its neon S&M fetishism were, ironically, a failed attempt to make the character more “family friendly”. It was these two films, in fact, that bucked the current trends of a mainstream culture still sifting through the remnants of grunge and gangster rap. Their critical and public panning eventually necessitated Nolan’s reinterpretation of the character. In a world all too aware of the power of fear, chaos and pain, Nolan’s films resonated with an audience seeking something or someone to stand up to terror. In its most successful cases, Batman has, for better or worse, always been driven by the visions of its director and the world we live in.

Proper reinterpretation speaks for the relevancy of a character in contemporary times. It yields the possibility of artistic variance and criticism that revolves around one particular subject. Each interpretation of the character is not only an artistic statement, to be judge and evaluated with regards to its predecessors, but a critique of those interpretations that have come before it. Godard once stated that the only way to criticize a movie was to make another movie. The reinterpretation allows for this. The rebirth of such movie franchises allows these opinions to be heard, allows the character to move into a new era, to not be stuck in the ’30s or ’40s or ’60s. It is, in a way, not only an opportunity to do it better, but also an opportunity to speak to the enduring qualities of these characters, and the effect they have on our present lives.

While less auteur driven than Batman, the Bond franchise has gone through similar metamorphoses. From the stylish cool of Sean Connery to the playful camp of Roger Moore, the no-nonsense style of Timothy Dalton, the sensitivity of Pierce Brosnan, and the Bourne-influenced, stoic, tormented Daniel Craig version, the Bond franchise has continually started fresh, trying to stay in step with a contemporary audience of fickle tastes. The basic facets of the character have stayed the same — the martinis, womanizing, fast cars, cutting edge technology and quips, but the political eras, the social climates, and the actors have not. There are some tenuous connections between the films, and even a few directors have returned for more than one go, but, for a franchise production, the notion of Bond has largely changed as one iteration and actor became less marketable and replaced with another.

The original Bond fit in with the ’60s style that has become so ubiquitous in a Mad Men obsessed culture. Sean Connery wears a confident cool of tight fitting suits, cigarettes and forceful sexuality. Between the exotic locales, the Cold War villains, and the rapid development of consumer technology (still waiting for that jetpack, though), the Connery incarnation of Fleming’s character was a successful fit for the time.

By the time Roger Moore took over the role in the mid-’70s, Vietnam and the Nixon era had posed new questions for box-office success in a divided America, and the emergence of absurdist sketch comedy had begun to take hold in Britain. Moore wanted to distinguish his Bond from Connery’s, and took a more light-hearted and comedic approach to the character. Moore’s Bond was a bit more charming, not as forceful as Connery’s and, one may say, more in-touch with his “feminine” side. The series delved beyond science fiction into near fantasy, and at times teetered on the edge of slapstick Stooges hijinks. In such a divided culture, the result was mixed, with some of the late-’70s films being successful, but the early-’70s and early-’80s films being less so.

The reason for the latter failures is due to another cultural shift. In the ’80s, family films, teen movies and action flicks dominated the box office. All were built on carefully metered demographics, and the Reagan/Thatcher era wanted its action heroes rough, tough and out for revenge. Moore’s smooth-talker fell by the wayside when Timothy Dalton took over. In License to Kill (1989), Bond has a hard edge, quits M6 and is out for revenge—just like every other ’80s action hero portrayed by a Schwarzenegger or Stallone. This cold-killer, no-nonsense version was credited with being the closest to Fleming’s original version of the hero up to that point in time.

The style and elegance would soon return with Brosnan’s version of the character. A different take on the character, his was a more personal Bond. This was a Bond who, while not capable of being emasculated, had feelings that tore him up on the inside. He’s driven to be a killer, to perform his duty, but in Goldeneye (1995) and Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) that duty is pined with regret. Brosnan’s reinterpretation fits into the Burton/Schumacher versions of Batman, which may account for the critical success of his first two films and dismal takes of the latter. In both series, the character who struggles with his dual nature in the first two installments eventually gives it up for camp and shiny theatrics.

The current reinterpretation of Bond has followed a similar path to that of the Dark Knight. The most recent films with Daniel Craig attempt to bring the character back to his roots with a darker, more realistic tone. Unlike Dalton’s version, Craig’s Bond is still vulnerable—beneath his cold exterior, there is a man. In a way, it combines some of the better attributes of the previous Bonds instead of completely negating them. This is a Bond who is complicated by the world around him, not carrying on in spite of it. Like Nolan’s version of Batman, the contemporary Bond universe works on the threat of personal and universal fear, the threat of chaos, of organizations that seek to rule an unknowing populace. Like Batman, Craig’s Bond puts on a strong façade, a hardened exterior defined by duty, of standing up for what’s right. On the inside he deals with the pain of his past—a pain others may never know, but we, the audience, are likely to be all too familiar with.

The concept of reinterpretation has allowed these two series to stay relevant on screen for nearly fifty years. There are cries and moans of rebooting the character again and again, but each generation needs its own hero, one who exists in their time, not the time of their parents. Popular arts have taken this approach throughout history. The legend of King Arthur has been retold countless times, often serving as an allegory of the social and political issues of the time. E.B. White’s The Once and Future King examines Britain’s role in World War II and the terrorization of the Nazi’s through the adventures of Arthur and his Knights. Marion Zimmer Bradley’s post-feminist The Mists of Avalon examines the legend through the eyes of its female pro/antagonists, offering a decidedly different understanding of the events.

