Is Netflix’s The King Shakespeare or not?
The new Timothée Chalamet film borrows the bard’s characters and plot, but changes the dialogue and other key details – and here’s why
Netflix’s The King is an unusual project, telling the story of the real-life King Henry V (Timothée Chalamet) and his war in France but using the framing and story progression of William Shakespeare’s famous “Henriad” series of plays – Henry IV pt 1, Henry IV pt 2 and Henry V – to deliver the story.
Even odder? They’ve adapted Shakespeare’s plot, including his fictional character of Sir John Falstaff (Joel Edgerton), but not included any of his iconic language – but according to director David Michôd (who co-wrote the film with Edgerton), it was really only the vivid characters that he wanted to bring over in his new version of the story.
“I guess it's Falstaff, you know?” Michôd told RadioTimes.com. “It is now probably impossible to think about Henry V in any historical context without, in some way, grappling with the patina of Shakespeare. Of some kind of Shakespearean interpretation of that historical figure.”
“Joel [Edgerton] brought the initial idea of doing this to me, because he had played Prince Hal himself on-stage, when he was fresh out of drama school, to much acclaim. When we first started unpicking this, there was no version of it that we could imagine that didn't include some kind of a Falstaff character. I mean, it was just such a beautiful Shakespearean creation."
“It is an unusual approach,” actor Ben Mendelsohn – who plays the older King Henry IV in the film – told us on the topic of Shakespeare’s replaced language.
“I mean, Shakespeare was really the thing that started me being an actor – doing a high school Midsummer Night's Dream playing Bottom. And the first night we played that in front of an audience was one of those gold dust-sprinkled nights, and that's really what started my career.
“But this approach speaks, I think, to the background radiance of Shakespeare on all that follows after, that sort of Elizabethan, Jacobean period. And it speaks to the elasticity of the material itself, and also to Joely and Davey coming at it with their antipodean kind of whatever-else-flavoured eyes coming to it.”
“Ever since the early stages, we've been doing everything we can to move away from Shakespeare,” Michôd continued.
“We just wanted to feel free to engineer a story that was ours but we were never going to get away from the fact that we had at the centre of this movie a relationship between this young prince and a beautiful, old, unreliable, washed-up knight [Falstaff].”
In the end The King is a rather different sort of story to the one Shakespeare told, replacing the original play's military triumphalism and jingoistic patriotism with a recurrent theme about the moral deficit of warmongering and including some darker moments that the play would usually shy away from (as well as producing very different ends for characters like Falstaff).
But while this rebooting approach might not have ruffled too many feathers when it comes to many of Shakespeare’s history plays, changing the language of Henry V did present one significant snag – the fact that the play contains one of the most famous and popular speeches in literary history, specifically when Hal inspires his men to face their greater foe with the refrain “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more!”
In The King, Chalamet’s Hal (now King Henry) delivers quite a different address – and according to Michôd, it was a moment of great pressure.
“It's funny you should mention it, because that was the only time that I felt daunted, in direct relation to the spectre of Shakespeare, was that speech.
“But I felt this huge weight lift when I realised that I didn't have to write a speech that was in competition with Shakespeare's. The relief came when I realised that if I undermined that speech, in Hal and Falstaff's fireside conversation the night before, that it didn't matter what I wrote.
“So long as whatever it was, Timmy delivered powerfully, what made it different from Shakespeare's was that he – Hal – and, hopefully, the audience, know that it's kind of all bullshit. As soon as I made that connection – that he delivers this incredibly rousing speech that he doesn't himself necessarily believe – then suddenly I felt free to just write.”
And this desire to refresh and rebrand Shakespeare’s version of the story also came into play during casting, with Chalamet representing a rather different take on Prince Hal/King Henry than most productions of the play.
“Initially, when we first started talking about this thing, what we imagined was that Joel might play Hal,” Michôd said. “When you think about Henry V in other iterations, Shakespeare in performances, you very often think of guys who are young, but who are kind of approaching middle age.
“But what really appealed to us about this story was the fact that Henry V was very young when he took the throne. Carrying that youthful emotional baggage into a position of such responsibility was what made the story interesting.
“So we cast Timmy Chalamet, whose most striking quality, for me, is his kind of strangely soulful timelessness. He feels both from some strange future, but also he feels ancient.”
In its finished form, Netflix’s The King brings Shakespeare’s story up to date while remaining resolutely part of the past, and it’s a bit of a one-off in the world of literary adaptations.
Whether this King will live as long as Shakespeare’s Hal, only time will tell.
The King is streaming on Netflix UK now