There may not be a more adapted literary source in Hollywood than Shakespeare. After all, those 37 plays have everything, and not just for nerds like me. Sex, violence, humor, ghosts, wizards, love, betrayal – those are themes that everyone can relate to – especially all you ghost wizards out there – and with the right combination of actors and directors they can be great fun to watch. This Friday we can add another Shakespeare adaptation to the list thanks to Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing, which was filmed at his house while he was on a break from making The Avengers (seriously, is there anything that guy can’t do?). Before you check out what he has in store, here are a few adaptations to watch (or not to watch – that is the question).
Much Ado About Nothing: While this week’s Much Ado has some major nerd cred because of its director, the 1993 adaptation takes the crown when it comes to an all-star cast. Denzel Washington, Keanu Reeves, Kate Beckinsale, Michael Keaton, Kenneth Branagh (of course), Emma Thompson. It’s just ridiculous how many big names are in this thing. Keaton is especially awesome as the idiotic constable Dogberry, and Keanu is just thoroughly out-acted at every step as he glowers his way through the movie. Much Ado is personally my favorite Shakespeare comedy, and having such a talented cast delivering the puns and innuendos makes for a fun and approachable movie.
Macbeth: There’s a version on Netflix streaming starring Patrick Stewart as Macbeth that shows how it’s possible to change the setting and still make it work (more on how to absolutely not make it work later). Instead of old-timey Scotland, the action takes place in a militarized society with a lot of heavy trench coats and sparse sets. The actors’ lines echo through big, empty rooms and hallways (all of which was clearly filmed on a sound stage, which is actually very effective). The action is brutally violent, and Patrick Stewart is haunting in the title role. Nothing good happens in this play, and this version really makes you feel it.
Hamlet: Unsurprisingly, the most famous play ever written has a boatload (?) of film adaptations to its name. Before I get into the Hamlet movies you should see, let me steer you away from one you shouldn’t. One of the easiest ways to screw up Shakespeare is to try too hard to “modernize” the material. Now, plenty of adaptations make the time period contemporary, but the version starring Ethan Hawke takes it too far. This movie’s Hamlet is made into a film student, with his soliloquies delivered as something of a video diary. It’s a kind-of clever change, but feels much too gimmicky to take seriously. This version also makes a completely ridiculous change to the setting, which takes things out of Elsinore and into Manhattan, where “Denmark” is the name of a corporation. It all lowers the stakes immensely, and hearing middle English spoken in boardrooms feels out of place. And to follow up a bad choice with a worse one, the “to be or not to be” soliloquy is delivered while Ethan Hawke wanders through the “action” section of Blockbuster wearing one of those wool hats with the ear flaps. Don’t see this movie.
Now on to the good. The version directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh keeps everything from the original text, which means the English majors will be happy, but it also means that you’re in for a lot of soliloquizing. It’s about four hours long, so it’s basically like watching one of the extended Lord of the Rings movies with fewer hobbits and more wordplay. But it’s still the most faithful version of the play, and the cast is phenomenal – Branagh, Kate Winslet, Julie Christie, Robin Williams, Billy Crystal, and even Jack Lemmon and Charlton Heston make appearances. It’s a lot to get through, and Branagh doesn’t skimp on the dramatic music and spit-in-your-face acting style, but as long as you prepare yourself to watch the most emotion ever emoted you should enjoy it.
If that’s too much of an undertaking for you, the Hamlet starring Mel Gibson is also a treat. What’s wonderful about this one is its complete lack of subtlety. Normally that’s a bad thing, but somehow with Hamlet it works. Gibson is just coming off Lethal Weapon 2, so he’s right at the height of his crazy (i.e. his normal state). The scene where Hamlet loses it in front of his mother – played by Glenn Close, who is only 11 years older than Gibson, successfully increasing the ick factor – is just nutso. Lots of guttural screaming and Mel’s trademark wide psycho eyes really set him apart from the Oliviers and Branaghs. The crazy ante is upped even further by the presence of Helena Bonham Carter as Ophelia, so when they’re on screen together you’re really getting double the insanity of a normal Hamlet. It’s just a joy to watch.
Whether you’re a theater nut or have been completely stumped by the plays all your life, the movies on this list are a load of fun and make what can be some seriously daunting material accessible and are worth checking out. Except for that Ethan Hawke one – seriously, don’t do that to yourself.