It might sound crazy, but this weekend's animated comedy 'Gnomeo & Juliet' is based on a play by William Shakespeare. Yes, that William Shakespeare. Before you start scoffing at your screen you should know that I once visited the film's Wikipedia page, so I know what I'm talking about. Apparently this is one of those "loose adaptations" with which Hollywood is so enamored, like how 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' is 'The Odyssey' transplanted to the Depression-era South, or how the new Justin Bieber concert doc is a contemporary retelling of Dante's 'Inferno.' From what I gather, 'Gnomeo & Juliet' is a pun-tastic take on the timeless tragedy of 'Romeo and Juliet' for our lawn gnome-obsessed era, in which two decorative garden statues are engaged in a fiercely forbidden romance. I'm not sure how Disney was able to release the film with a G rating despite the fact that it inevitably concludes with a grisly double suicide (I guess they agreed to cut the scene of consensual and affectionate Gnome oral sex), but it appears as if this kid-friendly flick has successfully delivered The Bard's most famous work to a new generation of moviegoers.
Of course, 'Gnomeo & Juliet' isn't the first time that filmmakers have seen fit to experimentally adapt Shakespeare's plays for modern audiences -- you don't just wake up one day with the Earth-shaking epiphany that Jason Statham was born to voice a two-foot tall porcelain Tybalt, this sort of creative evolution requires time and precedent. 'Gnomeo & Juliet' is just the latest example of the cinema's long and occasionally proud tradition of fiddling with Shakespeare's plays to the brink of recognition. Here are the five films that most dramatically repositioned The Bard's works -- none of these are particularly secretive about their inspiration, but all prove that Shakespeare's bounds exceed even Travelocity's reach.
5.) '10 Things I Hate About You' (based on 'The Taming of the Shrew')
Finally, a film that answers the question that Shakespeare's audiences have been asking for centuries: "Where the hell is Alex Mack?" The late 90s initiated a rash of teen comedies based on Shakespeare's plays, but '10 Things I Hate About You' seems like the only outbreak that refuses to go away (don't scratch it, you'll just inflame it into an ABC Family TV series). And that's not really a complaint, as this modern classic is a ton of fun, and paved the way for both Heath Ledger's success and also Andrew Keegan's not success. Trading Padua, Italy for Padua High School (atop of which rock band Letters to Cleo is still tragically stranded, a Donner Party for the 1990s), this unlikely and epochal classic remains unusual because of how closely it cleaves to its Shakespearean origins. It's also notable for offering incontrovertible proof that every single one of The Bard's plays could use a good prom.
4.) 'Jubilee' (based on 'The Tempest')
For anyone who felt like Julie Taymor's take on 'The Tempest' was just too calm and refined, I give you Derek Jarman's 'Jubilee,' which is sadly not a blockbuster action film about the only member of the X-Men less effective in battle than the kid who changed T.V. channels by blinking. Jarman's film actually concerns Queen Elizabeth I time-traveling into a dystopian version of Britain circa 1970, where punk and anarchy reign supreme. Jarman uses Shakespeare as a conduit more than anything else, as Ariel -- that fluttery spirit agent from 'The Tempest' -- assists Queen Elizabeth in her quantum leap, literalizing the guiding light Shakespeare has provided for so many disparate films. Jarman would next go on to tackle 'The Tempest' directly, but 'Jubilee' remains his most clever use of Shakespeare's work. And of those two films only 'Jubilee' has a score by Brian Eno, a man so smart it begs the question: If Shakespeare was such a genius, why didn't he produce Remain in Light?
3.) 'Ran' (based on 'King Lear')
Arguably the finest Shakespeare adaptation the cinema has ever known, Akira Kurosawa's late-era masterpiece is perfect for anyone who felt that The Bard's resoundingly brutal 'King Lear' -- the most tragic of his tragedies -- could have used a few more geysers of orange jugular blood. The story of a war-mongering monarch who attempts (and miserably fails) to abdicate his throne to his three daughters, 'Ran' relocates the action to Japan's Sengoku era, reinvents Lear's heirs as sons, and lets the primitive bullets fly. Kurosawa is the cinema's most celebrated humanist, but this film is so bitter and nihilistic that it makes 'King Lear' look like, um, something marginally less sad (still pretty sad, though). Never before has such a vibrantly colorful film been so oppressively dark, or involved the deaths of so many innocent horses.
2.) 'Strange Brew' (based on 'Hamlet')
'Hamlet' is a notoriously terrible comedy -- it contains fewer laughs than 'Just Go With It' yet somehow remains one of the most cherished works of the English language. It's inexplicable, I know, but in 1983 Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis decided to do Shakespeare a kindness and retrofit the play with some laughs. Kind of. The finished film has about as much to do with 'Hamlet' as 'The Roommate' does with the re-unification of Germany, but its origins are clear enough when viewed through a certain lens. To beer or not to beer is the question here, as Thomas and Moranis are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern reincarnated as dopey brothers who land jobs at the Elsinore Brewery in order to receive an endless supply of free booze (Elsinore being the town near which 'Hamlet' is set). Some might say that 'Strange Brew' goes off the rails -- invoking Max von Sydow as a megalomaniacal brewmeister and recasting Ophelia as a hockey player -- but I say this flick finally compensates for Shakespeare's woeful lack of Canadianness.
1.) 'King Lear' (based on, um, 'King Lear')
So a film called 'King Lear' might not seem like all that unusual of a Shakespeare adaptation, but this 'King Lear' came from the brain of Jean-Luc Godard, and there's about as much Shakespeare in Jean-Luc Godard's 'King Lear' as there is in M. Night Shyamalan's 'The Last Airbender' (okay, there's a little more Shakespeare in the Godard film, but it's high time someone put Shyamalan in his place, ya know?). The year was 1987, and the venerated auteur had been jonesing to make a movie about incest for nearly a decade before he decided that the relationship between Lear and his daughter Cordelia would provide the perfect vessel for his infatuation.
To comprehensively describe this film in just a few words is utterly impossible, but it contains the following things: Woody Allen playing a character named "Mr. Alien," candid footage of Norman Mailer on the phone with his daughter before Godard hijacks the soundtrack and explains why he fired the famous writer, Molly Ringwald's hymen blood (which is incidentally the name of my new metal band, but not my nu-metal band), the dialogue "Abracadabra Mao Zedong Che Guevara" (which isn't exactly in iambic pentameter), and a dude named Shakespeare Jr. the Fifth on an adventure that culminates with the death and rebirth of cinema itself. Godard gave this film his all, and in good time he gave it!
It's fair to say that Godard's 'King Lear' isn't exactly Shakespeare, but it's one of the few films for which that might be a compliment.