Is there really anything left to be said about the work of Shakespeare? We can’t seem to get enough of this guy, and all the stuff he wrote. He basically is English literature.
While the academic study and theatrical staging of Shakespeare both require close reading of the texts, I (and every English teacher and lit professor I’ve ever met) maintain that these works were written to be watched, not read. Shakespeare’s plays were the primetime network lineups of the 16th century; this was theater for the masses, the pop-iest of pop culture works of their time.
This is why I love when movies place Shakespeare’s plays in contemporary times. Whether they use the original text or not, casting these classic stories in a modern context comes as close as I think we can get to how original audiences would have viewed and related to them.
I made a list of my five favorite contemporary Shakespeare adaptations, but then I thought of a couple more I needed to add. Then when I saw I had seven, I thought, why not add three more and just make it a top ten? That would make sense, right? Well, perhaps, but I didn’t do that. So take them in what sense thou wilt.
1. Romeo + Juliet (Baz Luhrmann, 1996)
The movie that introduced many a ’90s teen and preteen girl to her first crush, Leo DiCaprio (this came out a year before Titanic), is a young, colorful, music-infused interpretation of what many call the greatest love story ever told. The script uses the original text, which somehow doesn’t seem out of place in the fictional town of Verona Beach, California (“in fair Verona, where we lay our scene…”).
2. Warm Bodies (Jonathan Levine, 2013)
While West Side Story placed the plot of Romeo and Juliet in the world of New York street gangs in the 1960s, Warm Bodies sets it in a zombie apocalypse. Based on Isaac Marion’s novel of the same name, this retelling follows a zombie boy named “R” and a human girl named Julie, who share a star-crossed connection against all the rules of their respective societies. Instead of meeting a tragic end, though, they (spoiler alert) live happily ever after.
3. Hamlet (Michael Almereyda, 2000)
My favorite scene in this movie is the “To Be or Not To Be” speech, in which Hamlet (played by a gloriously angsty Ethan Hawke) paces the aisles of a Blockbuster Video (it is the year 2000, after all) while speaking the most famous words Shakespeare ever wrote. The genre label of every sign on every shelf reads: “Action.” It’s brilliant. Also, Julia Stiles as Ophelia will break your heart.
4. 10 Things I Hate About You (Gil Junger, 1999)
Julia Stiles sure likes Shakespeare. This quintessential 90s teen movie places The Taming of the Shrew in a modern high school, complete with cliques and popularity contests, first loves, and of course The Prom. Fun fact: though the movie takes place in Seattle, the school where it was filmed is Stadium High School in Tacoma, Washington.
5. She’s the Man (Andy Fickman, 2006)
This is how I prefer to think of Amanda Bynes, as high school soccer star Viola, who, like her namesake in Twelfth Night, disguises herself as a boy to better navigate a new environment. When Viola’s school cuts their girls’ soccer team, she transfers to Illyria High under the name of her twin brother Sebastian so she can play for their boys’ soccer team. The plan seems pretty solid, except it gets a little complicated when Viola falls for the team captain, Duke Orsino. (No, he’s not really a duke in high school; they just made the character’s first name Duke.)
6. Scotland, PA (Billy Morissette, 2001)
Who decided to take the story of Macbeth and set it in a fast food restaurant in Pennsylvania in the 1970s? It’s genius. Instead of aspiring to rule Scotland by any means necessary, Mac and his wife Pat’s ambitions are to manage and eventually own the burger joint they work for, by any means necessary. Their boss, Duncan, is the only thing standing in their way…
7. Much Ado About Nothing (Joss Whedon, 2013)
There’s a rumor going around that Joss Whedon can do no wrong. If the rumor is based just on this movie, it might be true. Using a script from the original text, this movie is amazingly acted and beautifully filmed in classic black and white. It’s hard to top the 1992 version starring Emma Thompson (my personal she-ro), which has a more traditional setting, but Whedon’s modern interpretation comes pretty close.