When the Bard Goes to Hollywood

I once saw a TV movie, where in movie tradition, the bell rings before the teacher can give the next day’s assignment, so she is forced to bellow over the herd of hastily departing students: “Sinclair Lewis’s ‘Main Street’ is due next week, and you can’t pick it up at the video store!” Of course, now it’s much easier for students to have access to movies that might help them better understand the intricacies of the books they are assigned in English class.  If you want to watch “Romeo and Juliet,” there are over thirty versions to choose from, ranging from TV dramas to movies set in a later time period (“West Side Story”) and even a version featuring garden gnomes.

It’s additionally thoughtful when Hollywood decides to update the classics and make them more accessible to the “average” person. Often this specifically includes teens. For example, “Clueless” starring Alicia Silverstone as a pampered rich girl who loves giving makeovers, is supposed to be an updated version of Jane Austen’s “Emma.” And more recently, “Easy A” was intended as a modern version of Nathanial Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter.”

One English class author (or should I say playwright) who is perennially popular in Hollywood movies is William Shakespeare, a man who lived in the Elizabethan era and wrote a ton of tragedies, comedies, historic plays and sonnets. Unfortunately, the language he used is very “flowery,” meaning lots of “thees” and “thous,” and can give even a bright student difficulty at first when figuring out what he is trying to say. This can cause friction between the teacher, who has read the plays so many times he/she could recite them in a coma, and the class who is used to reading works that may be equally dull but easier to decode. The odd thing about Shakespeare is that, as inaccessible as his language may seem at first, it’s likely an English speaker can quote at least one of his famous lines.

Coincidentally, when Hollywood portrays a high school English class, many times the protagonist is studying a Shakespeare play. However, the protagonist is luckier than the average real life student because the assigned play always mirrors the plot of the movie. Cinematic drama productions, especially class plays, also frequently are Shakespearean. For example, in “Dead Poets Society,” a boarding school student (Robert Sean Leonard) takes a role in a community production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” against his father’s wishes.  The lines spoken by his character, Puck, at the play’s end: “Give me your hands, if we be friends/ And Robin shall restore amends.” take on a definite irony, when we see what happens in the aftermath.

Shakespeare’s movies that have gotten the teen-friendly Hollywood treatment include “The Taming of the Shrew” turning into “10 Things I Hate About You,” starring Julia Stiles, the late Heath Ledger and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.  Stiles plays an adolescent rebel/feminist whose dad (Larry Miller) won’t let her little sister date, until she does, too.  There is a bet involved, and of course, a message about seeing past the surface.

During her teen character period, Stiles also appeared in the movie “O,” an updated version of the tragedy “Othello,” in which Mekhi Phifer plays an African-American basketball star at a posh boarding school, who winds up having his future jeopardized when his coach (Martin Sheen) openly prefers him to his own son (Josh Hartnett), but his own insecurity and pride may also contribute.

In another strange twist, “Twelfth Night,” morphed into “She’s the Man,” in which Amanda Byrnes played a soccer star who transfers to her brother’s boarding school in order to still play (her team is disbanded).  This involves impersonating the brother, resulting in many wacky high jinks in which various people fall for other various people, mistaking them for the opposite gender.

Movies for a more mature audience also have tried to update the Bard.  “A Thousand Acres,” based on the novel by Jane Smiley, is a modern version of “King Lear,” a movie starring Jessica Lange and Michelle Pfeiffer about a family torn apart by one daughter’s accusations of incest.  “The Ides of March,” starring Ryan Gosling and George Clooney, takes its title from a famous line of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” both having themes about the abuse of political power.

And if you’re studying “Macbeth,” a version starring Michael Fassbender is due out next month.  Thanks to Hollywood, even if you don’t quite get the gist of a Shakespeare play on the page, watching it on screen should clear up most confusion.

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