Shakespeare’s Legacy: 7 Modern Adaptations every Fan of The Bard needs to see

Long live The Bard: if you’re a fan of the great playwright, make sure you’ve seen these 7 modern adaptations of his works…

It’s been 400 years since the man, the myth, the mystery William Shakespeare passed away. Yet his works continue to influence writers and directors all over the world, calling into existence countless adaptations and retellings of his great tragedies and comedies alike. Here are 7 modern adaptations that prove the English playwright’s tales were timeless…

1. O (2001)

Directed by Tim Blake Nelson; running-time 1h 35mins.; starring Josh Hartnett (Pearl Harbour), Mekhi Phifer (8 Mile, ER), Martin Sheen (The West Wing), Julia Stiles (Hamlet, 10 Things I hate about you), Andrew Keegan (10 Things I hate about you).

Adapted from: Othello

What’s it about? An over-privileged white boy (Hartnett) becomes mentally unhinged over jealousy of his prep school’s basketball star and only black student Odin (Phifer). So he starts to scheme against Odin by planting the idea in his head that his girlfriend’ Desi (Stiles) is unfaithful. Things escalate quickly from there.

What works about this adaptation? What Tim Blake Nelsopn has managed to achieve with this modern re-telling is to pay homage to one of Shakespeare’s “great tragedies”and simultaneously create a compelling story about jealousy, betrayal, and scheming that feels original. Substituting Othello’s merits as a soldier with Odin’s accomplishments on the basketball court actually works really well considering the prestige that varsity players enjoy in the United States. Moreover, Josh Hartnett does a spectacular job of portraying Hugo as a young man who is torn between his longing for genuine human connection and affection and the raging jealousy he feels for his peer. In focusing on Hugo, Nelson forces the audience to sink deeper and deeper into his dark and twisted mind, which does not take away from the shock you feel over the resolution of the conflict.

2. William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (1996)

Directed by Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge, The Great Gatsby); running-time 2hrs; starring Leonardo DiCaprio (Titanic, Inception), Claire Danes (Homeland), Paul Rudd (Ant-Man).

What’s it about? A young italian guy (DiCaprio) who likes to chase tail is faced with a dilemma when his latest fling (Danes) turns out to be the daughter of his father’s arch-nemesis, which obviously only makes him want her more.

What works about this adaptation? Look, if you thought the movie was all too ridiculous to be enjoyable, remember that the original play is essentially a satire of romance altogether. I mean, the whole thing is a classic comedy up until everything goes to hell in Act III. If nothing else, Baz Luhrmann’s take on Shakespeare’s most famous play is tremendously refreshing and clever in its effort to translate the plot to the 20th century while retaining its original dialogue. The hip hop aesthetic makes sense if you consider the similarities between rap and the rhythm of Shakespeare’s rhyme. More importantly, the Elizabethan stage was to the 16th century what tv was to the 20th – highlighted elegantly by framing the Prologue as a news broadcast. Furthermore, Shakespeare and his contemporaries basically started the first wave of pop-culture, so the incorporation of 90s pop-culture elements such as hip hop and pop music, seems fitting. Plus, I find that Romeo’s lovecraze in the source text lends itself to Luhrmann’s frantic style and the ecstasy escapades we see Romeo embark on. I could go on. I just really like this movie, okay?

3. Hamlet – The Denmark Corporation (2000)

Directed by Michael Almereyda; running-time 1h 52mins.; starring Ethan Hawke (Training Day, Before Sunrise), Julia Stiles, Kyle McLachlan (Sex and the City), Bill Murray (Lost in Translation), Liev Schreiber (Spotlight), Casey Affleck (Gone Baby Gone).

What’s it about? A narcissistic emo tween (Hawke) is visited by his father’s ghost who demands that he avenge him. First Hamlet must make sure that his uncle (McLachlan) really did kill his father, but don’t worry he’s still got plenty of time to be a dick to his girlfriend (Stiles) and get a bunch of people killed – see if he cares.

What works about this adaptation? Like Luhrmann in Romeo + Juliet, Almereyda has the actors recite the original lines, but transports the plot into 20th century Manhattan. I actually wrote my Bachelor thesis on this film and found that Manhattan is actually the perfect setting for a story about a character who is so lost and disconnected from his surroundings, he has no idea who is as a man. 

