Genre-jumping fanboy favorite Joss Whedon’s latest film project is a bit of a departure for him, a sexy and stylized modern day black and white arty rom com adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.” Although this brings together a handful of actors familiar to Whedon fans (Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Nathan Fillion), it is definitely a U-turn from “The Avengers.” He has already been getting praise from audiences and positive reviews from the movie’s UK and film festival runs, and will open to American audiences this summer.
Shakespeare’s style will take center stage with another fan favorite this summer, the Star Wars universe. Debut author Ian Doescher offers the officially licensed retelling of George Lucas’s Star Wars in the style of Shakespeare’s colorful iambic pentameter from Quirk Books, “William Shakespeare’s Star Wars: Verily A New Hope.” This will be set, of course, in a galaxy far, far away, or as Shakespeare would say: “In a time so long ago begins our play, in star-crossed galaxy far, far away.”
Taking the Shakespeare out of the 1500s isn’t a new concept, but is still the best way to introduce Bard-newbies to Shakespeare’s work without giggling at cod-pieces and Elizabethan collars (The Queen does not like the Cone of Shame).
When I was in high school my drama teacher encouraged us all to see one of the area university’s modern-day interpretation of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” for extra credit, but many of us slackers didn’t take her up on the offer, because we “wouldn’t understand the language.” To this, she replied with much grace and sympathy “They’re speaking goddamned English, you morons.”
And she was right, the language in Shakespeare wasn’t what “they” were speaking back in Elizabethan time, it was Shakespeare’s living poetry being put in motion through the art of drama. There are no better way to illustrate this than through staging these stories in different eras, including present time. After all, there is nothing in these stories of betrayal, love/lust, war, corruption, friendship and fantasy that says “and this all happened 500 years ago.”
Here are my top ten picks in no particular order for best examples based either directly or loosely on The Bard’s work in non-traditional settings. Keep in mind most of these aren’t family picks, as Shakespeare was no stranger to sex and severed body parts.
Ran. Akira Kurosawa’s Oscar-winning 1985 tribute to “King Lear” that swaps the daughters for sons. The film proves you should never try to “evenly divide your kingdom” among your living heirs while hoping to continue to be a much-respected on-site emperor emeritus and expect them to be nicey-nicey about it. What you get is corruption, greed, revenge and…if Kurosawa has a say in it…epic sword battling. This bloody masterpiece continues to prove everything is better with Samurai armor.
Another interesting “King Lear” take is the 2002 made-for-television movie “King of Texas” starring Patrick Stewart in the lead role as a wealthy landowner, placing the King Lear story on a Texas range. This one had a pretty good cast, but I’ll admit a circa-1870s rancher spouting Shakespeare’s lines with a Texas accent was a tough stretch for even a great actor like Stewart.
Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo+Juliet. I know this one got a lot of flack, but I liked the idea of the Verona Beach gang-war setting. Sure, it had a few seizure-inducing dance video edits, and I was still trying to get over the fact that Leonardo DiCaprio wasn’t actually mentally-disabled, but it was high-speed, fun and a beautiful work of on-screen art from Lurhmann before he shot himself in the cinematic foot by releasing that “thing” called Australia and making a movie based on a classic F. Scott Fitzgerald movie…he keeps forgetting to actually release. Best characterization for me was Pete Postlethwaite’s Father Laurence, a streetwise version of Friar Laurence. If you’re crazy about the gangsta’ Romeo and Juliet edge, remember “West Side Story,” with its snapping, slouching Sharks and Jets, was also inspired this play.
Richard III. Love Sir Ian McKellen as Gandalf in the “Lord of the Rings” series, or think he’s awesome as Magneto in the X-Men trilogy, here’s a chance to really, really hate him in the title role of this 1995 film set in an alternate World War II-era world with a Richard III portrayed as a Hitler-esque führer of a tyrant? This one is the “Inglorious Basterds” of the Shakespeare adaptations, with top shelf and and a few knee bending bursts of Tarantino-like violence. Wait ‘til you see the slightly inconvenient time Lord Rivers (Robert Downey Jr.) gets offed.
O and 10 Things I Hate About You. Not to be confused with the “The Story of O” (slightly different story, there), O is a teen-age modern look at Othello. Mekhi Phifer (Torchwood, ER) plays Odin James a race-barrier breaking basketball player who’s teammate, Hugo (Josh Hartnett in his snot-boxy best) feels betrayed by the glory the coach (Martin Sheen) gives Odin. Julie Stiles plays the Desdemona love interest for Odin, “Desi.”
