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No one ever accused William Shakespeare of being a loafer. During his lifetime, he wrote at least 37 plays, plus sonnets and poems. But the guy died in 1616, centuries before the first movie camera ever whirred, so how come he has 850 credits as a writer listed under his name on IMDB.com, the International Movie Data Base?
Easy. The Bard of Avon is the most amenable of authors – he’s not here to quibble with directors and producers – and all of his work is out of copyright so movie companies don’t have to pay royalties.
Ever since movies began, there have been adaptations of Shakespeare’s work. Some have been slavishly faithful, some not so much. (Guffaws greeted the title card, “By William Shakespeare, Additional dialogue by Sam Taylor,” in the 1929, early talkie version of The Taming of the Shrew, which starred the then real life married couple Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks.)
More recently, Hollywood discovered that, even though high schoolers may disdain having to read Shakespeare in English class, if the stars saying his words (or some approximation thereof) on screen are sexy and hot enough, kids will turn out in droves.
This is a lesson first learned back in 1968, in the midst of the youth quake, when director Franco Zeffirelli’s Oscar-nominated version of Romeo and Juliet proved a box office smash with 15-year-old Olivia Hussey and 17-year-old Leonard Whiting in the title roles as the star-crossed teenage lovers. That Whiting bared his backside as Romeo during a love scene didn’t hurt.
Here are five other more recent, youthful adaptations of Shakespeare plays that are worth checking out:
• Hamlet (2000): Forget Mel Gibson and Kenneth Branagh’s brooding Danes and instead give a look-see to Ethan Hawke’s. This clever and effective modern day adaptation of Shakespeare’s greatest play relocates the tragedy from Elsinore Castle in Denmark to modern day Manhattan. Court intrigue becomes corporate intrigue. Hamlet is now the son of a murdered CEO and eager for revenge, pondering “To be or not to be” while deciding whether to rent an action film or a comedy in a video store. Best of all is Bill Murray’s hilarious and poignant turn as Polonius, and Julia Stiles, as Ophelia, mourns his death in New York’s Guggenheim Museum.
• Ten Things I Hate About You (1999): Standing in for Katherine and Petruchio, Julia Stiles (a year before the above-mentioned Hamlet) and Heath Ledger play high school students who initially bicker and battle, even as he tries to woo her, in this loose adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew. She’s Kat Stratford (get it, for Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s birthplace) and he’s Patrick Verona (in the play, Petruchio hails from Verona). The highlight: Ledger warbling “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” to Stiles in a football stadium.
• O (2001): Julia Stiles took yet another run at the Bard in this updated adaptation of Othello, which plunked down the play in a contemporary prep school. Stiles portrays the girlfriend of the Odin James (Mekhi Phifer), the school’s star basketball player. A jealous teammate (Josh Hartnett) plots to make Odin believe that his sweetie is cheating on him. Tragedy ensues. This one makes Shakespeare a slam dunk.
• Romeo + Juliet (1996): Already a teenybopper heartthrob but still a year away from going glub-glub-glub in Titanic, Leonardo DiCaprio made goo-goo eyes at Claire Danes in director Baz Luhrmann’s woozy adaptation of the beloved tragedy. Set on the mean streets of a fantasy version of contemporary Verona by way of Miami Vice, the dialogue was at least faithful to Shakespeare. This was a worthy effort, but I wouldn’t want it to be the first, or the only, version of Romeo and Juliet that someone saw.
• Gnomeo & Juliet (2011): Shakespeare gets animated! In this cartoon version of the Bard’s romantic tale, gnomes in the neighboring gardens of Montague and Capulet (get it?) fall in love. This may be the only version of the play you’ll ever see that has – spoiler ahead – a happy ending and songs by Elton John. Here’s the best part: James McAvoy voices Gnomeo, Emily Blunt does Juliet, and Maggie Smith provides the vocals for a character named Lady Bluebury, who Shakespeare somehow forgot to include in his original play.
What’s your favorite Shakespeare movie?