Where Will Emile Hirsch's Hamlet Fall Within the Canon of Modern-Day Shakespeare Films?

June 19, 2009  |  1:42pm
When we heard Emile Hirsch would play Hamlet in a modern-times Shakespeare remake directed by Twilight's Catherine Hardwicke, flashbacks of teen flicks (most of which involved Julia Stiles) adapting 16th-and-17th-century masterpieces flooded our collective memory. It's always been interesting to watch what develops in these modernizations, as directors and writers throw purist interpretation to the wind with the belief that Shakespeare's storylines transcend all time periods. Heartthrobby leads try to give Kenneth Branagh and Laurence Olivier a run for their money, jeans-and-tees replace frilly frocks, and major turns of plot transpire in gas stations, high-school stadiums and Blockbuster video stores. Although some past adaptations have recontexualized their precursors gracefully, others have struggled to masterfully take the Bard out of Avon. Trying to make the works relatable has frequently led to their oversimplification.

It's difficult to predict how Hardwicke's Hamlet will fare, though it's certainly got an experienced creative team behind it. Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen (American Beauty) will produce, while Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia, The Painted Veil) will write the story into the 21st century, setting it at an East Coast liberal arts college where Hamlet's father had been president. Drafting a fresh script already separates this update from those that have juxtaposed original-text readings with modern scenery. "You will understand everything without having a copy of Shakespeare for Dummies with you," Harwicke recently told EW. To some critics, this tactic represents the kiss of death. But perhaps Hirsch, who has proven his acting chops in recent years with Into The Wild and Milk, can help carry the movie through the obstacles that arise in taking on such a literary giant. In anticipation of its creation, let's revisit a few Shakespeare updates in recent movie history, in all their glories and missteps:

The Inspiration: Romeo and Juliet
The Players: Leonardo DiCaprio, Claire Danes, John Leguizamo
The Verdict: Baz Luhrmann's masterpiece created a gorgeous visual and emotional landscape: Trash-laden, bleak-looking beaches, roadways and deserts dovetailed with the ominous gleam of fluorescent crosses and swimming pools. Swift camera angles and careening car chases dictated this visceral version of two star-crossed lovers caught between gunslinging family gangs. DiCaprio, Danes and Co. skillfully delivered Elizabethan verse while subtle details in the modern set design and costuming referenced the original play, smoothly bridging the time gap. Oh, and don't forget the killer Gen-X soundtrack.

The Film: 10 Things I Hate About You (1999) 
The Inspiration: The Taming of the Shrew
The Players: Julia Stiles, Health Ledger, Joseph Gordon-Levitt
The Verdict: Shakespeare hit high school in this late-'90s favorite, which deftly translated Katherine's wrath into adolescent angst. It still holds its reign as the fun, classic teen flick that forever gave 10th-grade English students an excuse to watch Heath Ledger in class, but didn't achieve much else in the way of Shakespearian performance. Plus, it really could have done without that corny poetry reading, which would resurface in AIM away messages for years thereafter.

The Film: Hamlet (2000)
The Inspiration: Hamlet
The Players: Ethan Hawke, Kyle MacLachlan, Julia Stiles, Bill Murray
The Verdict: Likely the film against which Hardwicke's Hamlet will be judged, this version used its distinct relocation—the kingdom of Denmark as the corporate world in early 21st-century Manhattan—strongly to its advantage. The recently murdered CEO of Denmark Corporation must be avenged by his son, played by Mr. Reality Bites, who frequently sports a knit beanie. This update, like Romeo + Juliet before it, kept the Shakespearian verse (albeit trimmed down), and earned critical acclaim for its slick transition into the cold, high-tech world of big business. 

The Film: O (2001)
The Inspiration: Othello
The Players: Mekhi Phifer, Julia Stiles, Josh Hartnett, Martin Sheen
The Verdict: The Moor of Venice went from military general to basketball MVP (with a standout performance by Phifer) in this version, re-imagining the racially charged tragedy at a vastly white Southern prep school where Hugo (Iago) and Odin (Othello) are coached by Hugo's father. Adding the daddy-doesn't-love-me trope to the plot created a relatable twist, but ultimately detracted from the inscrutable malice of Iago in the original text. Also, Josh Hartnett should probably be barred from delivering lines like: "You should watch your girl, bro."

The Film: She's The Man (2006)
The Inspiration: Twelfth Night
The Players: Amanda Bynes, Channing Tatum, David Cross
The Verdict: This slapstick comedy, with a former Nickelodean star as its lead, took an outrageously campy approach to the gender-bending drama. Funny mostly in a pandering, bathroom-humor way, it might serve as a good DVD to pop in the mini-van for the tweens to watch, but it strays too far from its dream-like textual inspiration for any lasting resonance.

Related links:
Julia Stiles on IMDb

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