This has also been the case with the plays of Shakespeare. Looking at film iterations, there are various reinterpretations of the playwright and his universal themes. First, there are the traditional takes by Olivier, Welles and Brannagh, taking the Bard as source and keeping with the time and space, making minor adjustments for the cinema audience. The next level of interpretation consists of those that play it close with the prose and setting–but decide to dazzle it up a bit. Julie Taymor’s interpretation of The Tempest (2010) imbues the magical world of Shakespeare with Hollywood special effects. The proliferations of CG magic are simply taking the Bard’s plays off the wooden stage and using current technology to appropriate them for the silver screen.

An update to the main character makes the thematic material more relevant to a society that is no longer as male-dominated. In Taymor’s version, the protagonist Prospero is changed to Prospera, played by Helen Mirren. The movie extends the original play’s feminist themes involving individualism and coming-of-age. It also strengthens the notion that the core relationship is not simply father-daughter, but more importantly, parent-child.

Other directors have taken the universality of Shakespeare’s themes and shown them to be pertinent to our contemporary selves, using images of dictators, high-schoolers, and samurai to tell their stories. Richard Loncraine reinterprets Shakespeare’s historical tyrant Richard III (1995) as his philosophical descendants: despots of 1930s European fascism. Though the film sticks faithfully to the original text and stars Sheakespearean heavyweights like Ian McKellen, Jim Broadbent and Maggie Smith, the film resets the time and setting.

Richard, the scheming king, is a self-pampered would-be dictator, surrounded by dancing girls, cocktails and ivory cigarette holders. The twisted characterization meshes uniforms and imagery of the Third Reich with those of the Allied forces. One notable scene shows the tyrant’s summer home, a relocated Brighton Pavilion moved to a coastal cliff top. With this cultural what-if, the limitless power of tyranny, of fascism, is shown to sully even the most notable and pure of British landmarks.

Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet (1996) ups the glitz and theatrics from its predecessors, investing in heartthrob leads and production design that both pays homage to and contemporizes Shakespeare’s Globe productions. Renaissance Verona has been replaced with a fantastical ’90s version of Verona Beach, Florida; guns have replaced swords; and the Montagues and Capulets are fighting over stocks and land deals instead of…whatever it was they were fighting over before (Shakespeare doesn’t say, it’s just an old blood feud, but producers didn’t want Romeo McCoy and Juliet Hatfield). Romeo and his band roam the streets like a gang looking to start a turf war. It is West Side Story taken back to its source, the original idea reinterpreted to come full circle.

10 Things I Hate About You (1999) takes this concept further, removing the Shakespearean language and loosely acknowledging the plot of Taming of the Shrew. The director, Gil Junger, succeeds in taking the antics of the play and turning them toward the life of high school: class politics, friendships, potential romances, gossip and the age-old coming-of-age. It’s simple: in four hundred years, the basis for our lives and social interactions has not changed much at all. We still love, lust, bicker, feud, and realize we act like fools while doing so.

These films do not stray too far from Shakespeare’s original genres of history and comedy. Rather, the changes they make in time and place explore how the universal themes of these plays, what made them so popular in the first place, is still relevant today. Shakespeare aimed his plays to hit marks with both the social elite and the common peasantry. As a man who mined history for his theatrics, he would surely welcome the notion of updating his ideas for a contemporary audience. The concepts of reinterpretation, of taking a recognized source to draw support for a contemporary audience were as prevalent—and necessary for success—in the pop-culture of Renaissance England as they are today.

The universality of Shakespeare’s work is perhaps most prevalent in the oeuvre of Akira Kurosawa. Kurosawa was heavily influenced by Western culture, using the stylistic techniques of westerns and gangster films to distinguish his brand of samurai film. His interpretations of Macbeth and King Lear, Throne of Blood (1957) and Ran (1985), demonstrated Shakespeare’s themes as being universal, multi-cultural and based on common human experience. The treachery, murder, chaos and battles for successions were as much a part of medieval Japan as they were of medieval Europe. On both sides of the globe, kings and warlords violently seized domains, banished family members and murdered friends for fear of losing their power, something that inevitably would happen to themselves in acts of revenge.

Shakespeare used a modernized version of history in order to better relate these stories to his audiences and the political and social realms that they inhabited; Kurosawa did the same for contemporary Japan, blending in elements of Japanese Noh theater to reinterpret the English plays for his audience. The aesthetic style of Noh masks is prevalent in the make-up of the characters in both Throne of Blood and Ran. The presence of these emotive masks, combined with the actors’ heavily scripted movements, provided a theatrical style that aided in the audiences’ understanding of the work. Noh masks were often used to indicate the true nature of a character attempting to hide behind false words.

Kurosawa’s films show the validity of proper reinterpretation, not only opening the Bard’s work to a new audience, but putting a distinctly auteurist spin on the plays. Kurosawa was able to relate Renaissance British plays to post-WWII Japanese culture, but, in turn, exposed Western audience to Japanese history through stories they were already familiar with.

For the past century, film has been the popular method of reinterpreted, updated contemporary expression. It is a form of creating and presenting collective cultural memories. The variety in interpretation proves that, as everyone has an opinion, nothing is set in stone and there is no absolute right answer. There is never a finite finality. Two plus two may always equal four and Batman may be Bruce Wayne; but he’s also a quip toting comic hero, a tormented hero coping with a dual personality, a latex day-glo fetishist, and someone who fights to simply show us that we need to stand up to those that oppress us. The ideals present are universal to a time period, to an aesthetic. To paraphrase what Jim Gordon said in the most recent iteration, “He is the hero we need.” And, likewise, so will be the popular and perceptive ideals we take from art and film.