William Shakespeare, now there was a guy who could put pen to paper. So powerful was his Romeo and Juliet that the heartbroken of today still write to Juliet in her home town of Verona, spilling their (real, living) souls out to that most famous of all (fictional, dead) lovers. That could be sad if you're, like, a balding, 53-year-old male composing a missive in your mother's basement while cuddling your 1/4-scale, highly detailed model of Catwoman. However, if you happen to be played by Vanessa Redgrave and your letter is retrieved by Amanda Seyfried, who then takes it upon herself to help you reconnect with your lost love, well, friend, such is the stuff of true romance — and Letters to Juliet.
Hollywood just loves messing around with Shakespeare, sometimes to such extremes that even learned scholars (and, trust us, we're not lumping ourselves in with that group) can barely recognize the source material. Ready to see how 400-year-old texts can be goosed to meet the entertainment needs of a contemporary audience? Check out our list.
10. Ran (King Lear)
As epic as Shakespeare's plays could be — and we personally haven't done a tally of how many kingdoms rise and fall in his pages — there's only so much scope that a theater stage can capture. It takes a cinematic master such as Akira Kurosawa
to take the tale of a prideful king (Tatsuya Nakadai
) betrayed by his children and the war that springs from such duplicity, and give it a grandeur that mere sound effects from the wings could never replicate. Porting the whole story over to medieval Japan only helps emphasize the atmosphere of despoiled honor, and adds an intriguing glimpse into a time when warfare was transitioning from the kitana
to the awful might of firearms.
9. 10 Things I Hate About You (The Taming of the Shrew)
Two guys, competing for the same woman, have to first find a suitor strong-willed enough to mollify and court her tempestuous sister. Yeah, you can see where that could fit into the sexual politics of a teen comedy. That's how Shakespeare's original scenario finds itself plunked down in the middle of the fictional Padua High School, with Julia Stiles
playing the obstreperous Kat, and Heath Ledger
becoming her scruffy wrangler, Patrick Verona (apparently picking up the torch from Olivia Newton-John
as the only Australian transfer student in America). The producers soon enough flinch in their telling — their "shrew" turns out to be too admirable for anyone to root for her taming, and Pat is too much the fully actualized, 21st-century male to bring the hammer down too hard on her (thus conveniently sidestepping those parts of the play that are most controversial for modern audiences). However, we do get Joseph Gordon-Levitt
as one of the guys competing for the nicer sister's hand, and we're sure Shakespeare would've set his finale at the school prom if only they were around in his time. No, really, we're positive about that.
8. A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy (A Midsummer's Night Dream)
Turns out Woody Allen
is no more faithful to his source material than were the makers of 10 Things I Hate About You
. Less, as a matter of fact — there's really no resemblance to the original play in Allen's plotline of three, early 20th-century couples — one married (Allen and Mary Steenburgen
); one soon-to-be married (José Ferrer
and Mia Farrow
); one just foolin' around (Tony Roberts
and Julie Hagerty
) — who gather at a country house and begin manifesting a profound confusion about their passions. Yet there's something in the pastoral setting and the suggestion of intangible forces at work that replicate, at least in feel, the story of lovers set loose in an enchanted forest, subject to the machinations of the ethereal beings who live there. Meanwhile, Woody sees fit to add his own fanciful touches to the scenario — you will
believe a Jew on a human-powered helicopter can fly.
7. O (Othello)
There are two ways you can go when adapting Shakespeare's tragedy of the Moorish general driven by jealousy to murder. One is to sidestep racial controversy through metaphor — making your Othello an alien, say, or the only Connecticut WASP in the cast of The Jersey Shore
. The other is to do what the producers of O
have done: Play the race card to the full. Unlike those behind 10 Things I Hate About You
, director Tim Blake Nelson
keeps his tongue firmly out of his cheek, and turns the play into a drama about Odin James (Mekhi Phifer
), the only black basketball player at an all-white prep school, in love with the beautiful Desi (Julia Stiles
) and primed for a downfall by the resentful Hugo (Josh Hartnett
). The pointed observations about the whole ballers-gone-bad thing may rile some audience members, but it also allows the tale to stay true, in spirit, to the original.
