Every creator, if they haven’t directly adapted Shakespeare, has been inspired by the Bard’s work in some way. You’ve probably quoted his work and not even known it, that’s how deeply his writings have become engrained in the public conscious. On-screen adaptations of his work have proven popular since the creation of film, with some faring better than others. The beauty of Shakespeare’s work to a creative mind, beyond it being in the public domain so no money has to be paid for the rights, is that the basic structure and tropes of each play are so solidly built that you can do almost anything with them. Granted, it doesn’t always work, but sometimes the results are damn near perfect.
1. Ten Things I Hate About You. The Taming of the Shrew is embarrassingly misogynist. Even by the standards of Shakespeare’s time, it was pretty sexist. It’s hard to believe that anyone would write something about a man essentially gaslighting and emotionally torturing a woman into pliant submission and bill it as a play (actually, not that surprising sadly). It’s not a concept that lends itself well to contemporary tastes, and just as well. So how do you tackle something that problematic? You just ignore it! Ten Things I Hate About You, one of the best teen comedies of the 90s, keeps its “heinous bitch” protagonist Kat(e), but romantic interest (for the sake of a deal) Patrick Verona does not seek to tame her. Together, they snark at the world and each other to a Save Ferris and Letters To Cleo soundtrack (it was the 90s) and being a manipulative abuser is seen as a bad thing! Why mentally beat a woman into loving you when you can serenade her with the full school marching band? Oh Heath Ledger, we miss you so.
2. My Own Private Idaho. The history plays don’t tend to be favoured as much by studios (except for Henry V, which is so iconic that generals use its speeches to inspire soldiers in war). Gus Van Sant’s 1991 tale of street hustlers and love didn’t start off as an adaptation of Henry IV Part 1, but he decided to add it to his script after watching Orson Welles’s Chimes At Midnight. As you do. It’s a strange film, one of Van Sant’s more experimental (not quite Gerry but not Good Will Hunting either), but the subplot with Keanu Reeves’s Hal stand-in, a rich kid wasting time as a hustler, and the Falstaff to the street kids is oddly moving. It’s worth watching if only for River Phoenix’s performance to see proof that Keanu Reeves can act.
3. Forbidden Planet. “Anne Francis stars in Forbidden Planet…” One of the most iconic science-fiction movies of its era, complete with flying saucers and big helpful robots, borrows heavily from Shakespeare’s last play, The Tempest. With the action transplanted from a magical desert island to the far reaches of space in the 23rd century, with Prospero stand-in Dr Morbius and Robby the Robot out to look for the stranded spacemen. The Miranda subplot is basically transplanted directly into the film, with Francis’s Alta coming of age as she discovers men who aren’t her dad. It holds up to the passing of time and changing tastes of film-goers. Besides, who doesn’t like the basic concept of Shakespeare in space?
4. West Side Story. Considered one of the greatest musicals of all time, Laurents, Bernstein and Sondheim’s toe tapping tale of rival gangs and the love that blossoms amidst the feud wears its Romeo and Juliet inspirations of its sleeve. While the origin of the battles between the Capulets and the Veronas is never explained, the Jets and the Sharks’s racial conflict fits in well with its urban setting and feels all too relevant, even decades later. The music’s flawless, the dancing’s awe inspiring and the romance is the right side of cheesy. The film adaptation is a touch overlong and has become creaky with age (it’s hard not to when your Latino actors are all white people in make-up) but it stands as a monument in the musical genre, capturing the youthful vivacity of the play. Bring on the rumoured remake with actual Latino actors!
5. Othello: The Remix. There’s a scene in Ten Things I Hate About You where Kat’s disgruntled English teacher, after setting his class an assignment of writing a Shakespearean style sonnet, raps one to brilliant effect. The Bard’s language and metre lends itself well to a more rhythmical telling, so it was only a matter of time before the plays received a hip-hop remix. The Q Brothers have taken their Shakespeare adaptations (including the fantastically titled Funk It Up About Nothin’ and The Bomb-itty Of Errors) to numerous theatres and festivals to much acclaim. I worked at a venue they were performing at during the Edinburgh Festival in 2012 and they would rap in the main square to promote their show. They were fab.
6. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead: Tom Stoppard is bloody good. Doing something new with a text that’s hundreds of years old while still retaining its essence is no mean feat, and one of Britain’s greats pulled it off with aplomb in 1966. The eponymous university friends of the tortured Danish prince Hamlet don’t really get involved with much of the play’s on-stage action, so Stoppard imagines the entire story from their point-of-view. Their confusion over their place in the unfolding events and the world at large is equal parts profound and hilarious. The film, directed by Stoppard himself, suffers from being too stagey, with some of the performances reflecting that, but the central duo are perfectly played by Tim Roth and Gary Oldman.