Just Like ... But Completely Different - Umberto Tosi

Daisy Ridley's Ophelia swims with the fishes
It's a writer's nightmare. You've put everything into a novel based on an idea that you thought was original, only to discover that it's already been done - maybe better, and perhaps famously. How did you overlook it? Just like that, your shiny new bicycle has a flat and you're out there pedaling with no pants on!

No matter. Call it "a reimagining" and carry on. Writers have done it for thousands of years, most notably, William Shakespeare, that all time master of tales retold in iambic pentameter. Romeo and Juliet, was already a popular Italian tale when the Bard made it the subject of his masterpiece, as were other most famous plays. He based Hamlet on a very old Danish play entitled "Ur-Hamlet" which in turn was derived from a lengthy, 1200 A.D. compilation of Norse legends written in Latin: Saxo Grammaticus' Gesta Danorum, or History of the Danes, telling of the rise and fall of the great rulers of Denmark, and the tale of "Amleth."

I know this. Nevertheless, as the author of Ophelia Rising, now in the process of reissuing the book as a two-volume set this fall, I couldn't help but feel my stomach tighten briefly when a new, high-profile art film entitled simply, Ophelia.

The new film is being promoted as a "reimagining of Hamlet" from the Fair Maid's point of view, opened in theatres this past weekend (after having made the rounds of film festivals.) I shouldn't have been concerned. There have been more than 400 films and TV dramas about Ophelia, according to the British Film Institute, than books and movies about the Robin Hood, James Bond, or the sinking of the Titanic.

Moreover, the new film and the teen novel on which it is based re-tell the story of Hamlet from Ophelia's point of view, whereas the action in Ophelia Rising takes place after the Bard's tragedy at Elsinore without much re-interpretation. Reviewer and crime novelist and former AE contributor 2016 Mari Biella (author of Wintergreen) called it "Post Hamlet" instead of a reimagining thereof: "... Instead of drowning, Ophelia is rescued by a group of wandering players, and joins them as they make their way across Europe – a Europe that is ravaged by war and social unrest, but which is also a place of new discoveries and developments... 

"...For all the dangers she endures, Ophelia enjoys something of an individual renaissance, tasting personal autonomy and the return of precious freedom, " wrote Biella. "Northern European mythology fuses with Southern European art and culture; in the course of her journey, Ophelia becomes a truly international figure. She also becomes an example of a figure that still raises some eyebrows today: a single mother, bringing up her son without any stable father figure, standing outside of the patriarchal system of the day. Indeed, far from being reliant on a man, this Ophelia sometimes becomes a man: on occasion she dresses as, and lives as, a man. She studies, writes and reads, takes an active part in the changes sweeping across Europe..." 
Promotions and early coverage made the new Ophelia movie seem like a surefire hit - adapted and directed by praised, Australian filmmaker and visual artist Claire McCarthy and starring Daisy Ridley, fresh from her breakthrough role as "Rey" in the new, Star Wars sequel trilogy. The trailer displays high production values, gorgeous designs and costumes, with a luscious score. 

The teen book on which the new film is based garnered good reviews: Lisa M. Klein's, 2006 young adult novel of the same name, which Teenreads.com " called it "an amazing story...with castles, adventure, murder and fleeing for one's life," and named it best book of that year.
Despite the relative success of the teen novel and the promise it's sterling creators and cast, however, the film received decidedly mixed reviews - some of them withering.

Rotten Tomatoes gave it a paltry a 56 percent fresh rating with thumbs down from some highly influential reviewers:

The Guardian review by Jordan Hoffman called it a "disastrous Hamlet reimagining... Shakespeare purists will revolt, high-fantasy fans will be bored and the kids who make gifs of Daisy Ridley and put them on Tumblr will wait until they can pirate this anyway. This project is madness with no method to it."

"Out of the shadows and into the weeds," said the New York Times.

"A royal misfire with nice costumes," sneered the Boston Herald.

Wagon Train, 1964, sans spaceships
Scott Tobias of National Public Radio commented: "It might have been possible for Ophelia to survive its heresies if it broke more radically from its source, but every time the film and the play intersect, it's a supremely unflattering contrast...."

Tobias elaborated: "... the play is malleable only so long as Shakespeare's language and plotting are preserved, because tinkering with the greatest work in Western literature is dangerous business, like staring directly into the sun. The genius of a spinoff like Tom Stoppard's [1996 play] Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is that it's about two characters tucked so far into the supporting cast that their absurdist side adventures don't count as revisionism. It's just a riff..."

I considered the pitfalls of redundancy and unintentional parody when I began to write my Ophelia novel many years ago - finally to finish it in 2014. The result is my own riff - and not a reworking -- as well. in its own way. As Bella's review points out, my plot skirts around and flows downstream from that of Shakespeare's Hamlet. It presumes an alternative history in which, unbeknownst to the Bard's protagonists, Ophelia has survived a near drowning in that brook, and been rescued downstream by the players travelling away from Elsinore as fast as their carnival wagons can take them. The coffin that Hamlet and Laertes bury in act 4, contained nothing more than Ophelia's cloak, and artifacts gathered by servants on the riverbank, presuming it to be all that remains of her. From that point, my Ophelia narrative takes place after Hamlet's tragedy, and well away from Elsinore as Ophelia - still half mad, is taken on the road with the players with whom she begins a new life with new challenges.

