From Gnomes to Rent Boys – Cinematic Re-Imaginings of Shakespeare

Happy birthday, William Shakespeare! Also, commiserations on the anniversary of your death. Yes, since today marks both 400 years since Shakespeare’s passing and 452 years since his birth (well, give or take a few days), what better reason to indulge in the work of a man frequently lauded as the greatest writer in the English language? Okay, so it’s a hyperbolic title, and admittedly, even the best plays risk getting a little fusty after four centuries. One of the reasons for Shakespeare’s enduring popularity, however, is that his plays aren’t fixed, unchangeable works. Over the years, they’ve been templates for artists of all shades to explore a multitude of themes and styles.

Nowhere is Shakespeare’s ripeness for re-interpretation more evident than on film. Hamlet and Romeo & Juliet were first filmed as far back as 1900, and since then adaptations have shifted from the traditionalism of Laurence Olivier and Franco Zeffirelli to ever wilder re-imaginings. Shakespeare’s fingerprints can be found on countless films from just about every genre imaginable. Musical? Check. West Side Story is Romeo & Juliet transplanted to 1950s New York, with the Montagues and Capulets becoming rival street gangs who like to be in America, feel pretty and witty and bright, and so on. Dark comedy? Check. Scotland, PA moves the bloodshed of Macbeth from the moors of Dunsinane to a 1970s greasy spoon café, with three hippies standing in for the witches (naturally). Sci-fi? Once again, check. Forbidden Planet contains strong echoes of The Tempest, swapping magic for alien technology and sailors for astronauts.

Shakespeare is such a cultural titan that his works are part of our collective consciousness

Along the way we’ve also seen the likes of My Own Private Idaho (a story of gay street hustlers drawn from Henry IV), Gnomeo & Juliet (an animation where Romeo and Juliet are gnomes from neighbouring gardens, which is every bit as wonderful as it sounds), and even a Japanese hair rock Macbeth (yes, you read that correctly). It’s not necessarily the case that the film industry is unimaginative or relies on borrowed plots. Shakespeare is such a cultural titan that his works are part of our collective consciousness, as familiar and re-workable as folk tales. What’s more, they tap into fundamental human emotions such as jealousy, love, ambition and doubt, which remain universally relatable in numerous guises.

This proves true no matter how significantly adaptations diverge from their source material. Take Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, a re-telling of Macbeth set in feudal Japan and shot in the classic Japanese ‘Noh’ style. While it uses none of Shakespeare’s words, its brooding stationary shots and sudden bursts of violence create a similar rhythm of stasis and horror to that found in Macbeth. Even the ever-present fog, which swirls through the forest and around castles, creates a hazy, oneiric quality, echoing Macbeth’s theme of tortured sleep and making Throne of Blood a mystical dream that visually descends into nightmare. Whilst keeping its Shakespearean roots, it becomes something unmistakeably Japanese, unmistakeably Kurosawa.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are so-called ‘teen Shakespeare movies’ like O and 10 Things I Hate About You, accused of being ‘culturally illiterate’ and even of ‘retarding the Bard’. But while a film like She’s the Man (a.k.a. Twelfth Night in a high school football team) is far from high-brow – Viola’s original declaration of “I am the man” is altered to “I’m a bad-ass hunky dude!” - its frenetic pace and humour echo the comic confusion of its source play. It’s a fun, shameless piece of mass-market entertainment which is as distinctly American Hollywood as Throne of Blood is Japanese arthouse (let’s not forget, too, that mass entertainment was the original intention of Shakespeare’s comedies back in the 1600s).

cinematic overhauls play a major part in keeping Shakespeare’s legacy alive

In fact, these two contrasting approaches demonstrate the necessity of new versions of Shakespeare. His plays might be universally relatable, but Britain’s colonial past no doubt played a large part in them being exported worldwide. Re-imaginings, then, are a way for artists to take ownership of these imposed works, rejecting notions of cultural hegemony and instilling Shakespeare with their own values. Consider how the Japanese Kurosawa gravitated towards a sombre play where violating the established social order results in madness and death, while filmmakers in America - the self-declared “Land of the Free” - opted for Twelfth Night, a buoyant comedy where transgression is forgiven and ultimately rewarded. Compare, too, how Throne of Blood moulds Shakespeare to sit in the canon of Asian auteur cinema, while She’s the Man hurls him into the Hollywood mass-media machine. New spins on Shakespeare enabled both cultures to interact with Britain’s legacy whilst also validating their own practices and beliefs, in ways that wouldn’t have been possible had they just adapted his works as written.

You might love some, you might loathe some, but these cinematic re-imaginings share a symbiotic relationship with Shakespeare. Just as they rely upon him for plots and themes, he relies upon them to stay fresh. Re-inventing the Bard obviously has to go beyond gimmickry - chucking in some iPhones or allusions to the refugee crisis won’t automatically make his work ‘relevant’. Likewise, there’s no reason a traditional staged interpretation can’t feel new. Still, when made with passion and vision, cinematic overhauls play a major part in keeping Shakespeare’s legacy alive; something that is only likely to increase in future. Since his death, we’ve seen Shakespeare re-invented with hair rockers, gnomes, rent boys and aliens. Who knows what the next 400 years might bring?

More about the author

About the author

Harry Mason likes to call himself a freelance writer, even if his tax forms say he's technically a waiter. He graduated last year from the University of East Anglia, and writes predominantly about social politics and film. He looks forward to the day when he's able to grow a beard; until then, you'll just have to blame his so-called 'bleeding heart lefty views' on youthful naivety.

Follow Harry on Twitter.

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