Obviously the guy is severely depressed. You don’t wander through a blockbuster video store (ah, remember video stores!?) contemplating in soliloquy whether or not you should off your uncle unless you have serious mental problems. Heed the onset of millenial obsession with technology: part of the reason Hamlet is so isolated from everyone else is that everybody uses technology to communicate instead of interacting face-to-face.

4. Get over it (2001)

Directed by Tommy o’Haver; running-time 1h 27mins.; starring Kirsten Dunst (Bring it on, Elizabethtown), Shane West (A Walk to Remember), Mila Kunis (Friends with Benefits), Colin Hanks (Orange County), Zoe Saldana (Guardian of the Galaxy), Martin Short (Mars Attacks), as well as 90s rappers Sisqó and Coolio!?!

Adapted from: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

What’s it about? When a popular high school basketball star gets dumped by his girlfriend, he enlists his best friend’s sister’s (Dunst) help to audition for the school’s spring musical to get her back.

What works about this adaptation? The entire musical, which takes on the role of the play within a play, and most of all Colin Hanks’ character’s reaction to whatever is happening on stage. Also, Martin Short cracks me up as the uber-ambitious music teacher who throws so much shade at his students, the auditorium might as well be a dark room.

5. As You Like It (2006)

Directed by Kenneth Branagh; running-time 2h 7mins.; starring Romola Garai (Dirty Dancing Havana Nights), Bryce Dallas Howard (The Help, Jurassic World), David Oyelowo (Selma), Adrian Lester (Red Band Society), Kevin Kline (Wild Wild West), Alfred Molina.

What’s it about? An exiled Duke’s daughter (Howard) is banished from her uncle’s court and forced to seek refuge in the forest of Arden along with her cousin (Garai). In order to protect themselves, both women disguise themselves as (male) shepherds which makes things confusing when they encounter brothers Orlando (Oyelowo) and Oliver (Lester) and sparks begin to fly.

What works about this adaptation? We discussed this film in my Shakespeare & Film class, yet to this day, I wonder why Branagh decided to move the play’s setting from medieval France to a late 19th century European colony in Japan. At any rate, it distinguishes the film from more generic adaptations. And I appreciate the aesthetic in the opening scene, lots of kimonos and paper fans. In addition, Romola Garai is adorable as Celia.

I remember vividly that at some point the discussion of Branagh’s film turned into a heated argument because Branagh cast a pair of black actors to play the brothers Orlando and Oliver. Some of my classmates believed that this was a conscious decision on the director’s part, either simply to add some diversity, or perhaps even carry meaning. However, both theories were dispelled by somebody who had read that Branagh had seen one of them – I believe it was Lester – in a theatre production and wanted to cast him purely based on the quality of his performance, then decided to cast another black actor to play his brother (although he had Denzel Washington and Keanu Reeves playing brothers in an earlier Shakespeare film, Much Ado About Nothing, so who knows if there is truth to that assumption). Whatever you believe to be true, the fact is that their race is never adressed in the film, which sticks to the original lines of the play, so frankly, it shouldn’t matter what colour their skin is. I mean, it’s Shakespeare: there’s magic and cross-dressing and all kinds of fantastic creatures, surely two black actors playing parts that have traditionally been cast with white men (which is the real issue) is not the thing that takes away from the story’s credibility.

6. 10 Things I hate about you (1999)

Directed by Gil Junger ; running-time 1h 37mins.; starring Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight), Julia Stiles (it’s not a real Shakespeare adaptation unless you cast her), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Inception), Larisa Oleynik (The Secret World of Alex Mack), Allison Janney (The West Wing).

Adapted from: The Taming of the Shrew

What’s it about? In order to take his ultimate crush Bianca on a date, Cameron (Gordon-Levitt) hires bad boy Patrick (Ledger) to take out her bitchy older sister (Stiles), because of a rule their father has set.

What works about this adaptation? When I asked some of my former classmates what their favourite Shakespeare adaptation was, 10 Things I hate about you was the answer most frequently given. Frankly, I did not remember this movie being any good. But then I re-watched it on Netflix and I have reconsidered since. For starters, it takes what I personally find to be one of Shakespeare’s worst plays and turns it into a high school RomCom – that takes a lot of guts. Not to mention that they cast it with talented young actors who, as a result of starring in this hit movie, were inducted into the late 90s/early 2000 it-crowd, most notably Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Julia Stiles, and  the since deceased Heath Ledger.

