The best Shakespeare adaptations (part II) - Raindance

You might have seen the first article we published on Shakespeare adaptations, so as promised here are the more modern ones.

1. Romeo. Juliet, Armando Acosta (1990)

Romeo and Juliet, but with cats. Don’t be fooled this is a very serious film. The cast includes John Hurt (the only human), Ben Kingsley, Dame Maggie Smith and more.

It’s wonderfully peculiar.

2. My Own Private Idaho, Gus Van Sant (1991)

The film takes up one of the two plot lines in Henry IV, and adds another dimension to it. Van Sant recreates, in a modern setting, the strained relationship between the King and his devious son, but Scott Favor (played by Keanu Reeves), who is Prince Harry’s equivalent, is not the protagonist of the film. Instead Van Sant introduces a new character, Mike waters (River Phoenix), a gay narcoleptic hustler who’s trying to find out where he belongs. (Narcolepsy is a sleep disorder: people unexpectedly fall asleep and can’t control it).

Scott’s journey is rather similar to his alter ego’s character and timeline. For he too intends to abandon his surrogate father Bob (the equivalent of Falstaff in the play), and his “temporary” family once his biological father dies, and he has to take up his rightful place. Also, it will make his “transformation” so much more dramatic and impressive (at least he seems to think so).

Mike on the other hand does not have so clear a path. He drifts from place to place, falls asleep at inopportune moments and has to blindly rely on others to help him out. Scott agrees to help Mike find his long lost mother, and the two embark on a journey (on a stolen motorcycle of course).

My Own Private Idaho is essentially a road movie where Mike tries to find “home”, tenderness and love, rather than a specific place.

3. Much Ado About Nothing, Kenneth Branagh (1993) 

Branagh follows his 1989 version of Henry V (which is also worth checking out) with a Shakespearian romantic comedy. The film centers on two couples, Claudio and Hero as well as Benedick and Beatrice. The first is destined for failure due to the trickery of others, while the second seems to crumble from within. Set in an idyllic environment of picnics, dances and dinners, Much ado is a battle of the wit and the sexes. But most importantly, it’s funny.

4. Hamlet, Kenneth Branagh (1996)

 In the 4 hours long uncut version of Shakespeare’s play, actor-director Kenneth Branagh sets his Hamlet in the 19th century and Shoots it in “glorious” 70 mm (as Tarantino likes to put it). The film is visually breathtaking and flamboyant and the cast includes, Derek Jacobi, Kate Winslet, and even Robin Williams in a small role.

The characters are more rounded and developed since their lines have not been cut, and Claudius (Jacobi) specifically stands out and is more than merely the appointed villain of the story.

Branagh says the “to be or not to be” soliloquy in front of a mirror, which instantly creates a doubling of Hamlet. As they get closer to each other (he’s stepping towards the mirror) the intensity augments and it’s almost like a fight between Hamlet and his reflection.

The film may be long but well worth your time. The text is of course brilliant in itself, but Branagh adds a cinematic feature to it.

5. Romeo + Juliet, Baz Luhrmann (1996)

The text is the same, but they now live in “Verona Beach,” wear flowery flannels and fight each other with guns: the classic love story with a twist. It might be a bit off putting at first, at least it was for me, but he pulls it off. Luhrmann and his fantastic cast (DiCaprio, Danes, Leguizamo), create a brilliant hybrid between a Shakespeare tragedy and a classic Hollywood action film. The film is visually striking, bold and fast paced. The classic verse flows effortlessly in the modern setting. This is a must watch.

6.  Twelfth Night or What You Will, Trevor Nunn (1996)

 Loosely based on Shakespeare’s play of the same name, Twelfth Night, is a comedy about gender bending and fluid sexuality. Viola (Imogen Stubbs) and her twin brother Sebastian are in a shipwreck and she washes up alone at the shore of Illyria. To survive on her own, she disguises herself as a young man named Cesario and finds work with Duke Orsino (Toby Stevens). She falls madly in love with him, but he is in love with Countess Olivia (Helena Bonham Carter), who falls in love with Viola posing as Cesario. It’s a game of deceit and repressed sexuality.

 7. Tromeo And Juliet, Lloyd Kaufman and James Gunn (1997)

This film is not for the lighthearted. But if you like gory violence, rather sex and just all around craziness, you should definitely watch it. It’ll make you laugh and look away at the same time. Kaufman and Gunn have kept the main plot points of the story, but seem to have transported it to another world.  Good luck!

8. 10 Things I Hate About You, Gil Junger (1999)

The main plot of the film is essentially Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. A young girl, Bianca, can only marry once her older sister Katherine does. Unfortunately Katherine has an off-putting personality and will likely never get married. Bianca’s suitors devise a plan to marry Katherine to a man looking for a wealthy wife, so that they can even start competing for Bianca’s love. But she falls in love with someone else, while Katherine becomes a submissive wife.

In the film Kat might be a bit abrasive, but she is still likeable and doesn’t lose all her self-esteem when she falls in love. The modern day Rom-Com is set in high school and had to change certain things to fit modern society (marriage turns into dating, and Patrick, Kat’s love interest, is charming and kind to her, while the original Petruccio abuses her.)

The remake is more than just another teen movie, and it’s virtually impossible not to fall in love with Heath Ledger (Patrick) singing, “can’t take my eyes off of you” in the dorkiest way.

9. Hamlet, Gregory Doran (2009)

It’s the film adaptation of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s version of the play.

David Tennant’s moody Hamlet is witty and funny and then almost instantly depressed. His sarcasm and childish behavior separate him from the world of adults that is filled with corruption. The verse is the same but the castle (they have security cameras) and the character’s clothes are modern (Hamlet wears Jeans and a shirt with abs drawn onto it.) This is one of my personal favorites and David Tennant is absolutely brilliant in the title role.

10. Much Ado About Nothing, Joss Whedon (2012)

Whedon gathered a group of friends and filmed the adaptation at his home in Santa Monica on a very low budget (especially if you compare it to the Avengers’ budget, which he also directed). The film is shot in black and white and apart from the modern setting the main plot remains more or less unchanged. You would think that he would want to relax and take some time off after shooting the Avengers, but in the summer of 2011 Whedon throws himself into this more personal project and shoots it in 12 days. The film is genuinely funny and a great watch.

11. Coriolanus, Ralph Fiennes (2012)

In his directorial debut, Ralph Fiennes tackles Shakespeare’s last (or at least one of the last) tragedy, on screen for the first time. Fiennes stars in the character of Coriolanus, a successful army general turned politician. But his contempt for the people of Rome leads to an uprising and he is banished and called a traitor. He thus forms an alliance with his former archenemy Aufidius (Gerard Butler) and vows to destroy Rome. The film was shot mostly in Belgrade and is set in the modern day. The themes it tackles echo many struggles that are still relevant today, and prove that Shakespeare is timeless.

12. Macbeth, Justin Kurzel (2015)

Three witches prophesize to Macbeth that he will be King. Encouraged by his wife he plans to murder the current King and his successor, and he rises to power. But he soon becomes paranoid, blood-thirsty and descends into madness.

Michael Fassbinder and Marion Cotillard play Macbeth and Lady M, and the duo has been widely praised for their acting and chemistry on screen. The film is “devastatingly gorgeous to look at,” and each seems “saturated”. It’s rather hard to follow Polanski, Welles and Kurosawa’s Macbeth adaptations, but Kurzel succeeds in creating his own vision.


Read: The best Shakespeare adaptations (part 1)