So back when everyone else was celebrating St George’s Day, the literary world were remembering a much more important historical figure. Nobody knows the exact date on which William Shakespeare is born so it has become general practice to celebrate his birth on the day of his death, April 23rd. Regardless of all the potential controversy surrounding the writer, he’s a fucking important guy in the world of English literature. I know as a degree-carrying, literature geek I’m a little biased when it comes to the Bard but I think it’s worthwhile for everyone to experience him at some point in their lives. I’m also aware of the apprehension that surrounds his plays. Back in 2012 when Hollow Crown filled me with fucking joy, I tried to persuade my friends to watch the series only to be met with the unnecessary “I just find it boring” reaction. I understand that the language can be a little daunting for a modern audience but Shakespeare is anything but fucking boring. There is plenty of drama, emotion, romance and humour within his works to keep any audience happy. However, I understand how difficult it will be to change people’s minds so, instead, I present to you five Shakespeare films to keep anyone happy.
5: O (2001)
O came out at a time when it was apparently the ‘in’ thing to adapt Shakespeare plays in teen friendly ways. Of course, it is always going to be difficult to modernise the content particularly ones that are so outdated in the way they deal with race and gender. Although, Othellois a fantastic play that gives a director a fuck load to work with when handled delicately. As someone who has loved Oliver Parker’s 1995 version, starring the legendary Kenny Branagh, I was unconvinced shoving the tale of jealousy, mistrust and revenge into the world of High School Basketball was a hit too One Tree Hill for me to handle. However, I’ve had to eat my words somewhat.
O is by no means a fantastic production or even the greatest teen drama you’ll ever see but it does a good job handling its source material. Odin James (Mekhi Phifer) is the only black student at an elite boarding school and the star of the basketball team. Team mate, Hugo (Josh Hartnett), is jealous of the attention his father (Martin Sheen) lavishes on O so sets out to destroy his relationship with Desi (Julia Stiles). Needless to say, violence ensures. The whole film is overflowing with teen angst and I’m not entirely convinced of the emotional backstory to humanise Hugo. However, placing the character of Othello in this environment really highlights the pressure he is under to present the perfect image.
4: Romeo and Juliet (1996)
Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet is still the standard modern adaptation by which all others will be judged. It’s the film that has introduced countless teenage girls to the words of one of England’s greatest playwrights and to the charms of Leonardo DiCaprio. It also boasts one of the greatest soundtracks of the 90s: with its mix of Radiohead, The Cardigans and Garbage. It is as fucking huge a production as we have become used to with Luhrmann and the original play had been edited and reformatted to suit the director’s purpose.
In Luhrmann’s film, the wealthy families of Verona become two warring mob families of Verona Beach. Placing Shakespeare’s text into a thoroughly modern setting, swords become guns and exposition comes in the form of news outlets. Now I’m no longer a pathetic teenager, I can see Romeo and Juliet for what it really is: a messy film confusing a bunch of young actors not suited to be spouting the words of William Shakespeare. Although, being Luhrmann, the love story is the key and, despite never quite getting to grips with the language, he gets great chemistry and connection from his two leads.
3: Ran (1985)
Ran is the Samurai adaptation of King Lear that you never knew you needed in your life. The film earned Akira Kurosawa his only Oscar nomination and has been hailed for its art direction, cinematography, and costume design. Ranis a fucking good looking film and is a wonderfully accomplished adaptation of a difficult play.
Kurosawa’s film follows the ageing warlord, Hidetora Ichimonji, who, after years of tyrannically ruling his kingdom, decides its time to abdicate in favour of his three sons. Tiring of their elderly father and wanting power for themselves, two of Hidetora’s sons rise against him whilst the patriarch banishes his youngest son for standing-up to him. Ran is a violent reimagining of Shakespeare’s complex play concerning madness and mistrust that is no less devastating upon its conclusion. It’s an exciting and visually stunning adaptation of King Lear and will help no doubt please anyone too afraid to experience the real thing.
2: 10 Things I Hate About You (1999)
10 Things I Hate About You offers up Julia Stiles’ second place on this list confirming, once and for all, that she is the Queen of presenting Shakespeare for all non-believers out there. This time she takes centre stage as the feisty feminist Kat in Gil Junger’s modernisation of The Taming of the Shrew. It also stars many 90s girls favourite heartthrob Heath Ledger in his pre-Joker days. I fucking love 10 Thingsand can say that it literally provided the soundtrack for my teenage years. Seriously, I wore that album out.
Despite the dodgy concept of a man’s struggle to subdue an opinionated woman through his courtship, The Taming of the Shrewactually lends itself quite easily to the world of teen films: the overbearing father forbidding his young daughter from dating, the constant flitting between love and hate, and the various line-up of supporting characters all scream hormones and High School. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the boy with a crush on the popular girl (Larissa Oleynik) and puts a plan in place to get to her. Mostly involving Heath Ledger’s bad boy pursuing her bitchy older sister. 10 Things is essential Shakespeare viewing thanks to Ledger’s version of ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’ and Stiles reciting her very own Shakespearean sonnet.
1: The Lion King (1994)
By now, everyone is aware that one of their childhood faves owed almost everything to the great Bard’ most famous tragedy. In The Lion King, Hamlet is transported to the African savannah where the overlooked brother of the King orchestrates his rise to power. The Lion King is Shakespeare in the ultimate disguise and should be required viewing in first schools for all burgeoning bibliophiles.
And why does The Lion King sit at number 1 on this list? Well, duh. Its fucking awesome.