I am a HUGE fan of good Shakespeare adaptations that put the Bard’s stories and language into contemporary settings. I’ve found that despite having read many Shakespeare plays in high school, and having re-read and thoroughly analyzed them further in college, I never fully grasped or understood the works until seeing them in modern adaptations.
I couldn’t immediately latch onto a totally-faithful-to-the-period-and-material production the way I could with a modern film or play; there was always that mental delay of trying to translate the old English into modern English that kept me at an arm’s distance from the story and characters. In modern adaptations, setting, costumes and performances all work together to make the old English not only easy to understand, but even relatable to a modern audience. These films are actually entertaining, and don’t feel like going to school at all.
One of my favorites in the genre is Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. In this dazzling re-imagining of the play, the setting is modern-day Brazil and the Montagues and Capulets are powerful families that run mega-conglomerates. The two families are in fierce (and sometimes violent) competition with one another. The prologue and epilogue, introducing and then wrapping up the story, are read by television reporters. The “swords” are guns that carry the Sword brand name. And the dialogue resonates as never before through the performances of Leonardo DiCaprio as Romeo, Claire Danes as Juliet, John Leguizamo as Tybalt, Harold Perrineau as Mercutio, Pete Postlethwaite as Father Laurence and Diane Venora as Gloria Capulet. Luhrmann’s use of music to enhance the story and themes is terrific as well.
If you’ve never felt you could really relate to, or even understand, Shakespeare, Romeo + Juliet is an excellent place to start with modern adaptations. The Instant Video is $2.99 to rent and $9.99 to buy, and of course it’s also available in DVD and Blu-ray formats.
Another modern adaptation I can recommend is the 2000 production of Hamlet, starring Ethan Hawke as the put-upon Prince. This film also stars Kyle McLachlan, Diane Verona, Julia Stiles, Sam Shepard and Liev Schreiber, as well as Bill Murray in a very subtle, understated performance as Polonius. This version of the tale is set in the high-finance world of Wall Street, and Hawke’s Hamlet is a film student who’s coming unhinged.
In the modern setting, Hamlet‘s horror at his uncle’s treachery in murdering Hamlet’s father to take over the multi-million dollar family business, as well as his disgust at his mother’s quick acceptance of her former brother in law as a second husband, are all the more real and palpable. Siskel and Ebert gave Hamlet two thumbs up when it first came out.
Finally, I can recommend Richard III very, very highly. This adaptation stars the wonderfully talented Sir Ian McKellan in the title role, with Annette Bening and Robert Downey Jr. in strong supporting roles. After seeing McKellan in the iconic role of the kind wizard Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings movies it may be a bit of shock to see his entirely believable perfomance as the entirely evil Richard III, but you won’t be sorry you did! This retelling of the story is set in a fantastical 1930’s London, with Richard as a scheming, vicious military commander. From Amazon:
Shakespeare’s immortal tale of ambition, lust and murderous treachery is brilliantly updated and brought to life in this riveting, 20th-century masterpiece. Boasting breathtaking performances, unforgettable imagery and two Oscar nominations*, this astounding wartime spectacle is mesmerizing…it will rivet you and shock you (Jeffrey Lyons, Sneak Previews ). In 1930s Britain, a savage, civil war between two royal families has just concluded. But even as the newly installed King Edward (John Wood) takes the reins of power, his ruthless, younger brother Richard (Ian McKellen) sets in motion a monstrous scheme to claim the crown for himself. Enlisting the aid of equally duplicitous allies in the court, Richard embarks on a merciless, single-minded campaign of betrayal, seduction and cold-blooded murder to achieve the goal that has obsessed him all of his tortured life: to be king…at any price. *1995: Costume Design, Art Direction