8 Modernized Adaptations That Do William Shakespeare Justice
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The Contemporary Bard: 8 Modernized Adaptations That Do William Shakespeare Justice

By Rob Payne | Seriously Random Lists | June 11, 2013 | Comments ()


I was very much looking forward to this past weekend's release of Joss Whedon's "let's put on a play with my friends" approach to adapting William Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, and then I discovered it was only showing in New York and Los Angeles before a wider release on July 21st. This was rather heartbreaking since I've, frankly, needed to see this movie since it was first announced last year with that indelible black-and-white image of a martini swigging snorkelist. Classy and absurd all at once, exactly how I like my Shakespeare, especially the comedies. Even the only moderately enthusiastic critical reception can't temper by excitement to see this movie.

Thankfully the Bard from Stratford-upon-Avon seems to be as popular as ever, so there are plenty of adaptations out there in the pop cultural aether that can tide us over until Whedon's Much Ado gets a wider release. There isn't a shortage of those that try to update the plays into contemporary settings for contemporary audiences, either, which also tend to be my favorite versions. But not all modernized Shakespeare adaptations are created equal, and just putting classical imperialists and monarchs in fascistic settings doesn't automatically make them engaging, though it can't hurt. Below are Eight Modernized Adaptations that Do Justice to William Shakespeare, either in translation of spirit or transliteration of text. Enjoy!

10 Things I Hate About You
"The Taming of the Shrew" as a high school rom-com.

Looking for Richard
Al Pacino and friends get pretentious with "Richard III," and get away with it.

"Hamlet" with 1990s Ethan Hawke and the perhaps the best Polonius ever Bill Murray.

Scotland, P.A.
The movie that answers the age-old question, What if "Macbeth" was a McDonald's?

"Slings and Arrows"
Shakespeare on Canadian TV, with Paul Gross, Mark Mckinney, and Rachel McAdams!

The Bad Sleep Well
"Hamlet" by Akira Kurosawa and starring the best "Hamlet" not named Olivier nor Branagh, but Mifune.

Romeo + Juliet
"Romeo and Juliet" by Baz Luhrmann, and all the beauty and headaches that implies.

Shakespeare as gory allegory, with Ralph Fiennes, Vanessa Redgrave, and Jessica Chastain!

Rob Payne also writes the comic The Unstoppable Force, tweets on the Twitter, tumbls on the Tumblr, and his wares can be purchased here. He feels like Ian McKellan's Richard III and Patrick Stewart's Macbeth cancel each other out.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • Mr. E

    Thank God you included Coriolanus. More people need to see the massive amount of talent that Ralph Fiennes puts on display in that film, both acting and directing. One of my favorite films from last year.

  • Dirty Sanchez

    You left out Kurosawa's "Throne of Blood", also with Mifune. A great retelling of Macbeth set in feudal Japan.

  • And, thus, not a "modernized adaptation." But thanks for reading!

  • Robert

    Coriolanus is incredibly dull and boring. Vanessa Redgrave is the best reason to see the film and you'll be compelled to shut off the DVD/playback before you see her speak one line of Shakespeare.

  • trixie

    Watch "Throne of Blood" immediately! I saw it in a film class and to this day it is the standard by which I judge any other "Macbeth."

  • YeahButNoBut

    No love for Shakespeare Retold? If you haven't seen it, do yourself a favour and get your mitts on a copy.

    James MacAvoy as chef Macbeth taking over celebrity chef Duncan's resteraunt? There are supernatural binmen!

    Taming of the Shrew with Rufus Sewell (phwoar), and Shirley Henderson as an angry, sweary MP.

    Much Ado About Nothing where Beatirce and Benedick are morning-show TV hosts?

  • Holy shit, I have not heard of this. Thanks!

  • Eleanor Alaimo

    Would have been first on my list if I hadn't just seen Alan Cumming's phenomenal performance of MacBeth on Broadway. Nothing compares!

  • Patrick Stewart's version of 'Macbeth' should have found a place on your list. That was pretty damn good.

  • Salieri2

    Yes! Weirdly apropos semi-Blitz setting, creepy-ass nurse witches, lots and lots of drama revolving around sinks for some reason, and the most in-your-face Banquo ever...I might have to buy this. I think it fell apart a little at the end, but the dagger speech and everything to do with Lady Mac was shitballs amazing.

  • Salieri2

    Hang on, here it is--(I had forgotten the 'stache):


  • Can I shoutout to ShakespeaRetold? 3/4 of it is awesome:

    Much Ado was a delight with Damian Lewis rocking a douchey goatee.

