Alas, poor Shakespeare. On this day back in 1613, he lost the original Globe Theatre to a fire during a performance of a play called All Is True about King Henry VIII. And yet he has given us so much — from the word “puking” to a packed series of open-air plays in Central Park every year. But perhaps the Bard’s greatest boon to 8th graders everywhere was the boom of teen movie adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays in the late ’90s and early ’00s. We’re not saying that they’re better than the written word, but, well, some of them are pretty great. Others, not even ’90s nostalgia can redeem. From 10 Things I Hate About You‘s version of The Taming of the Shrew to the Disney Channel’s version of Twelfth Night as a motocross tournament, you too can learn to love Shakespeare like a disgruntled middle schooler, after the jump.
Baz Luhrman’s epic modernization of Romeo and Juliet not only starred the pre-Titanic teen heartthrob version of Leonardo DiCaprio, it also replaced swords with guns manufactured under the brand “Sword.” John Leguizamo as Tybalt is a piece of genius casting, not to mention Paul Rudd as the smarmy bachelor Paris. The tragedy of the story — of the couple not just as star-crossed lovers but teenagers acting out — is something Luhrman’s version captures well, and the drugs, firefights, and rave parties are clever takes on the bard’s theatricality. Plus, Romeo and Juliet’s first kiss happens in an elevator. What teen doesn’t understand the art of make-out subterfuge?
2001’s O turned Othello into a smack-talking basketball player with a jealous streak, unfortunately nicknamed OJ. A high school isn’t the most ideal setting for the play’s tangled romance-murder intrigue, and the movie stirred up a fair bit of controversy, particularly in the wake of Columbine. But Josh Hartnett’s turn as Iago on steroids (literally and figuratively) is probably the best thing he’s done in the teen rom-com segment of his career arc. The pervasive air of creepiness and the sense of poorly-wielded power is pretty convincing, too.
An enduring classic of the 1990s teen rom-com canon, 10 Things I Hate About You introduced the world to Julia Stiles, Heath Ledger, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and perhaps pushed a few curious 9th graders (author included) to crack The Taming of the Shrew. It’s hard not to love Stiles’s version of Katharina as an ass-kicking Raincoats-listening Sarah Lawrence-attending high school outsider, and Ledger’s turn as the smooth-talking weirdo Patrick Verona — though considerably less overbearing than the Shakespearean Petruchio — is charming as all hell.
She’s the Man is what you would expect from an Amanda Bynes Shakespeare adaptation — it’s cutesy, overwrought, glib, and sort of confusing — but the idea of Shakespeare’s love quadrangle in Twelfth Night as set in a high school makes a lot of sense. Only in 9th grade (and possibly college) does the web of he-likes-her-but-she-likes-that-dude logic play out quite as magnificently as in that play.
Get Over It‘s cast list reads like an elaborate joke set-up about the ’90s (So Kirsten Dunst and Sisqo walk into a bar…) but it’s a fairly sweet, if predictable, rendition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, complete with Martin Short as a drama coach of the high school play-within-a-play entitled A Midsummer’s Rockin’ Eve.
Though it earns points for originality — motocross is certainly not the first thing that comes to mind if you read Twelfth Night–Motocrossed is less a real adaptation than an assertion that girls can do sports too. There are worse messages, certainly, but the play is far funnier and far less bland than any Disney original movie.