Wanted: decent, non-traditional Shakespeare adaptations
March 4, 2009 10:51 AM   Subscribe

Help me find more non-purist adaptations of Shakespeare's plays in books and film, please. Caveat postor: they need to actually be good.

There are tons of Shakespeare "adaptations" floating around, but many are terrible and one stars Amanda Bynes. I need help sifting to find the ones that really do something interesting either with Shakespeare's language or themes. Taymor's Titus is as traditional as I'd like to go. It's fine, great even, if the work transcends the basic plot structure. I'm definitely not looking for West Side Story, Kenneth Branagh's vehicles or by-the-book renditions like Polanski's Macbeth. I'm looking for books, films and plays that are of similar quality to:

A Thousand Acres
Kurosawa's Ran and Throne of Blood
Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
Baz Luhrman's Romeo + Juliet (surprisingly good)
Taymor's Titus

What am I missing? Thanks in advance!
posted by zoomorphic to Media & Arts (28 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
10 Things I Hate About You is based on Taming of the Shrew.
posted by theichibun at 10:57 AM on March 4, 2009

Does something like the play from the Reduced Shakespeare Company count?
I personally liked their take on his whole oeuvre, available in book form as The Complete Wrks of Wllm Shkspr (Abridged).
posted by PontifexPrimus at 11:16 AM on March 4, 2009

Best answer: Gertrude and Claudius by John Updike - amazing book.
... I'm in a class on Shakespeare and adaptations of it. And putting off an essay about this book.

This is probably a sign.
posted by SputnikSweetheart at 11:16 AM on March 4, 2009

Best answer: In addition to Ran and Throne of Blood, try Kurosawa's The Bad Sleep Well, a Hamlet-inspired tale set in post-WWII industrial Japan.

I loved Scotland, PA, which sets Macbeth in a 1970s greasy spoon. It's dark and funny and bitingly self-aware.

I imagine you've seen or heard of the recent "ShakespeaRe-Told" series (Macbeth, Taming of the Shrew, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, 2005). I haven't seen those, though my video-store-workin' fella says customers like 'em.

In that vein, I can recommend the 2001 BBC Othello, which recasts the military rivalry as a departmental drama in the modern Metropolitan Police. Eamonn Walker is particularly notable as a gaurded but moving Othello, and Christopher Eccleston chews it up fearlessly as his rival, Ben Jago.

And don't forget Strange Brew. Here's the review I wrote of that for our local newsletter:
Bob and Doug Mackenzie, those tuque-wearing Canadian brothers of SCTV fame, work up a scheme to get all the free beer they can drink. Beauty, eh? But something is rotten at Elsinore Brewery, and the Mackenzie brothers find themselves in up to their necks trying to help Pamlet Pam, heiress to the brewery fortune, reclaim her rights from her genial uncle (Paul Dooley) and the sinister brewmaster (Max von Sydow).

Written and directed by Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis, who also star, Strange Brew rewrites The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, considering what might have transpired if Rosencrantz and Guildenstern hadn’t been, like, total hosers. The idea is stupidly brilliant; the movie is brilliantly stupid. (Yeah, I said “stupid,” and if you don’t like it, you can just take off, eh?)
Also, recommended by me or my Shakespeare-scholar/video-hero fella:
Forbidden Planet (1956, based on The Tempest)
The Lion King (Hamlet)
My Own Private Idaho (loosely/putatively inspired by Henry IV, parts 1 & 2, Henry V)
Royal Deceit (Hamlet, 1994)
Switchblade Sisters (Othello, 1975)
A Thousand Clowns (King Lear, 1997)
Tromeo and Juliet (Romeo and Juliet 1996)
posted by Elsa at 11:18 AM on March 4, 2009

Best answer: Looking for Richard, directed by Al Pacino (!) seems to fit the bill-- partially a very spare version of Richard III, and partly a documentary deconstruction of the play.

Michael Almereyda's Hamlet is definitely interesting, and might be good depending on what you think is good or not. A good cast, if nothing else, with Bill Murray as Polonius, and a contemporary, corporate America setting.
posted by kid_dynamite at 11:19 AM on March 4, 2009

Best answer: Forbidden Planet is based on The Tempest.

The 2006 Macbeth was set among modern-day Australian drug lords, but using the play's original language, so it's akin to the Luhrman Romeo + Juliet in your examples. Personally, I liked it a lot, but it has a pretty low IMDB rating, so YMMV.

Also, TV Tropes (yeah, I know I mention it a lot) has some ideas under the "theatre" section of Recycled IN SPACE (which is not limited to outer space settings, depsite the name). Although it can be hard to tell from that list alone which are good, or which are sufficiently different from the original to be of interest to you.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 11:23 AM on March 4, 2009

Best answer: Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth, by the indefatigable Tom Stoppard.
posted by Skot at 11:24 AM on March 4, 2009

Best answer: Richard III is one of my favorite movies. It's a resetting of the play in a dystopian, fascist version of 1930s England. Ian McKellen has the title role, and also helped Richard Loncraine adapt the play for the screen. Highly recommended.
posted by Vic Morrow's Personal Vietnam at 11:32 AM on March 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Richard Loncraine's 1995 film adaptation of Richard III stars, among the best of British cinema, a fantastic Ian McKellan pre-Gandalf. And, while the text is almost word-for-word the original, the setting and cinematography are absolutely original (and awesome). One of my favourite movies of the 1990s.
posted by _dario at 11:35 AM on March 4, 2009

on non-preview, etc.
posted by _dario at 11:36 AM on March 4, 2009

Best answer: Chimes at Midnight, Orson Welles' movie about Falstaff.
posted by jasper411 at 11:40 AM on March 4, 2009

You're tossing it away, but She's the Man (the one with Amanda Bynes) is a pretty original and entertaining retelling of Twelfth Night, despite how much it hurts me to say those words together.

