By Ben Travers | Indiewire June 4, 2013 at 10:48AM
Since "King John" became the first Shakespearean film adaptation in 1899, there have been many directors eager to take a crack at interpreting the Bard's words for a new generation. While some films were made by Shakespearean fundamentalists (see Kenneth Branagh's fine body of work), many adaptations found a happy medium between what had been written in the late 1500s and how those words would be read by more modern civilizations. A few even managed to keep his original language while the rest found only their foundation in his timeless tales. To get you adequately prepared for the latest folly into Shakespearean comedy -- this Friday's hotly-anticipated release of Joss Whedon's "Much Ado About Nothing" -- here are five of the best modern adaptations of Shakespeare's work.
"10 Things I Hate About You"
If you ask a Shakespearean scholar or a film geek about "10 Things I Hate About You," they would certainly identify it as a modernization of Shakespeare's timeless comedy, "The Taming of the Shrew." Many commoners, however, might be left in the dark, despite Shakespeare's writing credit. But it may be because they prefer it that way. There are plenty of less-than-subtle nods to the story's origins. Shakespeare's Katherina becomes Julia Stiles' Kat. Petruchio becomes Patrick. The Bard's Bianca remains. The beauty in this teen-friendly (*shudder*) update, though, is in the subtleties of the adaptation. Rather than thrust Shakespeare's archaic language on the ill-prepared ears of its high school audience, the dialogue has been rewritten. The settings have changed. Viewers can choose whether they want to look for references to "The Shrew" — such as when Cameron quotes Act 1, Scene 1 for his friend Michael — or ignore it and succumb to the whimsy of the story, the characters, and the charming cast. Either way you choose to see it, "10 Things I Hate About You" is worthy of its heritage.
After studying under directors like Steven Spielberg, Kathryn Bigelow, and Anthony Minghella as an actor, Ralph Fiennes didn't make it easy on himself when he stepped behind the camera in 2011 for his feature directorial debut, "Coriolanus." Adapting a Shakespearean tragedy isn't exactly an easy assignment to begin with, but updating one to modern times in a fictional setting seems like a rather bold choice for someone never before in charge of a production. He even gave himself an extra challenge I can only presume was for fun: get a respectable performance out of the usually stolid Gerard Butler. Somehow -- miraculously regarding Butler -- he pulled it off. "Coriolanus" proves itself a smashing success thanks to not just Fiennes' courageous directorial choices, but also his commanding performance as the titular Roman general banished from his corrupt kingdom. Striking an effective but not overbearing chord regarding class warfare of the metaphorical and literal kind, "Coriolanus" nicely parallels contemporary society without altering many -- if any -- of Shakespeare's words. As an actor, Fiennes is best known as He Who Must Not Be Named. As a director, expect him to be called on eagerly.
"My Own Private Idaho"
Keanu Reeves. Love him or hate him, you definitely have to deal with him in Gus Van Sant's low-budget adaptation of "Henry IV." Though many would argue its Reeves' best movie (and performance), "My Own Private Idaho" is better known as one of the great films in River Phoenix's tragically short career. Phoenix plays Mike Waters, a street hustler and stand in for Shakespeare's Falstaff as both a coward and soon-to-be repudiated friend. Reeves' Scott Favor is the future traitor as well as an heir to his father's fortune, making him an updated version of Prince Hal. The film features only flourishes of Shakespearean dialogue and plays out as more of a blend between "Henry IV" and Van Sant's original story, but "My Own Private Idaho" owes much of its success to Shakespeare's structure -- even if its Van Sant's "doomed lovers" narrative that stays with you.
Though many directors have certainly left their visual stamp on Shakespeare's immortal words, none have managed to do it in such an aesthetically profound manner as the great Akira Kurosawa. In "Ran," Kurosawa's stunning adaptation of "King Lear," an aging patriarch of a decaying clan decides to split his kingdom among his three sons in an attempt to unify his family and strengthen their house. Instead, the sons begin a jealous feud that leads to the eventual downfall of their father's clan. Kurosawa reportedly planned the film as an original screenplay before realizing his writing had taken him into Shakespearean territory. He then spent 10 years hand-painting storyboards for "Ran," an incredible effort that pays off with a rich, vibrant color palette seen distinctly in the costumes and mise en scene. "Ran" earned Kurosawa his only Academy Award nomination for Best Director as well as three more nominations with a win for costume design.
"Romeo + Juliet"
Give me balls-to-the-wall Baz any day. Unlike his latest adaptation, Baz Luhrmann's "Romeo + Juliet" pulls no punches in its flamboyant portrayal of young, wild love amidst class warfare of a quite literal kind. Unlike Shakespeare's original, there's no hints toward satire here. Luhrmann creates a dizzying world of disparaging passion via his now trademarked quick cutting and Catherine Martin's (Baz's wife) beautifully ravaged production design. It's this wondrous array of imagery that makes it fitting both to the world created by William and the hormonal teenagers the film is aims to please. The only way to read Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" as a romance is to make it the epitome of all romance, and when do you feel more fiercely romantic than when you're first in love? Baz channels these feelings better than anyone when he's at his best. If only he'd done for F. Scott Fitzgerald what he did for the Bard.