You have no idea what you've wrought this week.
You see, I'm a bit obsessed with the adaptation of stage plays to film. And I'm more than a little obsessed with the Bard of Avon, William Shakespeare. Ever since I read a VERY abridged version of Romeo & Juliet when I was in fourth grade, I've loved him. I took several courses on him in college, and worked for an Off-Broadway theater company focused on Shakespeare and classic drama for five years. Shakespeare adaptations are kind of my thing. So I'm going to go a little bit crazy this week. Please, bear with me. There's LOTS to talk about.
These didn't update the language, or the settings, or the costumes, proving that when done right, Shakespeare's plays are truly evergreen.
A Midsummer Night's Dream (Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle, 1935) It doesn't get MORE Classic Hollywood than this. If you're allergic to Mickey Rooney, stay away, but otherwise this is a triumph of the Dream Machine creating pure fantasy on the most fantastical of Shakespeare's plays.
Hamlet (Laurence Olivier, 1948) Only one of the world's greatest actors taking on one of the greatest leading parts in one of the greatest plays ever written. And he proves just as stylish a director as he is an actor, taking full advantage of the cinematic medium to illuminate the Danish Prince's inner psyche in ways you simply cannot on stage. There's a reason this is iconic - it's indelible perfection.
Romeo and Juliet (Franco Zeffirelli, 1968) This tragic romance has probably been filmed more times than any other play ever written, but this version is the most lushly romantic. Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting somehow manage to not inspire my usual hoots and hollers when watching actors that appear the actual ages of the star-crossed lovers (if you've ever had the misfortune of seeing a stage version with teenagers, you know what I'm talking about - you just end up yelling at them "IT'S NOT THE END OF THE WORLD! GOD! STOP BEING SO STUPID!" - but not here), instead making every stupid decision fully believable and understandable. And the adult cast that surrounds them is just pitch perfect.
Akira Kurosawa didn't just adapt Shakespeare's plays to Japan, he made them Japanese, inside and out.
Throne of Blood (1957) One of the creepiest tellings of Macbeth to ever be committed to film, using the conventions of traditional Japanese Noh theatre to create something Shakespeare never could have imagined, but would surely have approved of. Toshiro Mifune is great as always in the lead, but it's Isuzu Yamada's chilling take on Lady Macbeth that will really stay with you.
The Bad Sleep Well (1960) This one also fits into two later categories, as it modernizes Hamlet and is essentially an adaptation in all but name. This critique of the corporate world of Japan has its roots in the world's most famous play, but goes to some very different places.
Ran (1985) One of the most stunning color films ever made, Kurosawa's masterful take on King Lear is stunning from start to finish. Enough words of praise cannot be written. Just see it.
In one of the more curious turns of events in recent memory, actress Julia Stiles found herself in quite the niche: Starring in updated Shakespeare adaptations. She was in three of them in three years. The first is the best, but all of them are worth a look.
10 Things I Hate About You (Gil Junger, 1999) Seriously, though, if you've never read The Taming of the Shrew, read it RIGHT NOW and marvel at how flawlessly and entertainingly this flawlessly cast movie adapts it to turn-of-the-millennium American high school.
Hamlet (Michael Almereyda, 2000) I'm a little bit obsessed with this film, which does the "updating everything but Shakespeare's language" thing even better than Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet. And frankly, without Luhrmann's wild stylization, it's an even bigger risk. Ethan Hawke makes for a perfect Gen-X Hamlet, and the production and costume design is just out of this world. People don't talk about this one much anymore, but it's totally worth seeking out.
O (Tim Blake Nelson, 2001) The last film of the "Julia Stiles in Shakespeare Adaptations" trilogy, and the one that makes the most sense for the teen film treatment. The melodramatic plot of Othello is a perfect fit for the dog-eat-dog, soap opera world of high school, and you couldn't come up with a more compelling trio of leads than Stiles, Josh Hartnett, and Mekhi Phifer. An underrated, underseen gem.
THE STEALTH ADAPTATIONS
Unless you knew it going in, you'd probably never guess these movies had their roots in plays a few hundred years old. But these movies graft Shakespeare's oft-told tales onto modern settings and narratives so well that they prove Shakespeare's strength as a storyteller, not just a writer.
West Side Story (Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise, 1961) By now, I think you all know that this is a musical adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, but it's so flawlessly done that it completely stands apart, a truly rare feat of adaptation. Rita Moreno is possibly the greatest Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner of all time.
My Own Private Idaho (Gus Van Sant, 1991) Show of hands: Who knew this was a Shakespeare adaptation? OH, BUT IT IS! Yes indeed, Van Sant's idiosyncratic road movie takes the characters of Prince Hal and Falstaff from the history plays Henry IV and Henry V and puts them into the bodies of Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix respectively. Don't believe me? Read the plays. You'll be shocked.
She's The Man (Andy Fickman, 2006) This Amanda Bynes vehicle is a shockingly amazing adaptation of Twelfth Night, one of my favorite Shakespeare plays. Unlike 10 Things... and O, the more conventional teen movie aspects fail it, but seriously. Read Twelfth Night, watch this, and marvel at how they manage to stuff so many of the play's million subplots into one little movie. And go ahead, watch it a second time since we all know you were just ogling young Channing Tatum the first time.