Whether you’re a devoted reader of the Bard’s words, or prefer to watch the films rather than read his texts, every screen adaptation of Shakespeare comes with a sense of deja vu. Given the frequency with which the playwright’s works make it to film and television, you probably have seen it all before — even if you don’t quite realise it.
Indeed, settling into Henry IV Part I, the second episode of The Hollow Crown, audiences can be forgiven for feeling like they’re in familiar territory. Before Tom Hiddleston took on the role of the defiant Prince Hal — the heir to the throne who spends his time in taverns and in company that his father, King Henry (Jeremy Irons), deems unsuitable — Keanu Reeves got there first. As a hustler working the streets of Portland, he palled around with River Phoenix in the loosely inspired remake that was Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho.
Just as watching The Hollow Crown stage Shakespeare’s historical plays with a stellar cast and in real-life settings casts another light onto his work, so does tinkering with the text to transport it to more recent times, add contemporary sensibilities or both. Here’s seven movies and TV shows that do just that, aka must-see modern Shakespeare.
My Own Private Idaho
It’s the film that cemented the late River Phoenix as one of the greatest actors of his generation, and confirmed that Keanu Reeves could play more than a dim-witted time traveller and the best surfing FBI agent to ever make it to the screen. Only the third feature directed by Gus Van Sant, My Own Private Idaho is also a road movie that transports Henry IV Part I’s wayward son into the world of hustling and drifting across America until he can inherit his father’s fortune, complete with dialogue paraphrased from the original text.
Sons of Anarchy
No one actually talks about ghosts in Kurt Sutter’s seven-season exploration of the dramas inside an outlaw motorcycle club, but two haunt Sons of Anarchy. As young vice president Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam) finds himself questioning the leadership of Clay Morrow (Ron Perlman), who also happens to be married to his mother (Katey Sagal), he can’t escape the shadow of the deceased father he increasingly suspects was murdered by the club’s current leader. And, in taking his narrative down this path, Sutter embraces the influence of Hamlet, as several other character dynamics, plot developments and even episode titles make plain.
Ten Things I Hate About You
When Heath Ledger’s Patrick Verona grabbed a microphone, walked out in front of a football field full of high schoolers, and sang “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You” to Julia Stiles’ Kat Stratford, Ten Things I Hate About You became the go-to teen-centric Shakespeare adaptation. That’s no mean feat given that the sub genre became quite crowded during the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, and there’s certainly more to the modernisation of The Taming of the Shrew than that — witty turns of phrase, clever nods to the source and to the iconic playwright in general, and the ability to make audiences forget that they’re watching a version of one of the Bard’s most beloved comedies among them. Plus, it also spawned a TV spinoff.
Would-be lovers trying to overcome a family feud is one thing; potential sweethearts struggling with the fact that one is living and the other ranks among the shuffling undead is another. Warm Bodies might seem like it’s jumping on the paranormal romance trend reignited by Twilight, but with characters named R (Nicholas Hoult) and Julie (Teresa Palmer), it clearly stems from another literary love story. Of course, other ostensible remakes of the Bard’s star-crossed lovers abound, including in ten-time Oscar winner West Side Story, but there’s just something endearing about this zombie take on the tale.
Think of the first series of cult British comedy Blackadder as a Shakespearian catch-all, nodding to as many of his plays as Richard Curtis and Rowan Atkinson could manage. The season starts with the culmination of the War of the Roses — i.e. the tales behind much of The Hollow Crown — and features lines from, situations similar to and parodies of Richard III and Macbeth. Episodes that follow also reference Anthony and Cleopatra, Julius Caesar and Henry V, and boast the credit “additional dialogue by William Shakespeare”.
Much Ado About Nothing
Joss Whedon’s journey into Shakespearian territory might be more straightforward than most, barely changing the plot or dialogue, but don’t discount the difference contemporary setting, staging and styling — and a spirited cast of the director’s regulars including Angel’s Amy Acker and Alexis Denisoff, Dollhouse’s Fran Kranz and Firefly’s Nathan Fillion — can make. There’s a lightness of touch that makes his Much Ado About Nothing a joy to watch, as well as a sense of exuberance shared with the other film version of note, as helmed by and starring Kenneth Branagh and featuring everyone from Emma Thompson and Denzel Washington to Kate Beckinsale and seeming Shakespeare regular Keanu Reeves.
No list of recent versions of Shakespeare’s works is complete without recognising Akira Kurosawa’s contribution to the field. He reworked Macbeth in Throne of Blood and Hamlet in The Bad Sleep Well; however it is the Japanese filmmaker’s take on King Lear, aka Ran, that is perhaps his most memorable foray into the Bard’s territory. Though set in feudal times, it’s an unmistakably modern vision of multi-generational conflict, as made all the more vivid by its ample bloodshed.
For those seeking a more pure approach to the works of Shakespeare, tune in to The Hollow Crown on SBS Sunday nights at 8:30pm. Or stream it on SBS On Demand anytime: