One of the better films I’ve seen this summer is a comedy which centers on the intrigues of two sets of lovers. The setting is decidedly contemporary. The male characters wear suits and ties, and so on. But there is a twist here. The characters all speak in Elizabethan English, and the film in which they appear is MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, director-writer Joss Whedon’s updating of Shakespeare’s classic comedy.
Across the decades, plenty of the Bard’s plays have been adapted to the screen. Many are set in the time in which Shakespeare lived. One of the very best is Laurence Olivier’s four-star version of HAMLET, which came out in 1948 and which remains quite a viewing experience. But what I find so fascinating about this new MUCH ADO is its contemporary setting.
Certainly, Joss Whedon is not the first artist to update Shakespeare. Perhaps one of the most celebrated examples is WEST SIDE STORY, which started out as a Broadway musical before coming to the screen in 1961. Here, the Romeo and Juliet story is transferred to mid-20th-century New York City and the Montagues and Capulets become the Jets and Sharks, rival New York street gangs.
But there have been plenty of less-heralded but no less intriguing adaptations. For example, there is a 1999 film titled 10 THINGS I HATE ABOUT YOU. It is an updating of TAMING OF THE SHREW and is set in a contemporary high school. Beyond its storyline, this film is crammed with Shakespearean touches. In case the inspiration for the film is unclear, the name of the school that the characters attend is Padua High School, which is located somewhere near Seattle. Among the character names are Patrick Verona, Kat Stratford, and Bianca Stratford. At one point, students in a writing class are asked to create sonnets. There is an Elizabethan-themed prom that inspires some fancy hairdos and fetching costumes and, every now and then, the banter among the characters incorporates actual Shakespearean quotations.
One film I find especially fascinating is an updating of RICHARD III, from 1995. The setting is a mythical fascist Great Britain in the 1930s. Civil war has erupted with the House of Lancaster on one side, claiming the right to the British throne and hoping to bring freedom to the country. Opposing is the House of York, commanded by the infamous Richard, who rules over a fascist government and hopes to install himself as a dictator and monarch.
Not surprisingly, a number of Shakespearean storylines have been incorporated into crime films. One is titled JOE MACBETH, which dates from 1955. Here, a character named Lily MacBeth urges her husband Joe to rub out the reigning crime boss and become the new mob kingpin. Two of the supporting characters are named Banky and Duffy. These characters, of course, are based on Banquo and MacDuff.
Then there is MEN OF RESPECT, from 1991, which also is a reworking of MACBETH. This version is set inside a modern-day crime syndicate. Here, the “MacBeth” character is named Mike Battaglia. Get it: MacBeth... Mike Battaglia. The “MacDuff” character is named Matt Duffy. The Banquo character is called Bankie Como.
I can go on and on with this. But what really is key here is: Why has Shakespeare been so frequently updated? The reason, I think, has to do with the timeless nature of his work. Shakespeare’s plays deal with basic issues that reflect on the human condition, including greed, jealousy, betrayal, lust for power, and the complexities of parent-child relationships. These issues and themes are universal. They transcend time and place, and they make films like the current MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING as relevant as tomorrow’s newspaper headline.
Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.
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