6. Scotland, Pa. (Macbeth)
Your kingdom is where you see it, whether it be the entire expanse of Scotland, or the Formica paradise of a wannabe fast-food empire. That being the case, when the trashiest of white-trash couples (James Le Gros
and Maura Tierney
) set their sights on the budding burger realm of Norm Duncan (James Rebhorn
), could palace intrigue, betrayal, and murder amidst the fryolators seem any more improbable than within a castle's corridors? We'll admit that Chris Walken
is a rather idiosyncratic Macduff (here re-imagined as a homicide detective), but when you're starting with so unorthodox a setting, could things really get any more extreme?
5. Forbidden Planet (The Tempest)
Well, yeah, if you take your Shakespeare and move it completely off the planet. That was the root idea of this sci-fi classic, wherein a starship crew (led by a pre-irony Leslie Nielsen
) visits a far-flung planet, only to discover an Earth scientist proclaiming himself sole proprietor of the secrets behind a lost, alien civilization. You have to wonder how many audience members in the '50s picked up on the fact that the planet Altair IV started out as The Tempest
's deserted island; that the megalomaniacal Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon
) was once marooned wizard Prospero; that Morbius' sheltered daughter Altaira (Anne Francis
) had been Prospero's Miranda; or that Robby, that Swiss army knife of robots, was, on-stage, the spirit Ariel. Then again, with all those ray guns getting waved around, who was paying attention long enough to catch the literary allusions?
4. West Side Story (Romeo and Juliet)
Well, if you're a doomed lover, you could do worse than having lyricist Stephen Sondheim
and composer Leonard Bernstein
orchestrating your anguish. It's kind of amazing how the tale of two Verona teens who find themselves pawns in a family feud can be refashioned, almost point-by-point, into a groundbreaking musical about a New York gang war. Granted, Richard Beymer
and Natalie Wood
aren't quite teens, and the balletic Jets and Sharks probably wouldn't last three seconds pitted against present-day Crips or Bloods. Nevertheless, how many tragedies do you know that can at once be both so enthralling and so heartbreaking? (And, for your information, we'd lay even money on Rita Moreno
against the Crips, the Bloods, and the whole of the New York City police force. Any day.)
3. My Own Private Idaho (Henry IV, Parts I and II; Henry V)
Somehow, Gus van Sant
took a look at a trio of Shakespeare's historical dramas and imagined their Prince Hal/Henry V as a gay prostitute working the streets of the American northwest. As portrayed by Keanu Reeves
, this hustler is actually the son of the mayor of Portland, standing to net a sizable inheritance upon his twenty-first birthday and hoping to then leave behind his wayward life, his narcoleptic co-worker (River Phoenix
), and his surrogate father/Falstaff facsimile Bob (William Richert
). That plotline does parallel the Henry story arc ... sort of. We're damned if we know how sex-for-hire enters into it.
2. The Lion King (Hamlet)
How does Disney transform Shakespeare's supreme tragedy into a hit entertainment, fit for the whole family? By pretty much turning everything on its head. Instead of impending war, we get the Circle of Life; instead of doomed Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, we get a happy-go-lucky meerkat (Nathan Lane
) and his warthog sidekick (Ernie Sabella
); instead of to be or not to be
, there's hakuna matata
; and, most significantly, instead of a young prince who can't quite bring himself to avenge his father's death, we have an adorable lion cub (Jonathan Taylor Thomas
) who grows into his nobility despite the machinations of his wicked uncle (Jeremy Irons
). We'd be offended at so reckless an inversion, if only we weren't so charmed. Hey, hakuna matata, y'know?
1. Throne of Blood (Macbeth)
Yes, Macbeth, again. Yes, Kurosawa, again. We typically try to avoid redundancy, but in this case, there's simply no choice. The fabled filmmaker brings such primal energy to this tale of murder and ambition — once again transitioned over to feudal Japan, with the insurmountable Toshiro Mifune
as a samurai seeking to become shogun at any cost — that the re-imagining can purge your memory of any and all musty festival performances you may have suffered through. Kurosawa not only finds new morals to the story — i.e., if your troops are going to start fearing that you've become an active threat to their lives, make sure it happens when they aren't heavily armed — his vivid and vigorous reshaping of the tale is rousing proof of one thing that should always have been obvious: That the works of Shakespeare are not rooted to the place and time of their creation, but belong, in perpetuity, to the world.