Out, damned movie! 

Revisiting Shakespeare on film

If William Shakespeare were alive today, at the very least he’d be the richest writer in Hollywood. His body of work, if not the most-filmed literary oeuvre ever, is certainly right up there: over 60 film versions and 20 TV adaptations of Hamlet alone!

Most movies adapted from Shakespeare’s plays, however, are essentially that: filmed plays. If you want to know which of the bazillion versions of Romeo & Juliet is truest to its source text, look elsewhere. The following selection of movies, each based with varying degrees of looseness on the work of the Bard, demonstrates just how enduring and mutable his work really is. You might have been Shakespeared without even realizing it.

Forbidden Planet (1956)
Loosely based on The Tempest, this fun bit of ’50s-era MGM sci-fi stars Walter Pidgeon, playing the part of Prospero, as Dr. Edward Morbius. Morbius is one of two people on Altair-4, a planet once dominated by a technologically advanced alien race that up and disappeared one day but left all its stuff behind, Easter Island-style. Morbius’ sole companion is buxom daughter Altaira, whose sexual naïveté and pneumatic chassis are shark-bait to the pack of leering space travelers dispatched to Altair-4 to investigate the fate of the last group of colonists. “I’m in command of 18 competitively selected super-fit physical specimens with an average age of 24.6,” Commander John J. Adams (Leslie Nielsen) tells her, “who have been locked up in hyperspace for 378 days. It would have served you right if he...they...oh go on, get out of here before I have you run out of the area under guard. And then I’ll put more guards on the guards.” A she-was-asking-for-it sexual harassment classic, with great visual effects and the first movie score to be performed entirely on electronic instruments.

Throne of Blood (1957)
Akira Kurosawa transposed Macbeth to medieval Japan for this claustrophobic meditation on fear and ambition. Victorious generals Macbeth and Banquo become Washizu and Miki, Dunsinane the creepy Cobweb Castle, the mysterious witches a freaky old lady who sits spinning thread and chanting a threnody to man’s foolish lust for power in a bamboo cage in the middle of a haunted forest. Throne of Blood is intense and violent—and shrouded in about a zillion different textures of mist and fog. Toshiro Mifune is a force of nature, as usual; Isuzu Yamada, as his meddling wife, is a whole new flavor of conscience-stricken Lady Macbeth. Scenes of the forest attacking the castle and Mifune’s Washizu flailing and staggering through a hailstorm of arrows are flat-out beautiful. Also highly recommended: Ran, Kurosawa’s 1985 film adaptation of King Lear.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1990)
Tough call, here. Tom Stoppard’s one-and-only turn as director finds him helming a filmed adaptation of his own play. It’s witty, quotable and a refreshing antidote to the more pompous film versions of Shakespeare, but dead in the water as far as entertainment goes. Stoppard and his actors pound so many gags into the ground—if only Kurosawa could have put them on hammer duty to rebuild the castle set he ordered torn down and rebuilt for Throne of Blood because it was made with the wrong nails. Rosencrantz (Gary Oldman) and Guildenstern (Tim Roth) are minor characters from Hamlet, unaware that their very existence has already been scripted. They’re also dull as dirt and take forever to say anything. As Roger Ebert once sighed in his review of the film: “Any medium that can make a star out of Mark Harmon can make heroes out of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.” Watching this anemic spinoff, you have to ask, “Yeah, so does it really have to?”

Prospero’s Books (1991)
Ladies and gentlemen, THE most pretentious movie ever. I used to think my unblinking hatred for everything Peter Greenaway has ever had a hand in was merely a guilty projection of my own feelings of critical and esthetic inadequacy. Now I think that people who actually profess to like Peter Greenaway movies are the ones with the problem. Philistines, all of them, so easily taken in by window dressing. Peter Greenaway fans are the suckers born every minute.

Prospero’s Books is as packed with visual detail as anything in the Greenaway filmography, only here the detail is several orders of magnitude more annoying than it’s ever been before. Worse, there’s nothing else in this incomprehensible mess to grab onto—it’s like being thrown into the drink with only a bloated dead cow to cling to for buoyancy. You can’t swing a dead cat in Prospero’s Books without hitting a towheaded eunuch warbling in falsetto and peeing into a pool from a swing set—for no apparent reason apart from gratifying the director’s dull preoccupation with flesh and its decay. This is Greenaway in top form: pretentious, overripe, indigestible rubbish.

10 Things I Hate About You (1999)
In case you didn’t gather as much from the plot (hot younger daughter can’t date until chop-busting tomboy starts dating, too), 10 Things I Hate About You is full of tip-offs alluding to its Shakespearean provenance: The sheltered teens’ family name is Stratford, bad-boy Heath Ledger’s character’s last name is Verona (birthplace of Petruchio, the character’s literary equivalent), and the high school is called Padua after the city in which the play is set. Characters read sonnets, recite from sonnets (“Sweet Love, renew thy force” is from no. 56), and quote lines from the original: “I burn, I pine, I perish.” One character even calls Kat (Julia Stiles) a shrew at one point. If you’re watching this movie with your own teenagers, though, try not to get too pedantic about the Shakespearean underpinnings. Kids hate learning stuff when they’re trying to have fun.


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