Stirring up Shakespeare: Strange Brew and Hamlet

One way of engaging with the Canadian comedy Strange Brew (1983), co-directed by Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas, is to consider the film as a transmedia adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In other words, Strange Brew serves as an example of an adaptation that has been transcoded from one medium—a play medium—into a film medium.  Scholar Linda Hutcheon discusses this transcoding process in her book, A Theory of Adaptation, particularly focusing on the ways in which film can adapt “a manifestly artificial performance form like an opera or musical.”  While Hutcheon is specifically discussing musicals and operas, plays can also certainly be included as an “artificial” performance form, since the modern playgoer is periodically reminded that the action on the stage is fictional.  (This particularly occurs whenever the curtain drops between acts, or at intermissions, and the playgoers are drawn out of the action of the play.)

Plays, then, as an artificial performance form, must be transcoded into a screen mode.  Hutcheon argues that there are two ways that a film can adequately transcode from an artificial performance mode to a screen mode: “There seems to be two possible ways to proceed.  The artifice can be acknowledged and cinematic realism sacrificed to self-reflexivity, or else the artifice can be ‘naturalized’” (46).  In other words, a film can either revel in the fictionality of its story, or can seek to disguise its fictional nature by presenting the story in a naturalistic or realist mode.

Strange Brew fits within the first of Hutcheon’s two possibilities: the film that revels in its own constructed identity.  The film opens with the two main characters, Bob and Doug McKenzie, as they relay their directorial cues to a camera man in shouted asides, and prepare for their upcoming filmic performance (which includes a burping, rather than majestically roaring, lion).  This is a film that is acutely self-conscious of its own medium, and the ways in which it can be undercut and deconstructed.

In a similar way, the film also acts as a highly self-conscious, self-reflexive adaptation of Hamlet.  The film appropriates the murdered-father element of the 17th century tragic play, but recreates the tragic story as an over-the-top comedy, and shifts the setting to Canada in the 1980s.  These shifts in genre and setting undercut the film’s credibility as a “faithful” adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and actively challenge “fidelity criticism,” the idea that successful adaptations must attempt to be as close as possible to the adapted text (discussed at length by Hutechon in A Theory of Adaptation).  It can be argued that the genre and setting shifts in Strange Brew act as “way[[s] to supplant canonical cultural authority” (Hutcheon 93), rather than as a tribute to Shakespeare’s play.

As part of its genre and setting shifts, the film adapts Hamlet in the following ways:

  1. it recreates Elsinore Castle as Elsinore Brewery,
  2. it reimagines Hamlet as a woman named Pamela,
  3. it transcodes Hamlet’s ghost scene revelations as revelations imparted via arcade games and VCR tapes, and
  4. it repeatedly references a trapped mouse in a beer bottle (and then in a cartoon Pamela is watching) to humorously parallel Hamlet’s play-within-a-play, The Mousetrap.

In other words, Strange Brew frequently appropriates elements of Hamlet, refashions them in a burlesque, exaggerated fashion, and undercuts the tragic, noble authority of the “original” play.

Yet there are moments, even in this exaggeratedly humorous film, which veer towards tragedy.  Strange Brew does, after all, touch on themes of madness, imprisonment, autocratic rule, and murder, all of which present dark strains on the film.  Since these threats are ultimately contained, the film becomes a comedy, but the plot’s darker moments remind the “knowing” viewer that the film could very well end in tragedy, just as the first Hamlet did. In fact, these darker moments are haunted by past versions of the play, of Hamlet-as-tragedy, and must be diffused by the film’s over-the-top, burlesque humor.

Thus, the tragic drowning scene of Jean LaRose/Ophelia becomes this:

And comedy prevails.

Hutcheon, Linda.  A Theory of Adaptation.  2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.

Strange Brew. Dirs. Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas.  Warner Bros., 1983.  Film.

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4 thoughts on “Stirring up Shakespeare: Strange Brew and Hamlet

  1. Excellent response – having recently watched Strange Brew, I agree with everything you have written. I especially liked the beginning of the film, which makes itself so conscious of being a film, including the false start, which results in everyone angrily leaving the theater at the failed McKenzie brother film.

    While the film clearly adapts Hamlet in a humorous way that leads those of us who imagine what is going to happen next based upon our reading Shakespeare’s work disappointed or surprised (ex: the drowning scene – I never thought he could drink all the beer in the storage vault!), I also found fascinating how Strange Brew seems to blend adaptations. It seems to be adaptation (or at least inspired by) One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest (for mental hospitals and horrible treatments like electroshock therapy), 1984 (for all the surveillance…which must have been on other people’s mind as the film came out right before 1984), and Superman (with the flying beer-loving dog dressed as a skunk in a cape but who saves the people at the beer festival from drinking the addictive beer). There are probably other inspirations as well, but those are just the ones I recognized based upon my limited involvement/ knowledge of modern texts.

  2. Great response to “Strange Brew”! Like Andrew, I really enjoyed your mention of the film being very aware of its filmic medium. Given Hutcheon’s idea of plays, musicals, and opera’s being artificial performance forms allowing the audience to become very aware that the action is fictional, and the self-aware nature of the film, does this film perhaps offer an artificial performance form as well? While there is no curtain to delineate between acts and briefly make the audience aware of the artifice, could the filmic nods, like the asides to the cameraman, serve as a filmic proof of the artifice for movie audiences instead? Is there any “suppression of disbelief” (Hutcheon 129) in this film or do you think that the directors are attempting to deliberately create a “staged” film?

    Andrew- I also really like your idea that is alot of “blending” of adaptations going on here with the nods to “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “1984”. Do you think that it is easier to find references of other adaptations in tv and film mediums than it is in artificial performance forms like plays and musicals, or telling forms like literature?

  3. Also, the idea that “comedy prevails” was very prevalent in my film, “Hamlet 2”. The tragic deaths and darker moments were offset by Hamlet’s attempts to use the time machine and stop the events from happening which made for a comical and ridiculous spin on what was expected out of the traditionally tragic play.

  4. Pingback: Covey On Film | Halifax film screening picks — June 26-July 2

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