HENRY IV · HENRY V

ALL HAIL THE KING – OR NOT

I love Henry V.

Not the play (although I do love the play), but the character. In the nine years since reading Henry IV, Part One, and in the seven years since reading Henry V, I have not once forgotten about Hal. I love when stories do that. I love when they are so impactful that they become a part of you, sinking into your bones and finding a permanent place in your already crowded heart.

I love Hal because he is human. He isn’t always good, but he tries. He has a good heart, I think. I am constantly thinking about what it is to be good, and I am constantly trying to be better, but it’s difficult. And I see the same struggle in Hal. I see the desperate desire to be loved and understood – is there anything more human than that?

If you read my Shakespeare Roundup, you already know that I was not impressed with Netflix’s synopsis of The King, a movie that was advertised as an adaptation of the Henriad. I watched it with my best friend of nine years, dressed in fleece pajamas and wrapped in a thick shawl as I tried not to freeze to death in her home in rural New Hampshire.

Pro-tips: do not visit New England in the winter if you can help it, and do not expect The King to be an actual adaptation of the Henriad.

We live in a world of gritty storytelling. I don’t like gritty, though. I like dreamy and hopeful and optimistic. The King is gritty. Not because it’s about war, but because Hal was made a brooding, grumbling prince instead of a fun-loving, rakish disaster of a human being.

This was my first time seeing Timothée Chalamet in a film and I have to say that I was not very impressed. His lines were all whispered, his expressions rarely reactionary, and his overall demeanor very grim. The thing about Hal is that he should be noisy and reactionary and hot blooded. He starts out as a rascal through and through, and then takes the tentative steps from rakish prince to respected king. It is a huge undertaking for an actor, and it’s difficult to get the journey across in two hours.

One of the great defining moments of Hal’s story occurs near the end of Henry IV, Part Two. Hal finally makes peace with his dying father, and I cannot stress how important and deliberate a decision this was on Shakespeare’s part. Hal’s behavior is a result of his tumultuous relationship with Henry IV. If he is not given the opportunity to make amends, then his growth in future plays makes no sense. Think about it: no matter how you slice it, we still see slivers of the rake in Henry V. But Hal is able to mature into a king his father would have approved of because he is no longer resistant to being the person Henry IV pushed for him to be.

The King ripped this reconciliation from my hands, and I whispered an emphatic “oh, no,” as I watched Hal tear the covers off his dying father and metaphorically spit in his face. Henry IV is made to be extra terrible in this movie, and it is done to allow Hal the opportunity to express that he wants to be a different, better king. But how am I, as a viewer, supposed to root for a Hal that is lacking in compassion? I’ve never considered Hal to be a hateful character, not at his core. His great failings are his temper and reactionary nature. Come Henry IV, Part Two, he presents with an undercurrent of melancholy as he begins to navigate the inevitable grief that will come with losing his father.

Because of course there’s grief. There’s a sense of loss, strained relationship or not. He asks Poins in Henry IV, Part Two what he would think of him if he were to grieve his dying father, and Poins tells him he’d think he was playacting. If we are not going to give Hal the opportunity to make amends, then the very least we could do is give him the opportunity to grieve. In The King, he gets neither.

Falstaff outlives his Henriad storyline in The King, becoming Hal’s military adviser. Yes, you read that right: Falstaff is given the all-important job of helping King Henry V of England make decisions. And they stripped him of all his jovial wit, turning him into the perfect match for Chalamet’s brooding Hal. And so, Falstaff is rendered pointless. He adds humor to the Henry IV plays, but also provides Hal with an accepting father figure. For all his failings, and he has many, Falstaff does love Hal. And along with the tension between Hal and Henry IV, Falstaff’s unwavering love and acceptance also play a big role in who the prince is.

Basically, you won’t be seeing this Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor any time soon.

There were two things I did like about The King, and that was Katherine and the Dauphin. Katherine featured for all of five minutes, but I did enjoy the strong front she presented when she finally came face to face with Hal. But, of course, I was robbed of his bumbling, ridiculous proposal scene because The King was made to spite me specifically. Robert Pattinson played a hilarious Dauphin, and I lived for his flowing golden locks. The Dauphin was played with such exaggerated flair that he instantly became my favorite character in the movie. Was Pattinson’s French accent any good? No. Was he threatening in any way? No. Did I immediately want for him to be in every gritty Shakespeare adaptation from this point onward? You bet.

The problem with The King is that it was advertised as an adaptation of the Henriad when it is really no such thing. If Netflix wanted to make a movie about Henry V and his success at Agincourt, they could have done so quite easily. The movie would have been much less of a disappointment if it had been separated from a set of already well-told plays. The material was right there, and they refused to take it.

I do think it is important for us to present Hal the way Shakespeare wrote him. He easily models a positive form of masculinity that other male characters are sometimes lacking. Because we follow him for a whopping three plays, we see him express everything from anger to melancholy to anxiety. The King did not allow Hal these emotions, molding him instead into a caricature of unfeeling, toxic masculinity.

The long and short of it is this: Netflix should have hired me as a character consultant, and all The King does is make me realize just how spectacular the Henriad is. Those plays are a feat of storytelling, and I’m happy to have been reminded of that.

Even if I did have to watch Timothée Chalamet whisper for two hours for the message to come across.

2 thoughts on “ALL HAIL THE KING – OR NOT

  1. Thanks for this synopsis and review. I made it through about 15 minutes of the movie. When Henry IV started dropping f-bombs, I lost interest. Not that I have anything against f-bombs, but I knew then I was watching a movie with sloppy writing and characters without the nuance Shakespeare gave them.

    And I can see now how true that is. Falstaff as a military advisor? What? The man who said honor is a mere scutcheon and he’d none of it, a military advisor? Yeah.

    The beautiful and brilliant thing about Shakespeare is that two good people such as you and I can read these plays and find different, yet equally powerful, themes and revelations. Falstaff to me is a hero of (mostly) harmless fun and debauchery. He is the opposite of Hamlet’s choice of death and nihilism (though of course that’s way too simple a characterization of Hamlet, a play I’m working through again right now). Falstaff chooses life. To turn him into a “perfect match for brooding Hal” is just beyond the pale, and demonstrates the greatest sin one can commit toward Shakespeare – that is, flattening him.

    I am always torn between the affirmation of fun and whimsy that Falstaff represents and the attention to duty, honor, and civilization represented by Henry IV and V (and the manic energy and self-reliance of Hotspur, but that’s a different story!) It’s what makes these plays so fascinating, and why I can read them again and again.

    Anyway, it’s good to read you again. Keep writing!

    1. Gosh, I don’t even remember the f-bombs because I was so overcome with everything else I hated about this adaptation. There was no effort to stick to or even pay homage to Shakespeare’s language, so calling it an adaptation of Shakespeare was pretty misleading.

      As frustrated as I was with what they did to Hal, I think I was even more frustrated about Falstaff. As lukewarm as I am toward him, even I know that his energy is critical for this story to work. The thing is, Falstaff is already a good match for Hal. So it’s only natural that a different Hal was given a different Falstaff. Natural, but also very wrong and pretty shocking considering just how popular Falstaff is.

      The fact that you and I see the play differently is proof that it doesn’t NEED to be changed. We all take what we need to from the Henriad while acknowledging that there’s always more to uncover and understand. I really want Shakespeare to be more popular and accessible, but The King missed the mark. We need to give Shakespeare the same treatment and attention Jane Austen gets, and that means his plays need to be adapted with the same care and attention. I saw Little Women over the holiday, and I was just blown away by how much love was put into it. That’s something poor old Shakespeare needs.

      Good to hear from you, and will do!

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