It may seem like a long-shot placing the epic of the Moor of Venice in a school environment, but the 1999 teen movie “10 Things I Hate About You” based on “Taming of the Shrew” did it first. Another thing this movie has in common with “O” is it scraps Shakespeare’s dialogue altogether and just sticks with the story. Most notably, “10 Things” helped launch a few “up and comer” careers including Julia Stiles, who went on to do more updated Shakespeare (see “O”), the late Heath Ledger who would go on to do the best Tom Waits-inspired Joker portrayal ever, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who recently signed a contract to be in every motion picture made in 2013.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This is always one of the most fun Shakespeare stories to see played in any form, but placing it in the turn-of-the-century rife with Gibson Girl charm, as did this 1999 version, was almost a little to cute. That is, until I took a recent second look at some of the casting. In addition to Stanley Tucci as Puck, Kevin Kline as the actor-turned-ass-turned-actor Nick Bottom and Rupert Everett as fairy king Oberon, it had some new promising actors such as Christian Bale as Demetrius, Dominic West as Lysander and a drag-wearing Sam Rockwell as Francis Flute.
Coriolanus. I might be one of the only people I know who liked this present-day version of Shakespeare’s Roman war story starring Gerald Butler and Ralph Fiennes (as the tragic title role). Actually, I might be one of the only people I know who has actually seen it. Released in 2011, I don’t remember this even making it past limited release, but it has all the gritty elements of an explosion/blood/automatic weapon-filled fist-pumping action film, but they are much more well-spoken.
Titus. Julie Taymor’s horrifying, twisted and surreal gore fest is a modern day version of “Titus Andronicus” starring Anthony Hopkins as the war hero. This one can get graphic to the point of grindhouse at times, but manages to maintain an imaginative, artistic flow that makes Taymor’s movies so unique. For a less-graphic look at Taymor’s style in a Shakespeare, try her 2010 version of “The Tempest.” This one was met with pretty “meh” reviews, but Helen Mirren’s performance as Prospera (a traditionally male role, Prospero) is worth the watch.
Hamlet. There have been tons of recent movie versions based on one of Shakespeare’s most quoted plays, but Ethan Hawke’s 2000 big city version of a young “prince of industry” is the most intense and flashy. This one seems to be a “love it or hate it” version for most people, but I thought it did a good job of turning Denmark the country into Denmark the mega-corporation. Julia Stiles pops up — again — in this one as Ophelia, as well as Diane Venora (who actually played the role of Hamlet on stage years ago) as Gertrude. My personal Hamlet litmus test is the handling of the “To Be or Not to Be” soliloquy, and I liked the way it was handled with Hamlet wandering the video store and taking the speech from inner monologue to talking out loud to himself. There are a few key lines left out of the play that will drive you crazy, if you are waiting for them.
Disney’s The Lion King and Gnomeo and Juliet. Depending on which direction you want to go, both these animated features pay homage to Shakespeare’s storytelling in their own ways. The Lion King, although not directly based on any one Shakespeare play, writers have claimed influence from the great tragedies like Macbeth and Hamlet along with other classic literature and even some Bible stories. “Gnomeo and Juliet” is a lighter lawn ornament version of Romeo and Juliet, of course, but is filled with some ironic voice casting choices (including Patrick Stewart as the memorialized “Bill” Shakespeare) and tons of Shakespeare reference Easter eggs.
Also recommended is BBC’s “ShakespeaRe-Told” series of present-day retellings of three Shakespeare comedies, “Much Ado About Nothing,” “The Taming of The Shrew” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” plus the tragedy “Macbeth,” each adapted for television by a different writer. There is a surprisingly good list of acting talent in each of these including James McAvory, Richard Armitage, Imelda Staunton and Rufus Sewell.
Don’t forget there are plenty more adaptation out there, including many in the “traditional setting” worth watching. I hesitate to throw out the cliché “there’s something for everyone,” in this list, but here it is. If you can’t find something you like from Shakespeare, here’s a parting comment from William himself:
“Love me or hate me, both are in my favor…If you love me, I’ll always be in your heart…If you hate me, I’ll always be in your mind.”