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10 Ingenious Shakespeare Adaptations on Film

The best of this week’s (admittedly lean) DVD releases is Coriolanus, the sleek and muscular Shakespeare adaptation from star and first-time director Ralph Fiennes. He’s been angling to bring the play to the screen for nearly a dozen years now, since he first played it on the London stage, and when the time came to do so, he did what many a filmmaker before him has done to make Shakespeare tenable to today’s audience: he modernized it. But the text is so open, and his staging is so robust, that the interpretation works; it couldn’t feel more timely and appropriate, with (perhaps intentional, perhaps accidental) allusions to the Tea Party, Congressional dysfunction, and the Occupy movement that land without the clumsiness that so often batters political cinema.

In honor of a job well done, we’ve assembled ten other films that altered the Bard’s plots and texts in a similarly entertaining fashion. Check them out after the jump, and add your own in the comments.

Richard III (1995)

Ian McKellan was not yet a star of comic book and Tolkien adaptations when he stated in Richard Loncraine’s 1995 film of Shakespeare’s tragedy, which he’d done at the Royal National Theatre in London. It was the actor’s idea to update the story to 1930s-era Britain, giving the title character a decidedly Third Reich flavor; he did the first draft of the screenplay himself (Loncraine is also credited). The changes are mostly cosmetic, though the altering of the era does present a bit of a challenge when it comes to one of the play’s most famous lines: “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” (McKellan and Loncraine turn it into a plea for a reliable mode of transport after his jeep gets stuck). But for the most part, the twist works, and makes this one of the more intriguing Shakespeare films of recent years.

Ran (1985)

The final epic of the great Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa combined the legend of Japanese lord Mōri Motonari with Shakespeare’s King Lear, though he claimed to have started work on a film explicitly inspired by Motonari before the Lear parallels occurred to him. Both tell the story of an aging patriarch dividing up his kingdom among his three children, though Lear has three daughters, while Ran (like the story of Motonari) concerns a man with three sons. Of Shakespeare, Kurosawa insisted, “I’m not a specialist. I’m just a reader. If you quote me some line, I won’t know it.” But Ran wasn’t his only Shakespeare-inspired film: Throne of Blood was a feudal Japan era take on Macbeth, while The Bad Sleep Well utilized elements of Hamlet.

Scotland, Pa. (2001)

Throne of Blood was far from the sole interpretation of Macbeth, a story of blood, guilt, and power that has proven particularly rich to filmmakers. Roman Polanski amped up the bloodshed for his 1971 version, which seemed directly inspired by the death of his wife Sharon Tate at the hands of the Manson family; British filmmaker Ken Hughes turned it into a noir-soaked crime story for the 1955 film Joe MacBeth; and director William Reilly went the crime route as well, with his 1991 gangster take Men of Respect. But perhaps the oddest (and most entertaining) spin on “the Scottish play” was Billy Morrissete’s 2001 film Scotland, Pa., which relocates the action to a fast-food restaurant in mid-70s Pennsylvania (and the tone from tragic to comic). “Mac” McBeth is an employee passed over for a promotion; Duncan is now “Douglas McKenna,” the manager he kills; Christopher Walken plays McDuff, now a police investigator looking into the murder, and so on. It’s not exactly tight to the text, but it’s a lot of fun.

My Own Private Idaho (1991)

Orson Welles, a lover of the Bard who frequently adapted his works for the screen, labored for years on Chimes at Midnight, a kind of Shakespearean mash-up that focused on the supporting character of Falstaff by excerpting portions of Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2, Richard II, Henry V, and The Merry Wives of Windsor. It was through exposure to that film that Gus Van Sant got the idea of working elements of Shakespeare into My Own Private Idaho, his long-gestating story of two street hustlers — specifically in the Falstaffian character of Bob Pigeon (played by Michael Richert), while Scott (Keanu Reeves) has elements of Prince Hal. But they’re subtly done; Van Sant uses the Shakespearean overtones and themes to augment his story, but they never overpower the low-down narrative.

West Side Story (1961)

The smash Broadway musical by Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, and Arthur Laurents hit the silver screen four years after its Broadway debut, and was centered on one of the most simple and elegant, yet totally effective Shakespeare transpositions to date: updating the “star-crossed lovers” story to modern times by switching it from a family feud to a war between two street gangs. The Romeo this time is Tony (Richard Beymer), founding (but no longer active) member of the Jets; Juliet is Maria (Natalie Wood), younger sister of the leader of the rival Sharks. The writers (and director Robert Wise) up the singing and dancing, of course, but the broad strokes of Shakespeare’s narrative remain — except for the slightly happier ending, which banks one dead lover instead of two. (Spoiler?)

