Modernizing Shakespeare

strange-brew-shakespeare_lIf William Shakespeare were around today it’s unclear whether he’d have made it as a playwright. My guess is that he’d probably be credited as “Will Shakes,” and would be penning Off-Off-Broadway plays about the Iraq War and submitting spec scripts to Mad Men. So it’s lucky for us that he lived when he lived.

But that doesn’t stop filmmakers from bringing his work into the present day. The Hollywood Reporter has reported that Gerard Butler will be joining Ralph Fiennes in a contemporary adaptation of one of the lesser-produced Shakespearean tragedies, Coriolanus.

This isn’t the first time Shakespeare’s works have gotten a modern makeover. In fact it’s more like the 12,486th. So let’s take this opportunity to look back at the slew of attempts to bring the Bard up to date:

There is, of course, Baz Luhrmann’s version of Romeo & Juliet featuring the PYTs of the MTV generation: Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. It’s a good thing this was made in 1996 before cell phones were so ubiquitous. A couple of quick texts would kind of make all that double suicide stuff a little unnecessary. The romantic tragedy was also adapted even earlier as the classic West Side Story, with the Capulets and Montagues replaced by some of the least threatening gang members this side of Sesame Street.

Ethan Hawke’s 2000 adaptation of Hamlet was pretty straightforward, injecting the Danish prince with a bit of millennial angst. But, for my money, the greatest version of Shakespeare’s best-known play is Strange Brew, the goofy, beer-soaked comedy starring Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas as their SCTV creations, the McKenzie brothers. Transplanting the tragedy to a Canadian brewery with warring hockey teams somehow makes the tale that much more emotionally resonant and powerful, ya hoser!

High school seems to be a recurring setting for Shakespearean updates. It must be all that backstabbing and rigid social hierarchy that make it such a natural fit.  Amanda Bynes dresses like a dude in She’s the Man, based on the cross-dressing comedy Twelfth Night, while Julia Stiles is the shrew that gets tamed in 10 Things I Hate About You. Then there’s O, also starring Stiles, which transposes Othello to a high-school basketball team. Come to think of it, Stiles was also in Ethan Hawke’s Hamlet, which gives her an impressive trifecta. Unless, that is, you believe Save the Last Dance was taken straight from Timon of Athens, like I do, which makes it a quadfecta.

There’s also Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho (Henry IV: Part 1), Julie Taymor’sTitus (Titus Andronicus) and Scotland, PA (Macbeth). Have I missed any? On the whole, do you guys tend to like contemporary film adaptations over period pieces, or is it only the story that matters to you, not the setting?

Are there any of the Bard’s other plays you’d like to see updated? Maybe The Tempest set on the Survivor island or A Midsummer’s Night Dream as a Seth Rogen stoner comedy?

Comments (21 total) Add your comment
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  • a person

    Midsummer’s night dream with Seth Rogen would be amazing!! Also it would be funny to see a modern day MacBeth-especially because that play is cursed!

  • Bob

    No Sons of Anarchy mention here? It’s loosely based on Hamlet with a little Macbeth sprinkled around. Come on EW, get with the program, SOA is the best show on TV right now and probably the greatest example of “modernizing Shakespeare” ever.

  • Ephiny

    Or, my own personal favorite re-imagining of Hamlet: The Lion King! :)

    • a person


    • Briana

      When our theatre director told us this (he’s a Shakespeare nutcase), everyone went home and watched The Lion King. We then understood the plot.

  • Jen

    Don’t forget Deliver Us From Eva, which is another Taming of the Shrew redo. The BBC also did a series of four short modernizations a few years ago that aired here on BBC America and boasted some impressive casts (Macbeth with James MacAvoy, Much Ado About Nothing with Damian Lewis, and Taming of the Shrew – yup, another one! – with Rufus Sewell).

  • Jen

    Another one is A Thousand Acres, which is a version of King Lear.

    • Brian

      And isn’t Edgar Sawtelle a Hamlet re-telling?

  • Casey

    I would love to see a modern version of “Midsummer Night’s Dream” where the young lovers are from some kind of Christian, conservative school (ala Bob Jones University), and the forest is Vegas and the fairies are clubbers, night club owners, and a slew of interesting characters.

  • Luddite

    I’m quite fond of the 1999 version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with Christian Bale, Calista Flockhart, Anna Friel, Michelle Pfeiffer, David Straitharn, Kevin Kline, Rupert Everett…etc. Cast of thousands. This play was the first Shakespeare I read (and remains one of my favorites) and I had the benefit of having just spent a month reading it in school when I saw it in the theatre. It’s a hilarious play to begin with, and they did a great job with this movie.

  • Stu

    Richard III with Ian McKellan! Places the play in 1930’s facism.

  • Lisa Simpson

    Hated the Baz Luhrman “Romeo and Juliet” (or “Romeo + Juliet”, because the word “and” is just too long). So many of the lines were delivered as if the actors had no idea of the meaning. I did like the version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” with Kevin Kline, Stanley Tucci, Rupert Everett, and Michelle Pfeiffer (among many others), that was faithful to the text while setting the play at the turn of the twentieth-century. It managed to capture the text while still be playful and charming.

  • Striver

    You might want to try Men of Respect (Macbeth), Omkara (Othello in India including a Bollywood production number), Kiss Me Kate (of course). Mazursky’s already done Tempest on an isolated Greek island (“Tempest”), and it’s been set in outers space (“Forbidden Planet”) – oh, and let’s not forget Ronald Coleman in “A Double Life”, in which the actor playing Othello confuses the role with his life.

  • Mary

    You forgot about The Cutting Edge as a modern Taming of the Shrew. And of course, there’s Lion King which is the best animated version (and only one) that’s out there.

  • Kim

    The best Shakespeare adaptation I’ve ever seen on screen is hands down the Hindi film Omkara, an adaptation of Othello. The director, Vishal Bharadwaj, is also known for his adaptation of Macbeth titled Maqbool.

  • Dawood

    Oscar Wilde: “We become lovers when we see Romeo and Juliet, and Hamlet makes us students.”

    ..check other notable tributes and quotes on William Shakespeare from famous peers:

  • Jason
  • woodworking at home

    Thanks for another great post. Where else may anyone get that kind of information in such a perfect way of writing? I’ve a presentation subsequent week, and I’m on the look for such info.

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