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  • Selling Shakespeare to Hollywood: The Marketing of Filmed Shakespeare Adaptations from 1989 into the New Millennium
  • Helen Hull
Selling Shakespeare to Hollywood: The Marketing of Filmed Shakespeare Adaptations from 1989 into the New Millennium. By Emma French. Hertfordshire: University of Hertfordshire Press, 2006. Pp. x + 223. $29.95.

While I was preparing this book review, a friend of mine asked me what I was working on. When I said that I was writing a review of a book about Shakespeare, about how Shakespeare is marketed to Hollywood as potential screenplay material and in turn how Hollywood has marketed Shakespearean films to potential audiences, my friend's immediate response was: "That sounds pretty interesting. When you first mentioned Shakespeare, I thought it was going to be boring." Emma French has indeed succeeded in writing an interesting, well-researched, and thought-provoking account of the boom in Hollywood film adaptations of Shakespeare that Kenneth Branagh's Henry V seemed to kick off in 1989. Rather than evaluating these films aesthetically, French undertakes the "first systematic application of film-marketing analysis to Hollywood filmed Shakespeare adaptations" (1). Understood in the context of this analysis, my friend's comment could be taken to exemplify the challenges Hollywood has faced in producing Shakespearean adaptations; while actors and studios have benefited from the "high" culture value of Shakespeare, gaining the theatrical equivalent of "street cred" from their ability to do Shakespeare, marketers at the same time have had to counter potential audiences' perceptions that Shakespeare is boring. French's book evaluates the ways in which marketing campaigns for these various films invoked the high culture value of Shakespeare and/or the "low" culture value of popular trends, concluding that "the most successful filmed Shakespeare adaptations are those that effectively blur traditional binaries between high and low, art and commerce, and British heritage and Hollywood popular film in their marketing" (2).

The book includes a preface by Russell Jackson, in which he acknowledges the financial challenges facing those who wish to make Shakespeare films. Jackson provides a brief overview of Hollywood's alternating willingness and reluctance to finance Shakespearean adaptations, citing difficulties that Laurence Olivier had in finding backers for Richard III. Jackson states that French's study, in emphasizing marketing, "is not diverting attention from [the films'] artistic value, but drawing attention to an important component of it," since what the audience [End Page 67] anticipates in a film shapes their reaction to it (x). While French's work, in focusing on how Shakespearean adaptations are marketed, applies to a "niche in film marketing terms," Jackson feels the book "matters a great deal in the uses we make of 'Shakespeare' and the Shakespeare plays" (x). In offering these comments, Jackson suggests the potential audiences for French's book; students of film, film marketing, Shakespeare, and cultural studies will all be interested in how French conducts her study and in what her research has to say about Shakespeare's place in a postmodern consumer culture.

French herself might add "global" to that last phrase, arguing that her book situates Shakespeare and contemporary appropriations of him in the context of globalism and American cultural imperialism. Her introductory chapter establishes her project's relevance and methodology. Drawing upon theories of postmodernism, neo-Gramscian theories of culture and hegemony, and cultural materialism, French's book challenges the conventional high/low binary that has persisted in cultural studies. She asserts, "film in particular, as arguably the most commodified of artistic modes, must be denoted in socio-economic as well as aesthetic terms, and studied in terms of both production and consumption" (7). The book's objective is not to provide a catalog of recent Shakespearean film adaptations, nor does French consider every trailer made for every film she mentions. She draws upon a wide range of evidence, from posters to film reviews to interviews with film marketers themselves, in order to trace what she contends was an increasingly postmodern marketing approach to Shakespearean film adaptations from 1989 into the new millennium. She finds that, rather than the high/low and art/commerce binaries espoused by critics such as Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, "the relationship between the commercial and...


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