Shakespeare’s Cymbeline ‘is singularly well-adapted,’ or so a 1913 piece in The
Moving Picture World once claimed, ‘to rendition in motion pictures’. It would seem that posterity has not concurred. One of Shakespeare’s least-filmed plays, Cymbeline has inspired few screen adaptations over the course of the last century: the Thanhouser Film Corporation’s inaugural 1913 version – the very film that motivated the above reviewer’s overly optimistic forecast of the play’s cinematic prospects – has been followed only by Elijah Moshinsky’s BBC Television Shakespeare Cymbeline of 1983 and Michael Almeyreda’s 2015 biker gang adaptation. Indeed, this Shakespearean play has been remarked far more often over the last hundred years for its alleged generic incomprehensibility and structural incongruities than its inherent filmability. It is with this disjunct in mind – that is, the obvious discrepancy between the anonymous 1913 reviewer’s projections in The Moving Picture World and Cymbeline’s subsequent lack of cinematic exposure – that I pose three interrelated questions. Firstly, what was it about the Thanhouser film of 1913 that made Shakespeare’s Cymbeline seem so felicitously well-suited for screen adaptation? To what degree did this relatively short, silent film reproduce the qualities and characteristics that scholars and theatrical audiences alike have
typically used to describe and define Cymbeline as a play? And, finally, how much can a so-called Shakespearean romance like Cymbeline be cut and reshaped, as it unquestionably was in
the Thanhouser film adaptation, before it ceases to present as a Shakespearean ‘romance’ and begins to look more like something else?
In what follows, I thus consider the thorny questions of what kind of play
Shakespeare’s Cymbeline is and what features have particularly come to define it in the contemporary imagination before shifting focus to revisit the earliest cinematic interpretation of this Shakespearean text. Examining the particular cuts, emphases, expository glosses and narrative streamlining of the 1913 film, I ultimately argue that it reworks the material of Shakespeare’s generically ambiguous play into a fairly straightforward romantic comedy – albeit one that occurs in a vaguely historicized and bucolic setting. Essentially eliminating Cymbeline’s most notorious villains and prizing an Imogen-Leonatus love narrative that bears a striking resemblance to the Hero-and-Claudius plot in Much Ado About Nothing, this adaptation does away with many of the more fanciful elements for which its Shakespearean source is most often remembered. The resultant Cymbeline may seem ‘singularly well-adapted to rendition in motion pictures,’ yet it is a Cymbeline curiously devoid of those fairy-tale elements and ‘mark[s] of wonder’ (5.4.365) that are so closely associated with Shakespeare’s metatheatrical and self-consciously excessive original.