Four centuries after it was written, Shakespeare’s tragedy, King Lear, continues to have a powerful impact on modern audiences. Its ultra-bleak view of misguided, domineering parents, and alienated, unprincipled children is grounded in universal commonalities of family experience. Ripe with ironies and propelled by a complex story of greed, revenge, and internecine conflict, Shakespeare transformed sordid events into great drama with the beauty of his poetry and the keenness of his psychological insight.
As with so many of Shakespeare’s plays (and aside from contemporary productions of the original text), the temptation to recycle the work has inspired a variety of reinterpretations, including an effective opera by Aribert Reimann and a loose (and dreadful) 1987 film adaptation by Jean-Luc Godard placing the story in a Mafioso family. But it is the 1985 Akira Kurasawa film, Ran, that sets the standard by which others must be judged. Kurasawa placed the story in Japan and changed Lear’s daughters into sons, but, for all the changes, he remained remarkably faithful to the source material in meaning, in spirit, and in unsurpassed filmic poetry.
TNT’s new film, King of Texas, places the Lear tale into the classic Western film genre, setting it in the new Republic of Texas, after the battle of the Alamo. The plotting is reasonably faithful to the original, if occasionally streamlined and toned down–especially the ending.. The central story remains that of the powerful father, John Lear (Patrick Stewart), demanding of his daughters testaments of their love as the price of succession to his empire. Two daughters, Susannah (Marcia Gay Harden) and Rebecca (Laurel Holly) comply, but the third, Claudia (Julie Cox) refuses and is banished by her father. Hardly have Susannah and Rebecca moved in than the greedy scheming (and sexual philandering) begins in earnest. In a test of authority, Susannah banishes Lear, who is accompanied by his confidant, Rip (David Alan Grier), a former slave and a veteran of the Alamo.
The subplot of a neighboring family headed by Westover (Roy Scheider) is also faithful to the original; here the favored son frames his innocent brother of horse theft. Both fathers misread their children, both will go through tragic events before they understand the cost of their misjudgment and pride.
Stephen Harrigan’s screenplay is cogent, motivations are made clear, and the Southwestern topography (filmed in Mexico) is both handsome and a reasonable conceit. Stewart (X-Men, Star Trek: Insurrection) moves from all-powerful King through madness and loss with conviction, Scheider (The Rainmaker) is particularly sympathetic as Westover, and David Alan Grier (Return to Me), in the Fool’s role of Rip, creates a memorably complex characterization.
For all that, King of Texas never rises to Shakespearean heights. It is sorely missing the rhythm and cadence of Shakespeare’s poetry which transmutes human frailties into moving tragedy. Shakespeare knew how to please his Elizabethan audiences with cruelty and gore, but he took it to the next level. King of Texas doesn’t get beyond the narrative. When Lear is in a desert storm howling his rage, lightening is substituted for poetry in an attempt to inject some drama, but instead the scene devolves into mere noise, with little impact. Genuine emotion is elicited in the scene when Lear finds Claudia dead, but that is the exception to the overall emotional flatness of the film. King of Texas does not attain the catharsis of the great tragedy it uses as its model, but manages to deliver only melodrama.