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From Classic to Contemporary: Shakespeare to Modern Movie Retellings

Classics — whether they are novels, plays, or epics — offer us great characters, interesting plots, and lots of things for discussion … but sometimes they can be a little tough to tackle. Sometimes we adore them, but sometimes we can’t get past page 3, let alone the requisite 50. That doesn’t mean that we should give up what they have to offer, though, does it? Many of today’s authors try to use these classic works as a starting-off point to write a more modern version. If done well, these contemporary versions can have a huge impact and impart the same wisdom that made the earlier story gain its classic status. Jessica Miller and I decided to find and examine some great pairs of classics and their contemporary rewrites to see if they are successful … or maybe not.

This summer, we decided it would be great fun to tackle the movie versions of many of the classics that show up on summer reading lists. In researching classics that had been retold in movie format, we actually found enough to break it down into two posts! So this month, we decided to focus on one of history’s greatest authors: the Bard, William Shakespeare. With love stories that have inspired millions and revenge tales that resonate in every culture, it is no wonder that Hollywood has chosen to rework his epic tales again and again.

Some great examples that will make for fun viewing this summer:

The Classic: The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark

A young prince of Denmark must deal with intrigue in the Court after he is visited by the ghost of his father requesting that he avenge his murder. Along with the ever-present threat of invasion; ridiculousness from his two lackeys, Rosencrantz and Gildenstern; and serious relationship issues with his new fiancee Ophelia, Hamlet has a lot to deal with. Here’s where you get the famous “To be, or not to be” soliloquy, guys.

The Contemporary: Disney’s “The Lion King”

Did you ever realize that The Lion King is a reimagining of Hamlet set in the Animal Kingdom? An “Uncle” who has bumped off the current king and stepped into his position of power … a young prince determined to regain his proper place and to save his mother and people from a power-hungry ruler … complete with award-winning songs and heart-warming lion cub cuteness!

The Classic: Romeo and Juliet

Two households, the Montagues and the Capulets, who are both well known and very powerful, don’t like each other very much. Young members of these families — which extends to cousins, servants, even good friends — tend to really like public brawling. Cue Romeo, a young man who really likes the idea of love, and the son of Lord Montague. Dragged to a party held by the Capulets, he meets the young Juliet, only learning later that she is the daughter of Lord Capulet. Cue lots of drama and comedic death plots gone completely and horribly wrong. And remember guys, “wherefore” means “why!”

The Contemporary: West Side Story

West Side Story is one of the first really successful modernizations of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Not only did it receive crazy accolades when it came out in 1961, but it’s also on this year’s Fabulous Films for Young Adults list (the theme is “Song and Dance”)! No longer feuding families in Italy, this musical version becomes the tale of two warring gangs in New York City. Tony, a white member of the Jets, and Maria, a Puerto Rican and sister to the Sharks’ gang leader, fall passionately and tragically in love.

The Classic: The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice

When we begin, Othello, a black general in the Venetian Army, secretly marries Desdemona, a wealthy politician’s daughter. There are a few people who are unhappy with this — and are just unhappy people in general — and do their best to sabotage Othello in any way possible. There are many things that go wrong, a lot of misunderstandings that occur, and a lot of anger being taken out on the wrong people. And really, we have one of Shakespeare’s cruelest villains, who does what he does, not out of ambition or desire, but sheer hatred.

The Contemporary: O

This modern version focuses on the members of a high school basketball team. When Odin is recognized as the team’s best player by Coach Duke, the coach’s son and Odin’s rival, Hugo, sets out in jealousy to hurt Odin. His reckless actions not only lead the team to dishonor, but also result in someone dying.

The Classic: The Taming of the Shrew

Petruchio is a gold-digger who comes to Padua in search of a wealthy wife. When he comes across an old friend who wants to marry the most beautiful girl in town, they make an agreement: he will woo and marry the older sister, who must be married before anyone can offer for the younger sister’s hand. Well, there’s a problem with that: Katherine is very willful and just a little violent. Cue shenanigans.

The Contemporary: 10 Things I Hate About You

Now set in a modern high school, poor Cameron must get someone to date the shrewish Katarina Stratford so that he can woo her younger sister, Bianca. Everyone is surprised when the boy he pays to date Kat actually finds her fascinating and decides to actually win her heart. This movie was so popular it inspired a TV series by the same name. It’s also on the 2009 Fabulous Films for Young Adults list for the “Coming of Age Around the World” theme.

The Classic: Twelfth Night; or, What You Will

Viola and her brother Sebastian have washed up from a shipwreck to Illyria, where Duke Orsino is in charge. Viola, dressed as a boy, becomes an assistant to the Duke — and, of course, proceeds to fall in love with him. There’s just one problem: he’s completely in love with the Lady Olivia, who, upon the first meeting with young Cesario (Viola in disguise), falls in love with him. Once again, cue shenanigans, with a fabulous collection of supporting characters, including the Duke’s entire household.

The Contemporary: She’s the Man

Interwoven love stories abound in this modern rewrite. In disguise at Illyria High, Viola becomes the roommate and confidante of Duke, who loves Olivia, who pines for Viola (disguised as Sebastian, who has run off to tour with his band), whose brother Sebastian actually returns and falls for Olivia, causing  a problem with Duke, whom Viola has fallen in love with … Did we mention Channing Tatum playing soccer?

Bonus tidbit: The great Julia Stiles is in two of these updates (Ten Things and O) and she’s also in one filmed version of the original Hamlet!

As you can see, Shakespeare’s classics contained so many great themes that Hollywood cannot help but keep attempting to rework his tales into our modern world. The above examples are a great way to tackle Shakespeare in an easy to digest (and fun to watch) way this summer! Stay tuned for next month’s Classic to Contemporary when we tackle more modern movie versions of classics.

— Jessica Miller, currently reading Timepiece by Myra McEntire and watching She’s the Man (just one more time!)

— Jessica Pryde, still working on those Geektastic stories bit by bit and just starting Aurelia by Anne Osterlund

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