Modernized Shakespeare

The following article originally appeared on on 1 April 2011…

Regular readers (do I even have those?) have surely noticed by now that at the end of each article I have been merrily endorsing the Sacramento Shakespeare Festival, reminding people that they can follow it on Twitter (@sacshakes), “like” it on Facebook, or particularly donate. In addition to just generally being a booster of the arts, I am also a participant having been cast in [2011]’s production of As You Like It (opening next week). Our version, directed by David Harris, transplants the story to the early 1970s when flower children roamed the land (think: Hair minus the nudity). Shakespeare’s plays lend themselves well to transplanted settings, so I thought for my weekly movie article I’d go and revisit some films that have transplanted Shakespeare’s plays into more modern settings.

Richard III (1995), directed by Richard Loncraine

Original setting: England, approximately 1460-1485

Movie setting: An alternate fascist 1930s England

The fascist pseudo-Nazi design of the film was nominated for an Academy Award, but the main reason to love this movie is Sir Ian McKellen in the title role. He’s all smiles and flattery when dealing with the court to their faces and sneering contempt behind their backs. The way that the Duke of Buckingham, played by Jim Broadbent, is all smiles around Richard makes you wonder how HE acts when Richard’s hunched back is turned. Queen Elizabeth is played by Annette Benning as a Wallis Simpson-esque American social climber. Maggie Smith plays McKellen’s mother, despite being only four years older than him (and YOUNGER than John Wood and Nigel Hawthorne, who play Richard’s older brothers). This was the first Shakespearean movie I ever saw that transplanted the setting, and I think my 11-year-old mind wasn’t quite up to processing the nuances of the work… but right from the moment a tank comes crashing through the wall of a library in the opening scene I knew this was a different kind of Shakespeare. Director Richard Loncraine and Ian McKellen co-wrote the screenplay, which HEAVILY abbreviates the play (one of Shakespeare’s longest, though the movie clocks in under two hours). The War of the Roses was centuries ago, but there are still people alive now who remember the rise of fascism in the 1930s. The brutality of Shakespeare’s play translates to modern times uncomfortably well.

Romeo + Juliet (1996), directed by Baz Luhrmann

Original setting: 16th century Verona, Italy

Movie setting: “Verona Beach” in mid-90s Southern California (though it was shot in Mexico City and Miami)

You know it’s edgy because the “and” in the title has been replaced with a plus sign! Take that, proper spelling! Baz Luhrman is the over-the-top colorful and kinetic director of Moulin Rouge! and that really tells you all you need to know about this tale of star-crossed lovers. Leonardo DiCaprio and a then-teenage Claire Danes play the titular characters, and deliver the two most understated performances in the movie. I’m not clear why all of the Capulets seem to be Hispanic except Juliet, but if you start questioning the logic of this movie too closely a lot really falls apart. There is A LOT OF SHOUTING! I remember liking this movie a lot more when I was younger, but it’s still entertaining. The film has a dizzying energy that is sort of infectious. While some of the modernizations don’t quite work (great pains are taken to show that SWORD is a brand of handgun). My friend Jacob takes major issue with the fact that the speech that Mercutio (Harold Perrineau from Lost) delivers about “Queen Mab” is now in reference to an ecstasy-like designer drug. Whatever. Shakespearean performance isn’t exactly about subtlety. It’s not the strongest movie on this list (though it’s the most popular), but it conveys the adolescent angst in an appropriately melodramatic fashion.

Titus (1999), directed by Julie Taymor

Original setting: Ancient Rome (during the reign of a fictitious emperor)

Movie setting: Um… ostensibly Ancient Rome, but the cars and automatic weapons confuse things somewhat…

Back before Julie Taymor’s stage career imploded with ill-advised musicals about superheroes, she went from successfully bring the screen to the stage with The Lion King to bringing the stage to the screen with Titus. This movie seems like it might be on even more drugs than Luhrmann’s film. Better drugs. As the setting description might clue you in to, this is probably the most unconventional approach in this article. Everything is still nominally set in Ancient Rome but the emperor rides around in a car, the armies use machine guns, and the Goth (the Scandinavian tribe, not Bauhaus fans) princes play video games. Titus Andronicus is William Shakespeare’s bloodiest play and this movie really goes for the over-the-top violence. There are a number of different critical interpretations of the play, whether it’s just a face-value violent crowd-pleaser or a parody of the type of violent crowd-pleasers popular at the time. Which one you believe is up to you, but I like the basic story of bloody bloody vengeance that the bard has woven. Titus’ main tragic flaw is that he adheres to tradition even when it is decidedly not in his best interests to. Anthony Hopkins is great in the lead role and it’s not to see him NOT phoning it in, as he so often has in the decade past. The scene stealer of the movie is Harry Lennix as the evil Moor Aaron. The production design is by the Italian master Dante Ferretti (Sweeney Todd, Gangs of New York) and it contributes the visual richness of the film. Taymor’s Titus is a trip, but it’s a good trip.

Hamlet (2000), directed by Michael Almereyda

Original setting: Medieval Denmark

Movie setting: 2000s New York City (Denmark being the name of a corporation)

Despite changing Denmark from a country to a company, very little is made of this. I guess the point could be that CEOs are the new royalty? It’s not like Almereyda’s film really explores that at all. In fact the setting change doesn’t seem to be making a statement of any kind, really, but the film is carried regardless by the strength of Shakespeare’s play. Ethan Hawke plays the role well, even if his wardrobe is annoyingly hipster-ish and many of his soliloquies are delivered as very emo video diaries. Truthfully, even in the original play Hamlet is pretty whiny, especially before seeing his father’s ghost spurs him into action. Other cast members worth mentioning are the underrated Julia Stiles as Ophelia, a good serious turn by Bill Murray (after Rushmore but before his second career as a deadpan dramatic actor) as Polonius, Diane Venora (also in Romeo + Juliet as Lady Capulet) as Gertrude, and a sleazy Kyle MacLachlan as Claudius. This version is rather heavily truncated (as opposed to Kenneth Branagh’s uncut four-hour version from 1996) but it still keeps the story intact. Not all the modernizations work, but overall I enjoyed it.


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