Based On The Bard: The Original Cult Connoisseur, Constantly Adapting8 August 2016
One of those anecdotes in which somehow everyone’s aunt/cousin/friend-of-a-friend is the protagonist goes like this: a culturally illiterate person goes to a Shakespearean play and when asked their impression of it on leaving, responds, “It was okay but it was full of clichés.”
The point of this story is, of course, that Shakespeare didn’t use clichés; he invented them. The butt of the joke is the poor person who – somehow having managed to escape Year 10 English without guzzling annotated versions of Macbeth, Othello and other plays named after straight men with terrible judgement – doesn’t understand that Shakespeare is everywhere and everything is Shakespeare.
Beyond Baz Luhrman’s undoubtedly culty Danes/Dicaprio Romeo + Juliet and the most recent run at Much Ado About Nothing from Joss Whedon (everyone’s favourite problematic cult purveyor – like a creepy uncle you keep around for his famous Christmas pudding that, while never quite as delicious as it was in the ’90s, is still occasionally pretty good), there are films whose homage to Shakespeare is much more subtle. In the same way that one can get a good chunk of the way through Bridget Jones’s Diary to realise it’s essentially Pride and Prejudice (ditto for Clueless and Emma), some Shakespeare-influenced films manage to successfully camouflage themselves in the garb of a simple, modern blockbuster – if only because the stories themselves are so universal and so ingrained as to be simultaneously recognisable and anonymous. But fear not; by the end of this page you, much like the aunt in the (sub)urban legend, should be fully disabused of the notion that any pop culture is truly devoid of the Bard.
Forbidden Planet, 1956
Cult material in its own right, a revolutionising force in modern sci-fi (just look for all the bits and pieces emulated in later sci-fi classics, or shamelessly ripped off by Lucasfilm – I’m looking at you, signature space titles), and, perhaps most bizarrely, starring Leslie Nielson in a non-comedic role, Forbidden Planet is one of the easier films to know and love without sniffing a hint of Shakespeare. It is, however, and however loosely, based on The Tempest, where our stormy island becomes the eponymous planet. The isolated setting (and principal character roles: the father, the virgin, the captain, the servant, the malevolent other) is the most obvious comparison to be drawn but Forbidden Planet owes its sci-fi legacy at least partly to deeper motifs borrowed from Shakespeare’s final work. Technological advancement is thematically analogous to magic but over both, human hubris reigns supreme. Technology itself is not the danger on the forbidden planet, just as Prospero’s magic is not the island’s principal evil. The menace of both lies instead in the ability of these forces to make one less human, or rather, our inability to harness them without forfeiting some of our humanity. Good sci-fi, some fans will tell you, is about telling human stories in otherworldly (or other-timely) settings; this tradition may have begun with Forbidden Planet but the broader rule stretches back centuries: a true classic says something about the human condition that resonates universally.
10 Things I Hate About You, 1999
This is one of those films whose subject matter and characters (leading lady in particular) inadvertently become more relatable and pertinent with time. Kat Stratford is more a heroine for now than for the ’90s, yet her inspiration hails from the 1590s. While Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew is perhaps the most overtly misogynistic of his plays, featuring Katerina, a headstrong female protagonist whose prospective husband “tames” her into subservience via psychological warfare, 10 Things pulls the rug out from the patriarchal dynamic and gives us stridently feminist high school senior Kat. Retaining the basic premise – Katerina’s younger, more pliable and thus more sought-after sister Bianca can only marry (date) after her older sister has a husband (goes to the prom with Heath Ledger), so a band of unlikely allies join forces to pair her up – but flips the rest on its head. What is so great about Julia Stiles’s Kat is that she is utterly untameable. She falls for the guy but doesn’t compromise her values or settle for being treated poorly; she goes to the prom but doesn’t undergo a conventional-beauty-standards-approved makeover à la She’s All That1. Her emotional vulnerability doesn’t make modern-day Katerina soft on anything important and the retelling of a love story riddled with obstacles in which the strong, ambitious girl emerges untamed is as feminist as Shakespeare never meant to be. Also, I’m convinced that David Krumholtz was 30 years old in this film and has been 30 years old ever since.
She’s The Man, 2006
Less of the classic underdog cult variety, more of the Mean Girls-esque quotability era (in which the former kind is less and less feasible in light of social and digital media’s cardinal maxim: let nothing good or really, really bad go unshared), She’s The Man plays on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and gives it a kick2 of feminism, albeit more lightweight and rom-com friendly than does 10 Things’ shrew. Basically: Amanda Bynes refuses to accept shitty boyfriend, that girls can’t play soccer and that she and Channing Potatum can’t work it out even though he’s firmly of the no-homo variety of college boy and thinks that she’s his weird male roommate (namely, the twin brother she’s impersonating). No shipwrecks or yellow tights in sight. Probably less gay than the original play.
West Side Story, 1961
Based on the 1957 musical that is in turn (quite blatantly) based on Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story takes our star-crossed teen idiots from Fair Verona and plonks them in the middle of New Yoik gang tensions. Dispensing with iambic pentameter but gaining musical numbers, West Side substitutes sword duels with “rumbles” and, notably, doesn’t kill its Juliet.
The Lion King, 1994
Oh, man. Hamlet is one of Shakespeare’s most popular, most lauded and most analysed tragedies and if Claudius murdering King Hamlet senior didn’t quite do it, Disney was there to make sure the human race shed a collective tear for his hand-drawn lion counterpart, Mufasa (“long… live… the king.”).
1 “Have you ever considered a new look?” her sister asks. “You could have some serious potential buried under all this hostility.” But at the prom, Kat’s signature tightly-pulled Hostile Girl Ponytail is intact, breaking from the well-entrenched tradition of girls literally letting their hair down in movies when they learn to loosen up, like men; see Sandra Bullock’s wavy Chill Girl Side-Part three-quarters through any movie.
2 Pun intended.