These are thoughts provoked by a conversation I had with a friend some months ago about Kurosawa's Ran (1985), and more specifically about that movie's bona-fides as a version of King Lear. Now, I should say that I consider Kurosawa a cinematic genius, and Ran a magnificent movie. Even so, there seems to me something not quite there about it, compared with Kurosawa's other films. I wonder if this has to do the way that, following the necessity of the social logic of medieval Japan, Kurosawa swaps out Shakespeare's daughters for sons. He does, it is true, also includes one woman: the villainous and scheming Lady Kaede, daughter-in-law of his Lear-character (Hidetora). Still, in Ran the centre of gravity is located between men, and accordingly the movie becomes about a kind of stylised oedipal battle between father and sons, rather than, as in Shakespeare, the conflict between father and daughters.
This, if you'll pardon the knight's-move of the train of thought, makes me wonder whether we couldn't argue that George Miller's Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) works as a more effective cinematic King Lear than does Ran.
Now, of course I concede that any such claim is pretty much absurd on its face. Ran was developed as an adaptation of Shakespeare's play (sparked by Kurosawa's interest in the historical Japanese warlord Mōri Motonari) and incorporates specific elements from Shakespeare's play. Mad Max: Fury Road was not, and doesn't. I can't find any evidence that Miller had Lear anywhere in mind as he scripted and shot his picture. Nonetheless, I wonder whether by foregrounding one element which also happens to be core to Lear—the rage of the patriarch at his loss of control over the young women that are both the source and the purpose of his power—Fury Road doesn't better capture in stylised form the distinctiveness of Shakespeare's great play. Of course Immortan Joe has his women stolen from him, where Lear gives his power away freely. [Update 23.7: several people have pointed out to me that this was clumsily expressed: the women in the movie escape Joe and are not 'stolen'; indeed the agency of Furiosa and these women is, in a crucial sense, the point of the film. But Joe regards them as property, and their removal as theft, which was my point]. Then again, part of the point of Shakespeare's play is that he doesn't understand, when he does so, that he is really giving away his power. He thinks he is relinquishing the onerous parts of rule, and retaining all the fun parts. When he discovers that, no, he has given it all away, he becomes so angry he quite literally loses his mind. Lear remains not the only, but surely the most potently brilliant, of Shakespeare's Mad Monarx.
And here's another difference between Kurosawa and Shakespeare. Ran starts very slowly, with elegantly designed and poised representations of the social harmony (or, if you prefer, frigidity) of Hidetora Ichimonji's rule. Everything is balanced; the movie presents a series of largely static and carefully composed tableaux vivants, as when Hidetora lectures his interchangeable, colour-coded sons.
When Hidetora goes mad, this movie says, society descends into violent destruction and death. Hidetora himself, his stagey make-up making something mask-like and mannered about his mental distress.
But that's right: Hidetora's insanity is performed, projected outwards onto a world that is riven and destroyed by it, because the political logic of Kurosawa's film is that the madness of the king is the derangement of the social order. It is a visualisation of the decay of political order into political disorder.
Individual character-motivation flows in one direction ('my sole desire was to avenge my family', says Lady Kaede, just before Kurogane decapitates her). And, if the phrase has any meaning, the society-motivation of Kurosawa's film-built world flows in one direction as well, from overdetermined, stiffly symmetrical and rather tedious order, to visually much more interesting but, of human terms, disastrous disorder.
King Lear is a rather more complicated text than this. (I'm not suggesting that complexity necessarily correlates to dramatic effectiveness, of course). The play's society is already compromised, before we even get to Lear's foolish decision to give away his kingdom: the opening scene sees Gloster and Kent cracking wise about the illegitimacy of one of Gloster's sons, and the fun that was had with the whore at his conception. Legitimacy, in the sense of legal succession and political stability, is already in question. When Lear goes mad it is not the individuation of a larger social collapse, it is something more profound even than that: something radically amiss with reality.
Still, I concede that it's a leap from that to Immortan Joe. But I want to suggest a few points of consonance. In King Lear, it is Lear who goes mad (as, in Ran, it is Hidetora who goes mad) whilst the people around Lear (or Hidetora) are various kinds of 'sane': some virtuous, some wickedly self-advancing, some like the fool and 'Poor Tom' only pretending to be mad. But in Mad Max: Fury Road all the men are mad except Mad Max himself, the only non-woman in the film who repeatedly demonstrates a strongly-motivated instinct for self-preservation. Max is traumatized, and haunted by the ghosts of those he has ... well, the film isn't clear: let down, failed to protect, been responsible for killing, something like that. But he's not mad the way the war-boys are mad, spraying their mouths with chrome paint and yelling into the explosion-strewn whirlwind deathtrap desert 'oh what a day, oh what a lovely day'; and he's not part of the structural madness of Joe's authoritarian cult. Max is our barely-speaking p.o.v. into madness as weltanschauung. And in a strange way this connects with King Lear. In his 'Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool' essay (1947), Orwell notes that 'Lear is a play [that] contains a great deal of veiled social criticism—but it is all uttered either by the Fool, by Edgar when he is pretending to be mad, or by Lear during his bouts of madness. In his sane moments Lear hardly ever makes an intelligent remark.' The madness in Lear is not a tragic collapse of meaning, but a necessary focussing of meaning in a mad already world, a sort of alignment of consciousness with insane reality. In this, I'm arguing, Mad Max is closer to Lear than is Ran.
