Netflix released the first trailer for director David Michôd’s upcoming movie The King, and it looks like he and his co-screenwriter Joel Edgerton have set themselves a simple task: improving upon Shakespeare. The film is a loose adaptation of Henry IV, Part 1; Henry IV, Part 2; and Henry V, but Edgerton and Michôd have cast Timothée Chalamet, Robert Pattinson, and Lily Rose-Depp for modern eyes, and rewritten the text from the ground up for modern ears. Here’s how Edgerton described the project back in 2016:
We’ve written Henry IV and Henry V as a period film but with our own dialogue. For lack of a better word, [it’s] Game of Thrones meets Shakespeare, only in that, you can watch Game of Thrones and understand what’s going on. I feel like, with complete deference to Shakespeare, there is something that happens when even the most intelligent people read Shakespeare. They feel stupid, because he does the kind of roundabout version of telling you simple things. So, we just wanted to let the audience understand what’s going on, and not just some people, but everybody.
Helping everyone appreciate Shakespeare without feeling stupid is a noble goal, but the usual move from people who steal his plots and rewrite his dialogue is changing the setting to the Upper West Side in the 1950s or Altair IV in the 23rd century to avoid inviting direct comparisons to one of the greatest writers in the English language. But The King is still about Henry V in the 1400s—and Shakespeare’s Henry V, Falstaff’s buddy, not the historical king—which is how you end up with Edgerton’s Falstaff paraphrasing Harold Bloom by way of Stannis Baratheon. Here’s the first look:
Michôd and Edgerton are not the first people to condense parts of the Henriad into a single play or film, and a Shakespeare adaptation completely dedicated to textual accuracy would be a non-starter. (For one thing, its title would be something like “THE CRONICLE Hiſtory of Henry the fift, With his battell fought at Agin Court in France. Togither with Auntient Pistoll. As it hath bene ſundry times playd by the Right honorable the Lord Chamberlaine his ſervants,” which is just not going to fit on a marquee; even Kenneth Branagh didn’t go that far.) But if Shakespeare’s language isn’t part of what you love about Shakespeare, why bother adapting him in the first place? Who is this movie for? It has to be said, though: It’s kind of a badass move for someone who is already courting unflattering comparisons to William Shakespeare to cast himself as Falstaff, as Edgerton has, thus throwing unflattering comparisons to Orson Welles into the mix:
The King could be a good movie—as a longtime fan of cinematic cavalry charges, I am excited about seeing another Agincourt—but judging from the trailer, which doesn’t include a single interesting line of dialogue, it’s not playing in the same league as its source material. It could be one of those situations where a movie doesn’t have much of a reason to exist except for the filmmakers’ ambition, which inevitably gets people in way over their heads. If only there were a more eloquent way to say that!