    Macbeth was creative with James McAvoy as Chef MacBeth and Richard Armitage as MacDuff.

    I even liked Taming of the Shrew with a cross-dressing Rufus Sewell as Petruchio and fabulously short Shirley Henderson as Katherine.

  • YeahButNoBut

    Snap! I love this. Macbeth was just fantastic :)

  • himonoonna

    I'm so glad to see The Bad Sleep Well on here! It is easily one of my favorite versions of Hamlet. I show it every year in my Intro to Literature classes, and, invariably, students leave the first class halfway through the film wondering what kind of ridiculous black and white, subtitled torture I am putting them through. Then they come back for the second class and have their minds blown by how much better they understand Hamlet after having it filtered through some post-WWII Japanese business intrigue. It's a hilarious transformation, and I mentally bow to the glory of Kurosawa every time it happens.

  • annie

    Julie Taymor's Titus Andronicus deserves at least an honorable mention. Even if my friends never saw me the same way again after I made them watch it.

  • Salieri2

    Heartbreaking work of staggering awesome.

  • PDamian

    Came here to say this. Titus was a masterpiece. Anthony Hopkins, Jessica Lange, and Alan Cumming ... good grief, what else is there in life?

  • annie

    Not to mention the spectacularly sociopathic brothers, played by Matthew Rhys and Jonathan Rhys Meyers.

  • e jerry powell

    Good movie, dubious source material. Taymor can make (almost) anything work.

  • ShagEaredVillain

    What? No "Gnomeo and Juliet"?


    Lion King = Hamlet
    It's not a super-strong adaptation, but it allowed this to happen:

    Lion King 1 1/2 = Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.
    (I know, Stoppard, not Shakespeare, but it makes me happy.)

  • Allijo

    Oh Slings & Arrows. Jeffrey pulling dinner mints out of Oliver's skill will forever be my spirit animal.

  • Allijo


  • PhFunk

    Mifune may be my favorite actor ever, but Derek Jacobi's Hamlet is, in my opinion, the best.

  • Zirza

    According to my professor at university, Festen is an adaptation of Hamlet. I still have no idea if it's true but if it is, it's my favourite.

    10 Things is my other favourite. Probably one of the best high school movies ever.

  • Jerce

    Remove Looking for Richard (feh) and replace it with Ian McKellan's Richard III (how the fuck could you have left it off in the first place?) and your list will be perfect.

  • I have issues with the easy, lazy use of fascistic iconography to replace monarchies or imperialists in Shakespeare's work. (Hence my affection for Scotland, PA, Bad Sleep Well, and Hamlet Hawke.) It's a great movie, and a phenomenal performance, but I can't get past the, admittedly well-crafted, imagery.

  • Laura

    No "Strange Brew"??? For shame!

  • kilmo

    Where is "She's The Man"???? Another high school adaptation of "Twelfth Night." A young Channing Tatum and before we realized Amanda Bynes was a little cray.

  • Maya

    Oh my god, I used to be obsessed with that movie. Bynes was (is?) such a talented comedic actress; it's sad to see her now and realize she'll probably never get the chance to show her talents again.

  • JJ

    I myself prefer Richard III to Looking for Richard. And while not a direct adaptation, I love that The Lion King gives kids a bit of Hamlet-Lite.

  • Melina

    Scotland, PA will forever be one of my favorites...especially as an English teacher. My students love it, I love it and I hold it close to my heart because there really is a Scotland, PA and I lived nearby it throughout college.

  • DataAngel

    Has anyone seen the Othello with Eamonn Walker and Christopher Eccleston?

  • Logan1720

    Yes! That put both of them on my radar, not to mention Keeley Hawes.
    Loved Walker later in Kings and Eccleston, of course, in Who and various Danny Boyle flicks. It took years for me to realize I'd seen him in Shallow Grave first.

  • DataAngel

    I love the cast already, but I've had bad luck getting a copy of it (got it from Netflix a few times. Either all their copies were bad or I kept getting the same disc because it would never play). Thought maybe the universe was trying to tell me something.

  • Akira Kurosawa also did his own take on King Lear called Ran and it's excellent.

  • Fabius_Maximus

    He also did MacBeth, called "Throne of Blood", or "Kumonosu-jō"

    The man was obsessed with Shakespeare.

  • 'Throne of Blood' is probably my favorite Kurosawa film.

