If you’re one of the few sentient creatures who missed last year’s The Avengers, that’s okay—no judgment here. But you also missed an oblique teaser for the screen version of Much Ado About Nothing from its writer-director, Joss Whedon, which opened in theaters June 7. When Chris Hemsworth-as-Thor provokes Robert Downey Jr.-as-Iron Man by saying, “You don’t know who you’re dealing with,” the latter quips, “Shakespeare in the park? ‘Doth mother know you weareth her drapes?’ ”
To be sure, with its modern-dress take on the Bard’s work (complete with smartphones, no less), Whedon’s Much Ado features little in the way of drapery. Yet that exchange is still instructive: maybe pop culture–watchers, including Whedon’s legions of fans from projects such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Cabin in the Woods, didn’t know with whom we were dealing when it came to Joss Whedon. But the signs have been there all along.
By that I don’t mean the black-and-white, handheld-camera, indie-film sensibility on display from frame one. That aesthetic may be a new one for Whedon, but the breakneck production process—the film was shot in less than two weeks at his home—may represent only a bit of a stretch for a small-screen vet, especially one who can draw upon a kind of personal repertory company (the film is populated with many faces who’ll be familiar to Whedon’s fans, including Amy Acker, Clark Gregg, Sean Maher, Tom Lenk, Nathan Fillion, and Alexis Denisof; in fact, few credited members of the cast lack a previous connection to Whedon). Indeed, the ensemble cast of Whedon’s sf/Western television show Firefly, not to mention its complex male-female relationships, likely prepared him for Much Ado in countless ways.
But there’s a problem with that way of viewing things: it makes it seem as though Whedon is offering his own spin on Shakespeare, a novelty act like Mel Gibson presenting Hamlet. The more you watch this film, though, the more you sense why Whedon gravitated to the material in the first place; the underlying common ground it shares with his other work emerges. This is a world in which the comedic can give way to the emotionally horrific without a moment’s notice, and where those who shouldn’t love each other become paragons of romance—thematic cornerstones in the Buffyverse. And, above all, it’s a world in which language reigns supreme and the characters’ witty banter represents its full flowering.
If drawing such parallels between the two scribes seems like a reach, perhaps that’s because we forget that Shakespeare’s texts truly exist only when they’re performed and enjoyed by appreciative audiences, instead of sanctified in print. Publishers collect the plays in stately volumes, which can make readers lose sight that he wrote with populist intentions firmly in mind. There were no “Shakespeare books” back when he was alive, only the entertainment products that sprang to life from his scripts.
It remains to be seen whether Whedon’s massive fan base will make paperback copies of Much Ado fly off shelves in the manner of a Hollywood YA adaptation. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t crossover opportunity, especially in libraries. What’s important to keep in mind is that this isn’t a matter of elevating patrons from TV fare to “serious stuff,” now that that serious stuff has been validated by the current king of geekdom. Instead, it’s about noting underlying affinities: If readers like the fraught romance of Twilight and similar books that followed in its wake, why not suggest Wuthering Heights? If patrons thrill to superheroes, see if they’re familiar with the myths that informed many of them. The library’s job becomes one of promoting quality texts not because they’re intrinsically more worthy, but because they continue to be relevant.
Am I saying that there’s significant overlap in the core readership for Much Ado About Nothing and the cult following of Whedon’s web-based musical series, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog? Not at all. But any sharp divide is more about language and accessibility than anything else. (After all, Fillion plays essentially the same lovably pompous character in both.)
Moreover, the library is the singular place where fans of literature and superhero or vampire stories can explore each other’s realms safely and privately. Sure, the collected Buffy scripts from Simon & Schuster are in one section, the Folger Shakespeare in another, graphic-novel adaptations and extensions of both in yet another, and audio and video interpretations elsewhere, but they all tell the same stories. Through displays and readers’ advisory, librarians have the power to make connections that demonstrate affinity among these different properties. It’s these affinities, whether we’re conscious of them or not, that swim and mingle in the creative imaginations of artists—and audiences.
Peter Gutiérrez blogs about pop culture for School Library Journal