Sir Laurence Olivier's Richard III versus Ian McKellan's Richard III
It seems that modern Hollywood filmmakers are as much in love with Shakespeare's plays as were the 16th century audiences who first enjoyed them. Recent updates of Hamlet (1996) and Romeo and Juliet (1996), both highly successful movies, bear this out, as well as the two best film versions of Richard III; Sir Laurence Olivier's 1954 "period piece", and Ian McKellan's more modern interpretation (1995).
In McKellan's Richard III, we see Britain in the late 1930s, at the end of a savage civil war between the House of York and the House of Lancaster. This version works for a number of reasons: 1) it is made for a modern audience; 2) the social and historical events are part of the audience's collective memory; and 3) the film's conclusion has a stronger dramatic impact.
1. Presentation of the play
"Image is everything", says the commercial, and with movies being almost entirely dependent on the visual element, the phrase rings truer than ever. Olivier's version, along with being a "period piece", is done very much in the classic style; the stage is static, almost as if it were a play and not a movie. The sets are colorful and spacious, but they also have a simplistic feel, as though most of the budget went into the costumes (again, very much in the classic style). The movie brings us almost immediately to the throne room of King Edward IV, recently victorious in England's brutal civil war between the House of York and the House of Lancaster; the "Wars of the Roses". After all but Richard have exited, we hear Richard's opening soliloquy in its' entirety. The setting is very much what we call a "period piece"; the costumes, sets, etc. are all of Richard's time and place.
With McKellan's version, one immediately grasps that money was no object to making this movie. It is done in the modern style, with lots of action and movement, primarily using existing buildings as sets, instead of rebuilding them on soundstages. Every scene is alive with movement and detail, a quality that is sadly lacking in Olivier's version. The setting is Britain, but a Britain very much of the late 1930s. This much can be seen at once. Richard's opening soliloquy is broken in half; the first half is spoken into a microphone before a crowd of merry-makers at King Edward IV's victory celebration. However, just as Richard reaches "Grim-visag'd war has smoothed his wrinkled brow", and the soliloquy becomes more a description of Richard's plans, we cut away to Richard, alone, in the men's room--taking a piss. As Richard relieves himself, he continues his soliloquy. Clearly, the movie is not above using anything--including Richard's bathroom habits--to move the story along. A perfect fit for today's audiences.
When Olivier made Richard III, he had to work within the bounds of the 1950s, which makes it difficult for modern audiences (myself...