Ophelia has fascinated writers almost since Shakespeare first staged Hamlet in 1600. The Victorians were obsessed with her - albeit bending her into their romantic stereotype of damsel in distress. Contemporary interpreters portray her with in multiple dimensions, including, in my case, incorporating lesser known dramatic conventions of her day.

For example, although women were not allowed on stage in Elizabethan England, female actresses, poets and playwrights were relatively common  and some were celebrated in late Renaissance France and Italy. Many popular plays and epic poems written by both women and men, involved heroines who masqueraded as men and vice versa - as evident in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, and the Merchant of Venice - both derived from older Italian stories.

This applies to my Ophelia as the unconventional traveling players help her recover her wits and join them on stage. It becomes natural for her to don men's clothes offstage as well, when dangers and her situation demands it. It fits the times, and is therefore more than a superimposition of modern feminist perspectives onto Hamlet.

Shakespeare never made Ophelia into stereotype himself - and no more a victim than Hamlet. A close reading of the play brings home that The Bard fashioned her into a pivotable complex character with a deep relationship to Hamlet. Her poetic lines reveal good measures of courage and independence from the start - similar to what The Bard gave to his other memorable female characters - e.g., Portia, Viola, Cordelia, Lady Macbeth, Beatrice and Rosalind. The fact that she goes mad is no worse an end than what befalls all the other protagonists, be they king, queen, or prince. Hamlet is a tragedy after all.

Redundancy isn't a problem when it comes to other books and films about Ophelia - or reworking of other archetypal dramas, for that matter. There are no new plots, writers and thinkers on the subject have pointed out down through the ages - and every plot can be summed up in a few sentences or it's not a plot. As the the late, Syd - aka "The God of Screenwriting Structure" - Field used to say, "perfect your elevator pitch. It will focus your work."

The late script guru Syd Field at work
The secret of a successful pitch, Syd Field used to say,  is to frame your work as being "just like - but completely different" In other words persuade backers - be they corporate or indie producers - that what you're offering is something "bankable and safe,"  - yet appealing original enough to be the next big thing. A famous, prime example of this is the way Gene Roddenberry first pitched the original Star Trek series to Desilu Productions in 1965  - a time when TV westerns were platinum and science fiction was considered long passe. Legend has it that Roddenberry sold the series as "Wagon Train, with spaceships."

No one can predict mercurial Hollywood. One of my more successful books - High Treason, Portrait of a Double Agent (with Vladimir Sakharov, Ballantine Books. 1982) for example, was optioned for film development by a leading producer following the spy biography's brief time in the national TV news limelight. Silly me. For a while I considered the project in the bag. We even had a cast in development.

I wrote a draft screenplay. I had taken a seminar with Field in the late 1970s - one of his first - given in conjunction with the then budding, Mill Valley Film Festival just over the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. Field had only recently published the first of his iconic Essentials of Screenwriting book series - considered something akin to sacred scrolls to Hollywood and independent script writers, who incorporate some aspect of Field's structural system whether or not they agree with his over all approach and details.

Field is famous of "the metaphor" - a modern day reworking of Aristotle's Poetics and Hegelian theory, adapted to the world of commercial films. (In other words: his system is just like Aristotle's, but completely different.)

Syd Field's paradigm chart (from "Screenwriting")
Field developed his theories while he was a Hollywood studio accquistions drone. As part of his job, he read more than two thousands scripts - and accepted only forty. He noticed a dynamic structure containing certain key elements common to all successful screenplays, regardless of genre, tone or substance. More importantly, he noted that failed screenplays lacked one or more elements of that dynamic structure.

He built his paradigm accordingly. It includes a graphic outline that consists of proportionally paced, beginning, middle and end, with an inciting incident (which he called The Setup), a First Plot Point about one quarter of the way into the work, at which time the protagonist encounters something - internal or external - that irrevocably disrupts that person's status quo propelling her to action. (The appearance of Hamlet's father's ghost telling of his murder by Hamlet's uncle would qualify as plot point one. From then on young Prince Hamlet feels compelled to bloody action, that he abhors in his legendary indecisiveness.).

This is followed by a "midpoint" by which the hero's so-far, ineffective efforts lead to a crisis. Finally, comes the "Second Plot Point" - about one-fourth the way from the final curtain - in which the hero finally discovered the key to deal with the crisis once and for all, leading to a final resolution, which can end in the hero's death or survival.

Field has had his detractors, but virtually all successful screenwriters admit to the utility of his approach. Director Paul Peditto, author of The DIY Filmmaker: Life Lessons for Surviving Outside Hollywood differs sharply with Field, even while confessing to using a system derived from Field's paradigm.