Romeo + Juliet (1997)

Baz Luhrmann’s 1997 modernization of Romeo & Juliet seems as much inspired by West Side Story as Shakespeare; it too takes the central conflict from the castles into the streets. Unlike West Side Story, it preserves the Shakespearean dialogue, with Luhrmann and co-screenwriter Craig Pearce cleverly creating “Sword” brand pistols to make the sword references less awkward, and handing over the prologue (and other expositional pieces) to TV newscasters, a move also well-employed by Fiennes in Coriolanus.

10 Things I Hate About You (1999)

Romeo + Juliet’s unexpected (and presumably Leo-and-Claire-inspired) box office success led to a glut of youth-oriented Shakespeare updates in the following years — some of them, like Luhrmann’s film, retaining the Bard’s words, others merely lifting plots, characters, and themes. One of the most entertaining of the bunch is 10 Things I Hate About You, the high school Taming of the Shrew from prolific TV sitcom director Gil Junger. Katherina, Shakespeare’s “shrew,” has here been transformed into “Padua High” outcast Kat (Julia Stiles), who must date before her sweeter younger sister Bianca (Larisa Oleynik) can do the same. New kid Cameron (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) hires Patrick (Heath Ledger), the film’s Petruchio, to subject himself to dating Kat — who, of course, turns out to be warm and kind. The film is surprisingly smart and fun, thanks in great part to the cast of blossoming stars (these were the breakthrough roles for its leads); Ledger proved himself a capable leading man, while Stiles became the go-to girl for modern Shakespeare, playing Ophelia in the 2000 version of Hamlet (below)…

O (2001)

…and Desdemona (well, “Desi”) in this 2001 Othello adaptation by Tim Blake Nelson, best known for his acting roles in films like O Brother Where Art Thou and The Good Girl, but also quite a fine director (you probably haven’t seen his Eye of God, and you should take care of that). His high-school Othello recasts the titular general as basketball star Odin James (Mekhi Phifer), with his girlfriend Desi (Stiles) the dean’s daughter and Hugo (Josh Hartnett) the Iago figure, jealous son of Odin’s coach. The narrative sounds like a weird fit, but it’s oddly adaptable, and Nelson’s skill with actors and eye for crisp visuals make this a robust and mostly successful twist — though audiences had to wait a while to see it, as original distributors Miramax backed off of its original 1999 release date due to fear of Columbine echoes in the violent climax.

Hamlet (2000)

The ten-year stretch between 1990 and 2000 saw no less than three big-screen, high-profile film versions of Shakespeare’s most immortal play: Franco Zeffirelli’s 1990 Mel Gibson version, Kenneth Branagh’s unabridged 1996 film, and the 2000 version directed by Michael Almereyda. Zeffirelli cut the text greatly, and Branagh updated to the 19th century, but neither filmmaker tinkered with text as much as Almereyda, who set his film in contemporary New York, at “Hotel Elsinore,” the headquarters of the “Denmark Corporation.” The tech-heavy interpretation reimagines Hamlet as a film student, his production of The Mousetrap made into an artsy short film. And in what may be the film’s most clever (and amusing) change-up, the “get the to a nunnery” rant is delivered as a message on Ophelia’s answering machine.

Strange Brew (1983)

But perhaps the least likely Shakespeare adaptation on our list is this early-’80s big-screen debut of SCTV’s popular McKenzie brothers, which moves Hamlet into an even less likely location: the Elsinore brewery, where the decidedly Rosencrantz and Guildensternesque Bob (Rick Moranis) and Doug (Dave Thomas) find themselves in the midst of a grab for power by evil Brewmeister Smith (Max von Sydow). There are numerous echoes of Hamlet (there’s the Claudius character of “Uncle Claude,” for example), but by the time the consumption of tainted beer at Oktoberfest is prevented by Hosehead the flying dog, Thomas and Moranis (who also co-wrote and directed) have moved far, far away from Shakespeare.

Those are a few of our favorite Shakespeare re-imaginings; what are yours?

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