  • I didn't know that! I will absolutely check that out. I adore the fact that he did adaptations of classic Western plays. His approach to storytelling was so intriguing and engrossing that I kind of want his own take on the entire Shakespearean canon. Alas.

    Cross-cultural adaptations are very exciting to me. They're not only a take on the story, but on the culture the story comes from.

  • Bert_McGurt

    Perhaps pushing the boundaries of "modern" given that it's 30 years old, and the ending is a lot happier, but I've got to add Strange Brew. Yes, the hoser movie to end all hoser movies is actually a (very loose) adaptation of Hamlet.

  • apsutter

    Fucking love 10 Things. I re-watched it a month or so ago and then I spent the whole week singing Letters to Cleo which in turn made me think of Ben Wyatt wearing a LTC shirt while depressed.

  • alannaofdoom

    Should I be embarrassed that I can quote that entire movie from memory, start to finish?

    Oops, wait, I just realized I misspelled "proud".

  • BendinIntheWind

    Yes! I watched it pretty recently as well and was pleasantly surprised how well it's held up. There's a lot of Smash Mouth and awesome/questionable 90s fashion, but aside from that it's aged pretty well.

  • I didn't know the date for the wider release of Much Ado, and since it's coming out the day before my birthday, I'm going to have to resist the urge to think of it as a personal birthday present from Whedon.

  • jennp421

    I've seen the wide release date as 21 June at other sites. Hopefully it's sooner rather than later! With my luck, my theater won't have it either one of those days.

  • Yeah, I'm thinking odds that it won't come within 100 (or 200) miles of me are pretty high, but a girl can hope.

  • Coriolanus was amazing, probably my favorite adaptation since McKellen's Richard III.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    Which should be on here rather than Slings & Arrows, which, while lovely, isn't a modern Shakespeare adaptation.

  • Three_nineteen

    Well, since Geoffrey comes back to his home (the New Burbage theater) after the death of his "father" (Oliver), sees his father's ghost, and tries to wrest control of said home from its new "evil" rulers (Richard and Holly), you could argue that the entire first series is a modern adaptation of Hamlet.

    I always waffle on Ellen, I guess she is a combination of Hamlet's mom and Ophelia.

  • Yep, that's totally what I was going for. And, uh, for Macbeth, Geoffrey is, hm, Duncan? No, MacDuff, who has to slay Henry Breedlove's Mackers? At the very least Oliver is the ghost again, and Charles Kingman is definitely King Lear.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    Can we all just agree that it is a great series, but Geoffrey is in fact insane and under no circumstances should people be expected to make art that way? I cringe everytime at the naked-feelathon for R&J. Maybe ok for a student-produced show in college, but definitely lawsuit worthy in a professional setting.

    (but when I suspend I find it hilarious)

  • To be fair, it was Darren Nichols who invoked the glow-in-the-dark grope fest.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    Yeah, my train of thoughts got muddled - I was thinking that S&A in general should not be taken as a guide on to how to run your repertory theater. But what Geoffrey did to Breedlove is also pretty wrong, as is what he subjects the entire cast of Lear to.

  • Sara_Tonin00


  • I dunno, each season finale shows chunks of Geoffrey Tennant's vision and those are some masterfully adapted scenes; the first two seasons of which are totally modernized.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    I would disagree that you can judge how masterfully they are adapted without seeing the entire show. Because all too often, a modern concept works really well for a scene, but ends up hampering the piece as a whole. Like the stage version of the Macbeth with Patrick Stewart. (for me, anyway).

    But no Forbidden Planet on the list? ;)

  • I totally agree about that version of Macbeth, it kind of taints the McKellen Richard III for me in retrospect. I know it shouldn't, but that's why the latter didn't make the list. And... I've never seen Forbidden Planet.

    Am I even qualified to have written this?!

  • Siege

    I'd rush to add Branaugh's "Much Ado" to this list -- it's probably my favorite Shakespeare film ever (closely followed by 10 Things). I tend to prefer either a faithful staging or a true adaptation. None of this "My sword--which is actually a gun" nonsense.

  • I also adore that film, but does it count as being in a contemporary setting? Certainly later than the renaissance era, but still very much a historical costume piece.

  • Siege

    Oh, and I fail at reading comprehension. :( No no, you are correct, that is NOT contemporary. But still awesome.

  • Not to worry, Branagh will get the much ado he deserves in the very near future.

  • Not contemporary, but definitely awesome. It's one of my absolute favorites, too.

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