Meaghan Morris discusses the original Mad Max trilogy (though her analysis predates Fury Road) as ‘reworking Australian historiographical understandings … moving from a loss of family to a nomad/settler conflict (Mad Max 2) and then the making of a new society based partly (in Beyond Thunderdome) on convict labour’:
The Max trilogy revised the dreams and nightmares of white settler mythology, as well as probing fears of a nuclear future. Rhetorics of movement, loss and alienation have often shaped the telling of histories in modern Australia, a nation created by and for trade flows, transportation, immigration and anxious dreams of conquering space. Max is an emigrant with no hope of returning home; his is a story of displacement and traumatic severance and it serves on many levels as a myth of origins projecting into the future scene of repetition in which the repetitive (‘on the road again’, heading for the Unknown) can always been redeemed as a brand new start. [Morris, Identity Anecdotes: Translation and Media Culture (Sage 2006), 82]This, of course, is a reading with Australian cultural and socio-political specificity, appropriately enough for a text made by an Australian director at a certain time in Australian history. But it's a reading that scales. So, for one I’m struck by the parallels with the situation out of which King Lear was produced. It is a play both about ancient origins—pre-conquest king more myth than history, the legendary territory out of which ‘Britain’ as such comes—and about the particularities of Shakespeare’s contemporary life: the Cordelia-virtues and the Goneril/Regan-dangers of having a female ruler, the potential for violence and anarchy in a disorderly royal succession, it could hardly be more late Elizabethan. (Let's not forget that it was
Phobic narrative constitutes space in a stifling alternation of agoraphobia (fear of ‘opening up’ the nation to an immensely powerful Other, typically now ‘the global economy’) with claustrophobia (fear of being shut away from a wider, more dynamic, typically ‘Asian world): pressure accumulates in this way on the figure of the border between forces pushing in and forces pushing out. History is then caught in an oscillation. This is a nice reading of Mad Max, which does indeed balance often claustrophobic interiors (most often the interiors of cars) with the rolling wide-open spaces of its post-apocalyptic wasteland milieu. And it’s the sort of ideological critique that transfers, mutatis mutandis, from Australia to—say—Brexit Britain. But what strikes me is that it also describes the dramatic topography of King Lear’s madness: the tension between the agoraphobia of Lear’s raging encounter with the raging storm on the open heath on the one hand, and on the other the claustrophobia of Poor Tom’s hovel, where human beings become footstools, or the choking suffocation of which Lear actually dies at the play's end.
But, to return to where I started on this post, the two connected things that Mad Max captures about Lear (advertently or inadvertently) that Ran doesn't are (1) the way patriarchal authority depends upon male power over women, to the point of being deranged to madness by losing that power, and (2) the way that power is explicitly sexualised. Immortan Joe has a harem of beautiful women young enough to be his daughters. We presume (I don't think it's ever specified in the movie one way or the other) that they aren't his actual daughters, although he is certainly the patriarch, and he certainly regards them as his sexual property. Conversely there's nothing in Shakespeare's play specifically to suggest that Lear's attachment to his daughters is an erotic attachment. Nothing, for our post-Freudian sensibilities, except ... except, well, everything, actually: from the professions of love the old man solicits at the beginning (Goneril's insistence that she feels 'a love that makes breath poor and speech unable' has always struck me as startlingly physical-orgasmic) to his slightly creepy vision at the end of the Cordelia and Lear in the cell like a new-married couple in their starter home: 'We two alone will sing like birds i' the cage: ... so we'll live,/And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh/At gilded butterflies.' Right at the beginning Cordelia strikes the keynote when she asks 'Why have my sisters husbands if they say/They love you all?' It's tactless of her, really: the difference between a father's love and a husband's is, of course, sex; and Goneril and Regan are deliberately eliding precisely that difference in their peroration to the loveliness of the patriarch. But if the cell Lear talks of in Act 5 is a bridal home, then the play inverts the tradition of the groom carrying the bride over the threshold by having Lear carrying the dead body of Cordelia on-stage. This is a moment quoted (deliberately?) in Fury Road. Immortan Lear's favourite daughter/bride is Angharad, and when she is killed he carries her lifeless body and howls.
I want to avoid simply listing parallels between Lear and Fury Road, because I'm not aiming for the flatly literalist thesis that George Miller actually adapted Shakespeare and decided not to tell anyone that he had (although, that said, you know ... the storm!
... the fool in motley who inserts musical interludes into the mayhem! 'when that I was and a little tiny boy ...'
... the unaccommodated men as such poor, bare, forked animals as these are ...
... but that's not the sort of analysis I'm proposing here, so I won't mention any of that.) Instead I'd suggest that Fury Road forcefully represents the buried dynamic of the name-of-the-father's erotic power-over integral to patriarchy and also central to the narrative of King Lear. That it does so vividly, penetratingly, critically; and that as such it develops a midrash upon Lear as powerful as any in cinema. Lear's madness is a mode of wrath as well as a mode of loss of power over women, and a wrath that sees the latter deprivation as a world-ending cosmic tempest. You of course remember the scene in Miller's film where Kent asks where Immortan Joe has gone, and one of the war-boys replies that he's
Contending with the fretful elementFury, see. Madness not as disintegration but as concentration, and specifically a concentration of the white-haired rage of the dethroned patriarch. Roll, trucks, and crack your chassis! rage! blow!/You car tracks and hurried war-rigs, roll/Yon sulphurous and SFX-drawn fires/Singe my white head!
That things might change or cease; tears his white hair,
Which the impetuous blasts, with eyeless rage,
Catch in their fury ...