Movies

Ten Great Movies that Reimagine Shakespeare

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Helen Mirren cross-dresses in The Tempest this week; here are ten more films that take liberties with the Bard.

Helen Mirren in "The Tempest"

Opening this week is Julie Taymor's The Tempest, which takes some liberties with William Shakespeare's play of the same name, most notably casting Helen Mirren as a female Prospero. In tribute, I've picked my ten favorite Shakespeare adaptations, with the qualifier that the more the movies reinterpret the original work, the better. In other words, you'll be seeing lots of Julia Stiles and very little Laurence Olivier.

10) Love's Labour's Lost (2000)

Years before Steve Coogan's musical comedy Hamlet 2 came Kenneth Branagh's Love's Labour Lost. While it may not be Branagh's best work, the movie is undeniably fun (especially Nathan Lane's performance as Costard), and has an interesting gimmick: it's made to look like a 1930s musical.

9) Hamlet (1996)

A better Ken-Bren Shakespeare movie is his 1996 Hamlet, which moves the story to an opulent nineteenth-century setting. While there have been many (many, many) films based on arguably the Bard's greatest work, few have been as good as this one. The cast — including Branagh, Kate Winslet, Billy Crystal, Robin Williams, Charlton Heston, Julie Christie, and Judi Dench, among others — is fantastic, and Branagh went out on a limb by filming the entire text of the play (usually substantially cut even for stage versions). In keeping with its large-scale ambitions, this Hamlet was also the last film ever to be shot in 70 mm, a large-format film stock previously employed by classics like My Fair Lady and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

8) She's the Man (2006)

One career path that I don't quite understand is that of Amanda Bynes. She's a likable actress, who can do both TV (All That, The Amanda Show) and film (Hairspray, Easy A). But she abruptly retired from acting in June, then a month later unretired — both on Twitter. Arguably the finest showcase of her talents is in She's the Man, a modern re-telling of Twelfth Night. Bynes plays Viola Hastings, who, after finding out that her high school's girls' soccer team is being cut from the budget, decides to become Sebastian, so she can play on a rival school's boys' team. Bynes keeps the movie afloat with her charming personality. She makes one unattractive dude, though.

7) Scotland, PA (2001)

In Twelfth Night, Shakespeare wrote, "I am a great eater of beef, and I believe that does harm to my wit." What would he have said about Scotland, PA? The film uses Macbeth as its source material, but instead of taking place in eleventh-century Scotland, it's about fast-food employees working at Duncan's Cafe in 1975. This premise could easily have gone wrong, but largely because of stars Maura Tierney and Christopher Walken, things more often than not go right, although the Bad Company soundtrack is a bit much. The film does boast a killer tagline, though: "Greasy Spoon. Bloody Murder."

6) O (2001)

Before becoming a serial killer's ally on Dexter, Julia Stiles made a name for herself by starring in smart, well-received Shakespeare adaptations for teens. One, 2001's O, resets Othello to an elite private school in the South. Stiles plays Desi, who's dating Odin (Mekhi Phifer), who's best friends with Hugo (Josh Hartnett), who… let's just say there's a lot of backstabbing and jealousy. (Don't you miss high school?) What separates O from most teen films, and what makes it so successful, is that it doesn't assume its audience is composed of idiots; the film actually asks tough questions about teen violence.

5) West Side Story (1961)

Like the Sondheim musical it's based on, Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins' film stages Romeo and Juliet in a singing, dancing, ethnically divided New York City youth culture. West Side Story won ten Oscars, including Best Picture, and nearly every one of its songs, from "Tonight" to "Gee, Officer Krupke," has become a standard for glee clubs everywhere. Oddly, the Jets and the Sharks seem more dated than the Montagues and Capulets, but that's mainly because you don't see too many self-proclaimed "punks" dancing in the streets of New York anymore.

4) Romeo + Juliet (1996)

Before Leonardo DiCaprio was Jack Dawson, he was one half of the original star-crossed couple, playing Romeo to Claire Danes' Juliet. Just as many people hate director Baz Luhrmann as love him (clearly, I'm a lover), but you can't help but respect Luhrmann and screenwriter Craig Pearce's cleverness in bringing the original text into modern times (with guns instead of swords, newscasters instead of choruses, etc). No one can accuse Luhrmann of lacking nerve.

3) Ran (1985)

Just as King Lear is one of Shakespeare's finest works, Ran one of Akira Kurosawa's best. The original concerns an old king dividing his kingdom between his three daughters; in Kurosawa's version, a warlord divides his empire among his three sons. In 1985, Ran was the most expensive Japanese film ever made (having well over a thousand extras will do that to a budget), and considering it took nine months to shoot, it took a lot out of the seventy-five-year-old director. Although it wasn't a huge critical success when it was originally released, it has since become one of the director's most respected masterpieces, right up there with Rashomon and Seven Samurai.

2) Forbidden Planet (1956)

You might think that Forbidden Planet is ranked this high because of the recent passing of star Leslie Nielsen; rather, it's ranked this high because it's a milestone in science-fiction films, one that inspired Gene Rodenberry to create Star Trek (which had a few Shakespeare episodes itself). Forbidden Planet takes the basic plot of The Tempest — a magician/scientist and his daughter, watched over by a sprite/robot, live alone on an island/planet, until a tempest/spaceship brings visitors who shake everything up — but adds an overtly Freudian climax and some nifty special effects.

1) 10 Things I Hate About You (1999)

Not only is it my favorite Shakespeare adaptation of all time, it's the greatest teen movie of the '90s, too. 10 Things launched the careers of Julia Stiles, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and, most importantly, Heath Ledger, who is all rugged charm in the film, especially during the famous "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You" scene. The source play, The Taming of the Shrew, is one of Shakespeare's more misogynistic works, but 10 Things makes the titular shrew, Stiles' Kat, into a strong-willed, riot grrl-loving teen. Sure, she ends up with the guy who sort of tricked her at the end, but c'mon, could you resist Ledger's charms?