Moreover, the film is dripping with Shakespeare references, for instance, Bianca and Kat’s surname is Stratford, as in the birthplace of the Bard himself, while Patrick’s is Verona, as in the italian town where Shakespeare’s most famous play “Romeo and Juliet” is set. Then there’s direct quotes from his works such as Cameron’s “I burn, I pine, I perish”(Taming of the shrew) and Michael’s “Sweet love renew thy force” (Sonnet 56). And last but not least, the students are given an assignment to re-write a Shakesperean sonnet which leads to this wonderful moment:

 7. A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1999)

Directed by Michael Hoffman; running-time 1h 55mins.; starring Michelle Pfeifer (Dangerous Minds), Kevin Kline, Calista Flockhart (Ally McBeal), Anna Friel (Pushing Daisies), Stanley Tucci (The Devil wears Prada), Rupert Everett, Christian Bale (The Dark Knight), Dominic West (The Affair).

What’s it about? You know all those love triangles and rectangles you see on tv these days? This is the play that started them all: Hermia and Lysander are head over heels for each other, but her father chooses Demetrius, who also has a thing for her, as his son-in-law. If only Demetrius would reciprocate Hermia’s friend Helena’s feelings instead everybody could live happily ever after…

What works about this adaptation? Another adaptation that retains Shakespeare’s original verse. Hoffman’s is a modern take, but not modern-day. For some bizarre reason, the film is set in Italy in what appears to be the late 19th century, even though the play takes place in ancient Athens. I wrote a term paper on this film (I may have overdosed on Shakespeare during my studies), yet I was never able to fully pinpoint the significance of the bicycle that Helena is riding throughout the story. Something to do with progress and freedom and women’s liberation probably. But it’s little knacks like that, or the grammophone that Titania’s got set up in her fairy lair, that give Hoffman’s film its je-ne-sais-quoi. Plus, I enjoyed the chemistry between the core four characters, particularly in the mud wrestling scene. Yes, that really happened.

Honourable mentions:

She’s the Man (2006)

Directed by Andy Fickman; running-time 1h 45mins.; starring Amanda Bynes (What a girl wants), Channing Tatum (21 Jump Street).

Adapted from: Twelfth Night

What’s it about? When her twin brother decides to ditch school for a couple weeks, Viola (Bynes) takes his place on the football team disguised as him – and falls for her roommate Duke (Tatum).

Love’s Labour’s Lost (2000)

Directed by Kenneth Branagh; running-time 1h 33mins.; starring Alicia Silverstone (Clueless), Emily Mortimer (The Newsroom), Adrian Lester (As you like it), Kenneth Branagh (Much ado about nothing), Matthew Lillard (She’s all that).

What’s it about? The King of Navarre and his three companions swear a very public oath to renounce women for three years (sounds a lot like That Awkward Moment doesn’t it?) Their honour is immediately put to the test by the arrival of the Princess of France and her three lovely companions. It’s love at first sight for all concerned followed by the men’s highly entertaining but hopeless efforts to disguise their feelings. Oh, and it’s adapted in the style of a 1930s musical.

For classic adaptations see:

Much ado about nothing (1993): Directed by Kenneth Branagh; starring Kate Beckinsale, Denzel Washington, Emma Thompson, Kenneth Branagh, Keanu Reeves.

The Merchant of Venice (2004): Directed by Michael Radford; starring Al Pacino (The Godfather), Joseph Fiennes (Shakespeare in Love), Jeremy Irons (The Man in the iron mask), Charlie Cox (Daredevil).

The Tempest (2010): Directed by Julie Taymor; starring Helen Mirren (The Queen), Felicity Jones (Like Crazy), Ben Whishaw (Skyfall).

Other movies relating to Shakespeare:

Shakespeare in Love (1998): Directed by John Madden; starring Joseph Fiennes, Gwyneth Paltrow (Country Strong), Ben Affleck (Argo), Judi Dench, Geoffrey Rush.

Stage Beauty (2004): Directed by Richard Eyre; starring Claire Danes (Homeland), Billy Crudup (Almost Famous), Rupert Everett, Hugh Bonneville (Downton Abbey).

Anonymous (2011): Directed by Roland Emmerich; starring Jamie Campbell Bower (Camelot, The City of Bones), Vanessa Redgrave, Rhys Ifans (Notting Hill, The Boat that rocked), Rafe Spall (One Day, What if).


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