Film Reviews

Bard Karma

10 Things I Hate About You, an adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew set at a modern-day high school, may have pioneered the idea of turning Shakespeare into teen comedy. But it is far from the first film to update or rework one of the Bard's plots to fit into another setting. Indeed, the Stratford Man, who usually stole his plots from somewhere else, has had his plots, in turn, pillaged by filmmakers for everything from psychodrama to sex farce, horse opera to space opera. Here are a few examples, most of them available on video:

Throne of Blood (1957) and Ran (1985): Steven Spielberg eulogized the departed Japanese director Akira Kurosawa as the Shakespeare of the Cinema, and Kurosawa apparently agreed enough to make epic Japanese versions of two of the First Folio tragedies. Throne of Blood is a bone-chilling samurai Macbeth, with the great Toshiro Mifune in the lead. The final scene, with Kurosawa's terrifying, screen-filling visions of "Birnam Wood" on the march, and Mifune fighting on after he's turned into a pincushion full of arrows, are unforgettable. Ran is a conflation of King Lear with a similar Japanese folktale--the thankless children this time are sons rather than daughters. It has a static, exposition-filled first act that's on the fidget-inducing side, but the chessmen-of-God battle scenes with which the picture climaxes are worth the wait.

Jubal (1956): This Western, directed by the great Delmer Daves of Broken Arrow, lifts its plot from Othello--Rod Steiger schemes to convince rancher Ernest Borgnine that handsome Glenn Ford is fooling around with Borgnine's wife, Valerie French. More loosely, Othello also turned up as the 1989 police drama Internal Affairs, with Richard Gere and Andy Garcia as Iago and the Moor, respectively, and Nancy Travis' panties standing in for Desdemona's notorious handkerchief. And an updating of the story in a college-basketball setting, called simply O, is said to be in production now.

Forbidden Planet (1956): Proof, if any was needed, that Shakespeare was ahead of his time--his most purely fanciful play, The Tempest, is here turned into one of the most sophisticated sci-fi films of the '50s. Planet Altair VI is the film's version of the desert island, in which the Prospero, Walter Pidgeon's Dr. Morbius, has mastered the supertechnology of the extinct alien Krel instead of white magic, and where he has also raised a daughter (Anne Francis) who has never laid eyes on any other man. Then astronauts, led by Leslie Nielsen, show up, and the trouble starts. Morbius has an Ariel-like "tricksy spirit" in the form of his servant Robby the Robot, and he has a Caliban, in the form of the invisible "Monster from the Id" who shows up in response to his paternal jealousy. A classic. There's also a balmy, underrated modern-comedy adaptation of The Tempest, called simply Tempest (1982) by Paul Mazursky. It's set, mostly, on a Greek island, with John Cassavetes as an architect Prospero, Molly Ringwald as the daughter and Raul Julia as Caliban, here a lustful shepherd.

Strange Brew (1983): It would be hard to find a better application of the phrase "loosely based" than to observe that the lone feature film starring SCTV's toque-wearing, beer-and-doughnut-loving Canadian "hosers" Bob and Doug McKenzie (Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis) is loosely based on Hamlet. Yet there's no mistaking the source for the film's plot: The heroine (Lynne Griffin) is the rightful heir to Elsinore Brewery, but her Uncle Claude (Paul Dooley) has taken over after the suspicious death of her father. Bob and Doug vaguely assume the role of a sort of joint Horatio, and the Ghost speaks through a video game.

Big Business (1988): This mistaken-identity farce with Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin, each as a set of identical twins, was plainly inspired by Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors. So, more avowedly, was the '30s Broadway musical The Boys From Syracuse and the 1940 film made from it, but for some reason this silly gem isn't yet available on video.

Men of Respect (1991): This ambitious melodrama sets Macbeth among Italian-American gangsters in New York, and much of the dialogue is transposed almost line-for-line from Shakespeare into wise guy-ese. John Turturro and Katherine Borowitz are the husband and wife who scheme to ice mob boss Rod Steiger; fortune tellers stand in for the witches; Dennis Farina, Peter Boyle and Stanley Tucci stand in for Banquo, Macduff and Malcolm, and Steven Wright has a small role as the modern equivalent of the Porter. It all works surprisingly well. There was a (less effective) 1955 version of the same idea, Joe Macbeth; it doesn't seem to be available on video, but it turns up occasionally on late-night TV.

My Own Private Idaho (1991): The long midsection of this Gus Van Sant film, set among young gay hustlers in the Pacific Northwest, is a takeoff on Henry IV, Part I. Sadly, it's also the most interminable part of this brilliant, flawed work.

A Thousand Acres (1997): Adapted from a Jane Smiley novel, this is a modern, Midwestern Lear with a heavy streak of contemporary psychological interpretation--three daughters of farmer Jason Robards scheme and snipe and enable as the old man cracks up. There's a storm and everything. Pat Hingle, as a neighboring farmer, serves as both Gloucester and the Fool. Jean-Luc Godard made a gangster version of King Lear, in 1987; the latter featured Burgess Meredith, Molly Ringwald and Woody Allen as the Fool.

And one example from the small screen:

"A Feud Is a Feud" (1960): West Side Story (1961) is, of course, the most high-profile updated version of Romeo and Juliet. But probably no less beloved is this half-hour TV version of the tale, written by David Adler for the first season of The Andy Griffith Show. Arthur Hunnicut and Chubby Johnson are the North Carolina versions of Montague and Capulet who refuse to stop feuding even though their kids want to marry. Sheriff Andy, assuming the role of Friar Lawrence, manages to bring about a happy ending.

--M. V. Moorhead

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M.V. Moorhead
Contact: M.V. Moorhead