But, 10 Things I Hate About You is a definitely better Shakespeare-as-teen-comedy and absolutely brilliant.
posted by General Malaise at 12:00 PM on March 4, 2009

It may be too much of a stretch, but many episodes of Blackadder feature "additional dialog by William Shakespeare", particularly Season 1 Episode 1, "The Black Adder."
posted by ecurtz at 12:14 PM on March 4, 2009

Best answer: Prospero's Books directed by Peter Greenaway is a very distinctive version of The Tempest starring John Gielgud. Boasts a great score by Michael Nyman and lots and lots and lots of nude people, including an awesome Caliban. Gielgud voices many of the characters, almost as though he's a Shakespeare surrogate, spinning the tale out of whole cloth inside his head. Finally it becomes sort of a meditation on authorship.

The whole thing is probably not for everyone, though I like it very much. But I think the first 15 minutes or so, at least, is a flatly astonishing piece of work.
posted by Joey Bagels at 12:16 PM on March 4, 2009

Best answer: It's not out yet but Taymor has version of The Tempest staring Helen Mirren as "Prospera" coming this year.
posted by octothorpe at 1:35 PM on March 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

I loved Paul Masursky's Tempest. It was half a modern reinterpretation of the play, and half something else. John Cassavetes, Gina Rowlands, Susan Sarandon, and Molly Ringwald.

Oh, and Raul Julia as "Calibanos". Awesome.
posted by Philbo at 1:38 PM on March 4, 2009

Best answer: I completely forgot to recommend Slings and Arrows, an exceptionally funny and clever Canadian series (now out on DVD, and well worth owning in my opinion) about the fictional New Burbage Festival, a theater center specializing in Shakespeare's plays. Each television season corresponds to the theater season, so they're dealing with one play throughout the season (1: Hamlet; 2: Macbeth; 2: King Lear) and the series depicts the already troubled theater company grappling with new challenges: death, illness, insanity, and towering egos.

It deserves mention here not due to the in-universe Shakespearean productions, amusing or affecting though they are, but because the personal and professional dynamics affecting the "S&A" characters echo the Shakespearean plot of each season's theatrical production. It's subtle, so subtle that a viewer can readily enjoy the show without ever noticing the device, but it's also a very effective reworking of the original plays' plotlines and character studies.
posted by Elsa at 1:55 PM on March 4, 2009 [2 favorites]

I saw this report recently on PBS's News Hour, which features a Kuwaiti adaptation of Richard III.
posted by aught at 1:56 PM on March 4, 2009

Response by poster: Holy balls, octothorpe, that's fantastic news about the new Tempest. From the IMDB site: "Prospera is usurped by her brother and sent off with her four-year daughter on a ship. She ends up on an island; it's a tabula rasa: no society, so the mother figure becomes a father figure to Miranda. This leads to the power struggle and balance between Caliban and Prospera; a struggle not about brawn, but about intellect."

I just did an impromptu English major happy dance. These are really fantastic suggestions, thanks so far. I'll favorite anon.
posted by zoomorphic at 1:58 PM on March 4, 2009

Also, O, Tim Blake Nelson's 2001 adaptation of Othello with a hip young cast.
posted by aught at 2:00 PM on March 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Ann-Marie MacDonald's play Good Night Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) features a professor who posits that Othello and Romeo and Juliet are actually comedies and then enters a parallel world where she meets the characters. There's a lot more to it, but it's a great play and very funny.

And I second Slings and Arrows -- so clever, especially if you're familiar with the Stratford Festival in Ontario (many of the actors have connections with Stratford).

(Can you tell I'm Canadian?)
posted by pised at 2:33 PM on March 4, 2009

From Japan, Future Century Shakespeare: Midsummer Night's Dream (pt.1) and King Lear (pt.1).
posted by betweenthebars at 6:03 PM on March 4, 2009

Oh, also: I haven't seen it, but perhaps Tromeo and Juliet would be up your alley?
posted by pised at 8:02 PM on March 4, 2009

Also, also: have you seen this Wikipedia page? Some are traditional adaptations, but you could sort through them and find the ones that aren't (like the R&J sexploitation flick! Eep).
posted by pised at 8:06 PM on March 4, 2009

I enjoyed Omkara, a recent, Indian adaptation of Othello. It's got songs, but didn't feel like an out-and-out Bollywood musical.

The director, Vishal Bhardwaj, also did a Macbeth adaptation--which the reviewer above didn't enjoy but I which I think got good reviews elsewhere.
posted by col_pogo at 11:35 PM on March 4, 2009

Best answer: I haven't (yet) read Christopher Moore's Fool: A Novel, but I plan to. It's a retelling of King Lear from the fool's perspective.
posted by natabat at 6:25 AM on March 5, 2009

Best answer: The very recent Edgar Sawtelle is an adaptation of Hamlet.
posted by OHenryPacey at 6:30 PM on March 5, 2009

Nthing Slings and Arrows. I have it, if you want to borrow.
posted by ocherdraco at 9:41 PM on March 6, 2009

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