When movie directors adopt a story in a film, they normally make significant changes to suit the needs of the audience. In addition, movie making has become a professional career supported by companies that are concerned about profitability, and thus films have to be popular and resonate with the audience. Therefore, movie directors in modern times may not have the freedom to create movies that strictly follow original stories because entertainment companies significantly influence the plotline with their bottom line in mind. Michael Hoffman’s 1999 movie version of the play A Midsummer Night’s Dream seeks to meet the demands of an audience of the late twentieth century – it has comedy, sex, wrestling in the mud. Therefore, instead of setting the film in ancient Greek times when the original play was written, Hoffman decided to use a modernistic setting – in Italy at the start of the nineteenth century. As such, setting is a major difference between the film and the play, and this will be one of the central themes of this paper. Additionally, one of the characters in the play, Bottom, is transformed to become a central figure in the movie as opposed to being farcical as presented in the play. In other words, Bottom is placed at the top, and this change shifts focus from aristocracy to dignify the common man. In the movie, Bottom represents the artisan classes and by becoming the center of attention, the hitherto traditional privileging of the aristocracy is given to the lower classes. This paper discusses the differences between Hoffman’s 1999 film adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the sixteenth-century original play by William Shakespeare. The focus of this paper is the change of setting and the redemption of Bottom by placing him at the top in the film.
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The setting of the original play is in ancient Greek, and it takes place in the city of Athens and in a forest behind the city’s walls. However, in the film, Hoffman sets the action in Italy, as explained in these words from the movie:
The village of Monte Athena in Italy at the turn of the 19th century. Necklines are high. Parents are rigid. Marriage is seldom a matter of love. The good news: The bustle is in its decline, allowing for the meteoric rise of that newfangled creation, the bicycle (A Midsummer Night’s Dream).
This shift of setting is meant to achieve several objectives, specifically the modernization of the play. Hoffman wanted to portray an environment that resonates with his audience in the late twentieth century. The targeted viewers would not understand or identify with what was happening in ancient Greek society. Therefore, to maintain the integrity of the play while taking care of the targeted audience’s needs, a setting in the early nineteenth century offered an acceptable compromise to both sides. In the movie, Hoffman introduces a bicycle, thus enabling the action to move fast and capture the short attention spans that characterize the modern audience. It would be impossible for the audience in the 1990s to sit for three hours listening to a slow-moving story in a language that they do not understand. Such an audience would also want to see some comedy and Hoffman is aware of this need. Therefore, with the introduction of the bicycle, the lovers in the story can chase each other with ease, thus creating a comedic scene, especially where Pluck sees a bicycle for the first time and acts as if it would strike him back for touching it. However, some critics have given the change of setting a different interpretation on top of the need to modernize the play. Entertainment companies are accused of dictating how films should be made because they care about their bottom line and profitability. Therefore, the argument, in this case, is that Hoffman adopts a conservative approach in the film due to influence from Fox Cinemas. According to Matchinske, “Fox executives are masters at refocusing the economic success of filmmaking into residuals–the longevity of the film’s salability rather than its opening week revenues” (41). Therefore, financial incentives and rewards shaped both the pre-production and post-production decision-making of the film. Matchinske argues that before the film was released, Fox ran an extensive educational program to promote it and create a viewership that could purchase other products associated with the company during the watching of the movie (41). Therefore, the setting was specifically changed for financial reasons as opposed to the argument of modernizing the play.
The other notable difference between the film and the play is the redemption of Bottom by making him the center of focus in the movie. Bottom represents artists who were normally overlooked and disdained in Ancient Greek because aristocracy is the only thing that mattered at the time. In the play, when Puck, a jester, and a faire, finds a group of artisans rehearsing a play to be performed at Duke Theseus’s wedding, he asks, “What hempen homespuns have we swaggering here? (Shakespeare 3.1.60). He is openly insulting to the artists, which is characteristic of aristocratic contemptuous attitude in the court of King Oberon. Puck’s disdain for these artists comes out clearly later when he refers to them as “A crew of patches, rude mechanicals” (Shakespeare 3.2.9), and specifically brands Bottom, the Weaver, as “the shallowest thick-skin of that barren sort” (Shakespeare 3.2.13). This judgmental attitudes by aristocrats towards lower social classes or human nature contributed significantly towards the redemption of Bottom in the film. According to Riga, “critics and directors have, for the most part, adopted Puck’s contemptuous view of the artisans, referring to them, in Puck’s disdainful phrase, as “the rude mechanicals” and assuming that Shakespeare shared Puck’s view” (197). Therefore, Hoffman deliberately shifts the focus from aristocracy to artists, who represent ordinary people. Hoffman’s empathetic interpretations of Bottom and transforming him from being a caricature and a clown to being a human being with dreams that could be accomplished. In his new persona, Bottom is an artist at heart, and by making him the protagonist of the film, Hoffman validates the importance of lower classes. Bottom’s transformation aligns with the setting of the film. Having being set at the start of the nineteenth century in Italy, the film underscored the changes that were about to sweep across Europe at the time, specifically putting the working class at the center of focus. Riga posits, “By presenting bicycles, gramophones, and other products of the working classes from this period, he underscores the value of their work and its integral role throughout all the layers of society” (199). In this context, artist do not have to depend on the upper class for survival – they have been given the ability earn a living from their skills and talents. Therefore, they can easily use their leisure time to follow cultural pursuits. As such, in the film, Bottom and his fellow artisans stage an act that is not just a farce as depicted in the original play by Shakespeare. Additionally, in the play, artisans are not introduced early in the act and they have to wait until Scene Two, where they are brought in transiently. However, in the film, Bottom and other artists, as representatives of the lower social class, appear in the opening scene, they play a central role throughout the movie. Therefore, it suffices to argue that Hoffman reinvents the role of Bottom in the film as a way of protesting against Athenian aristocracy, which drew all the attention in the original play.
This paper has shown two major outstanding differences between Hoffman’s 1999 movie version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the original play by Shakespeare. The first difference is the change of setting from Ancient Greek in the sixteenth century to a village, Monte Athena, in Italy at the start of the nineteenth century. Two reasons have been given for this change – first, to modernize the film, and second, to make the movie popular and increase Fox’s profitability. The second difference is the redemption of Bottom in the film by transforming him from a caricature and clown in the play to the protagonist of the movie. Hoffman made these changes to shift the focus from Athenian aristocracy and give voice to artists and other members of the lower social classes. Therefore, these arguments should allow the reader to understand the debate about Hoffman’s decisions when making the film from a different perspective.
Hoffman, Michael, director. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Twentieth Century Fox, 1999.
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Matchinske, Megan. “Putting Bottom on Top: Gender and the Married Man in Michael Hoffman’s” Dream”.” Shakespeare Bulletin, vol. 21, no. 4, 2003, pp. 40-56.
Riga, Frank P. “Where is that Worthless Dreamer? Bottom’s Fantastic Redemption in Hoffman’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”.” Mythlore, vol. 25, no. 1, 2006, pp. 197-211.
Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Edited by Linda Buckle and Paul Kelley, Cambridge University Press, 1984.