Even though the plays of William Shakespeare are centuries old, they remain relevant in the modern cultural canon through their influences on storytelling, role in academia, and recurring features on screen and stage. Many people are exposed to Shakespeare in school or through theater productions. Others first encounter his works on the big screen. Filmmakers have been adapting Shakespeare’s plays since the advent of film. The earliest known Shakespeare film was the 1899 recording of King John, created just eleven years after the first known motion picture. Today, the addition of Shakespeare adaptations in theaters and on streaming services make the Bard’s work accessible to the masses.
In modern times, Shakespeare is synonymous with English class, academia, and stuffy playhouses. In their original form, Shakespeare’s audiences included the upper and upper-middle classes, as well as the lower-middle class. Shakespeare’s works have gained their elite status with time.
A successful Shakespeare film adaptation does just this: it brings the plays back to their roots as pieces of art for a wide range of people to experience. It encapsulates the best parts of the original plays for a modern audience (keeping everything is tricky, as many of the plays are three, even four hours long).
Josh Forsythe, the theater teacher at Franklin, has seen the school through its years of participation in the Fall Festival of Shakespeare (a yearly series of plays put on by Portland area middle and high schools in collaboration with directors from Portland Playhouse, though Franklin hasn’t participated since the 2017-18 school year). To him, there’s an important distinction to be made between film adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays and films inspired by Shakspeare’s plays. The vast majority of Shakespeare’s plays are simply direct adaptations of earlier stories, he explains: “If you take Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and you get rid of the language, it’s not Shakespeare at that point.” Films inspired by Shakespeare’s stories can be a good thing, but they often serve different purposes than adaptations of the original plays.
Shakespeare’s original dialogue isn’t necessarily an obstacle to making a film for modern audiences either. Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film Romeo + Juliet keeps the dialogue from the original play while giving it a modern setting alongside masterfully executed campiness. The editing is flashy and over the top, which offends the viewers’ sensibilities in the best way. The film plays with available techniques, like editing, composition, and elaborate sets, and uses them to explore the source material to its fullest. Young Leonardo DiCaprio (Titanic, The Wolf of Wall Street) and Claire Danes (Homeland, Stardust) star as the titular couple in earnest, charming performances. This film truly encapsulates the idea of modern Shakespeare.
Shakespeare’s original dialogue can also be used in ways that approximate a live theater experience. Hamlet (2009) is a film adaptation of the 2008 Royal Shakespeare Company production of the play, starring the original cast, including David Tennant (Doctor Who, Broadchurch) and Patrick Stewart (X-Men, Star Trek: The Next Generation). By taking a stage-experienced cast and using the director of the stage play, Gregory Doran, the film is an adaptation of a play in the truest sense. The movie takes stage acting techniques that are foundational to Shakespeare’s works and puts them directly on screen.
None of this is to discredit movies that are more Shakespeare-inspired than true attempts to put the plays on screen. These films can and do form interesting, well developed stories, told using solid acting and directing techniques, and provide another avenue for audiences to engage with the stories popularized by Shakespeare.
10 Things I Hate About You is a 1999 romantic comedy based on The Taming of the Shrew. It manages to balance the witty banter, snappy comedy, and emotional core that Shakespearian comedies are known for while simultaneously changing the plot of the play to better fit the modern setting. By making the main characters high-schoolers, the film frames the mistakes and miscommunications they make as (mostly) typical teenage behavior. The film also features a standout performance by the late Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight, Brokeback Mountain), whose charisma and improvisation on set bring the story to life, and an authentic portrayal of teenage angst by Julia Stiles (the Bourne series, Hustlers), whose anger at a patriarchal society is, for the most part, framed as justified rather than fully comedic. This film only takes the basic beats and style of the source material, using a modern setting and dialogue as well as an altered plot. These choices, while they don’t serve to translate the experience of live theater to the screen, successfully create a compelling, entertaining, and emotionally resonant film.
Shakespeare’s works are often viewed as intimidating and inaccessible to the everyday person. “The modern interpretation [of these plays] is that [they’re] too hard. [They’re] boring,” Forsythe explains. “We don’t have patience for it, and it’s not because we don’t have patience.” It’s a part of a larger cultural phenomenon, he notes. “We’ve taught ourselves systematically through our modern devices that we want everything to be fast.” Modern culture rewards, and we in turn expect, quickness. Through the lens of the storytelling conventions of advancing (plot development, the sequence of events), and expanding, (“Details, relevance,” says Forsythe), Shakespeare’s plays tend to be much heavier on expansion than mainstream contemporary stories are. “If you were to boil down all of his plays, the plays were only half an hour long, plot wise. But there’s four hours, or three and a half hours of expansion and poetic consideration,” Forsythe elaborates.
Shakespeare’s plays were written to be seen and heard, and while reading them can be a valuable way to study them, viewing a performance is an indispensable part of the experience. Trips to the theater are often inaccessible, whether it be due to location, cost, or the ongoing pandemic. Films adapted from and inspired by Shakespeare’s works are a valuable avenue for audiences to gain experience and familiarity with these plays, as well as being cinema in their own right.