"You think Fellini worried about Plot Points? Did Altman—Cassavetes—Wells—Coppola or Kurosawa agonized over hitting marks in 3-act structure?" Asks Peditto, who teaches screenwriting at Columbia College here in Chicago.

To that point, Francis Coppola - for whom I had worked a while in the 1970s as a managing editor of a weekely tabloid - City of San Francisco -  remarked: “Although knowledge of structure is helpful, real creativity comes from leaps of faith in which you jump to something illogical. But those leaps form the memorable moments in movies.”

Even a flawless system, however, can't generate style, imagination and stirring content anymore than knowing music theory and piano construction can get you playing like Oscar Peterson or Herbie Hancock. It can only help in constructing a vehicle to transport the goods, be they mediocre or brilliant.

I was unaware of the fame or the controversies Field's work was to stir, but I did have context - having pored over Eisenstein's Film Sense and Film Form as a college film student (a brief time). When Hollywood came knocking, I was ready to go, schooled as I was in Field's techniques.

Alas, however, the High Treason deal fell through as quickly as it had materialized. The fat, option checks stopped coming. Meanwhile, the 1982 Ronald Reagan US economy went south - boom to bust.

Fast forward to today: My Ophelia Rising has possibilities, but I won't count the chickens just yet. It is a unique, historical epic populated by piquant, real and fictional characters with subplots and story arcs, painted on a large canvas as vivid as the mannerist masterpieces of Shakespeare's time. I've been told more often than once that the novel could well inspire a film and/or miniseries adaptation whose possibilities I will be exploring to the limit when the new editions come out. Whatever the outcomes, I will consider simply completing my new project as a success - for starters anyway. I can only hope for good notices and the satisfaction of selling enough books to at least know that my work is out there in the world, providing some meaningful, pleasurable moments to my readers. As for the rest, one has to roll the dice to get a hard eight, but it's not good for the soul to expect one. Best to keep writing and move on to the next story.

Umberto Tosi's books include Sometimes Ridiculous, Ophelia Rising, and Milagro on 34th Street. His short stories have been published in Catamaran Literary Reader and Chicago Quarterly Review where he is a contributing editor. He was contributing writer to Forbes, covering the Silicon Valley 1995-2004. Prior to that, he was an editor and staff writer for the Los Angeles Times and its Sunday magazine. He was also the editor of San Francisco Magazine and other regionals He has written more than 300 articles for newspapers and magazines, online and in print. He joined Authors Electric in May 2015 and has contributed to several of its anthologies, including Another Flash in the Pen and One More Flash in the Pen. He has four grown children - Alicia Sammons, Kara Towe, Cristina Sheppard and Zoë Tosi - and resides in Chicago. (He can be reached at Umberto3000@gmail.com)


Jan Needle said…
Fascinating stuff. Thanks.
Bill Kirton said…
What Jan said.
Also, I think many (most?) of the Bard's plays/plots almost invite reworkings. I once, for example, directed students in a play I simply called 'Iago'. I'd constructed it by selecting bits of dialogue from 'Othello', making no changes to it and simply moving the rest around to shift the focus from the fragile, insecure general to his highly intelligent, perceptive lieutenant, who is actually amazed at (amused by?) how gullible his boss is and uses his powers of manipulation to demonstrate the absurdity underlying social structures, relationships and conditioning. It wasn't a great play but its thesis was persuasive and sustainable.
Umberto Tosi said…
Thanks Jan. And Bill too: Your "Iago" - great idea - could well apply to our toxic, insecure Trump and his right wing whisperers who "Iago" him (new verb?) and the whole country (or at least a gullible, racist third of it) to project fear and loathing onto the most vulnerable of us while a disempowered majority of us fume behind corrupted social structures. Time for a revival?
Bill Kirton said…
No doubt about it, Umberto, we’re all being ‘Iagoed’ nowadays. The man himself knows what's happening. Right from the start, he warns us:

‘We cannot all be masters, nor all masters
Cannot be truly follow'd. You shall mark
Many a duteous and knee-crooking knave,
That, doting on his own obsequious bondage,
Wears out his time, much like his master's ass’

And admits: ‘In following him, I follow but myself’ before reminding us: ‘Men should be what they seem’.
Griselda Heppel said…
Sounds to me as if you don’t have much to fear from this new Ophelia film. Aa you know, I’m all for stories inspired by great classics which stand by themselves (like your Ophelia Rising); but retelling Hamlet point by point from Ophelias point of view feels a high risk strategy. It may well work better as a novel - like John Updike’s Gertrude and Claudius which makes an interesting job of telling the story from Gertrudes pov, if limited by Updike’s poor understanding of women).

I can’t wait for Gonerils King Lear (actually, I have a feeling that’s been done) and Donalbains Macbeth...
Umberto Tosi said…
Thanks for connecting dots in such thought-provoking ways, Griselda. And thanks again, Bill. So true.
Sandra Horn said…
Ophelia Rising is an utterly original story and a rich pageant of characters. It would make a great film! Keep hopes high!

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