Movies have to do a lot in a short amount of time: tell a story, create sympathy—or the opposite—for characters, make the audience laugh, cry, cringe, etc.
Aside from the whole range of visual effects, which are the entire point of the medium, movies use plenty of other shortcuts to get the job done: music, sound effects, linguistics, cultural assumptions—and, of course, poetry.
Poetry also tells stories, creates sympathy—or the opposite—and evokes any emotion you can name, sometimes in only a few short lines and especially if the poem is so well known that the audience automatically fills in the rest.
Twanging heartstrings in five seconds of screen-time or less—what’s not to like?
Movies know that we know they do this. But if it’s done well, we don’t mind at all—in fact, that’s why we go in the first place.
The Outsiders is probably the best example of poetry for poetry’s sake in the movies—Ponyboy is a reader and a writer and it’s perfectly natural that he would share poetry with Johnny, because he knows Johnny won’t give him grief for it. We get the characters, we get their friendship, and we’re completely set up for what comes next—the choice of poem, in retrospect, is also foreshadowing:
But not all movies have S.E. Hinton source material lining up the shots. Most of them use poetry as a spoken soundtrack, which can work really, really well:
This poem usually has me reaching for the tissue box, anyway, but John Hannah’s delivery is absolutely. . . he’s just so . . . Excuse me for a second, please . . .
There’s a moment in Sense and Sensibility—the 1995 version, which is my favorite, despite Hugh Grant being . . . Hugh Grant*—that assumes audience recognition, which is safe because this is one of the most overused sonnets ever and people like this character are the reason why.
Though I have to admit that she gives it a different interpretation. It’s often been used as a warning and an admonishment—especially at weddings—but rarely as an actual lament:
While Marianne is kind of a nitwit through the first three-fourths of the story—book and movie versions—and Willoughby is hardly a prize, I have to admit that Sonnet 116 does help me sympathize with her profoundly wounded disappointment in a way repeating his name wouldn’t.
I have no quips for this next one—it’s a powerful scene done very well. I will say that if anyone other than Mr. Mandela himself had to recite Mr. Henley’s immortal poem in this movie, Mr. Freeman is the absolute right choice:
Then again, eight times out of ten,** Mr. Freeman is the right choice to read anything.
After all these poignant moments, I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that some movies use poetry for straight out, and even slightly slimy, laughs:
I’m told that this poem is by Danny Rubin—something about fine wine and the girl of his dreams—but if the movie had intended for this to be a genuinely romantic interlude, they wouldn’t have had Bill Murray speaking French.***
Anyone else have a favorite cinematic poetry experience to share?
*Don’t get me wrong—he’s not a bad actor and he clearly didn’t ruin the two of his that are included here. But while he’s essentially playing himself in Four Weddings and a Funeral, I expect a little more fortitude and a little less fumbling from Edward Ferrars. Just sayin’.
**Accounting, of course, for certain gender-specific literature, Benedict Cumberbatch (who can double for Alan Rickman), Tom Hardy, Matthew Macfadyn, and allowing for some inevitable overlap. What?
***Mr. Murray could have pulled it off in Lost in Translation, but French poetry didn’t belong in that movie. I knew he was talented, but damn, did I underestimate his range.