Yes, this is the second Listicle in a month that is connected to The Bard. Obviously, Shakespeare is important. His works have lasted for centuries, and his plays contain themes, plots, and humor that still contain a striking relevance today– provided that one does significant research beforehand and reads an annotated version of the play whilst watching the play/movie. (I’m sorry, a lot of innuendo from the 16th and 17th centuries simply does not carry over into modern times.)
While our first piece was dedicated to movies that used a quote from a Shakespearean play for their titles, this one looks at movies inspired by Shakespeare’s works. We are not referring to filmmakers who filmed a Shakespearean play, but those who morphed it into something different. Those who changed the words, the settings, even the characters but allowed the heart of the elder work to remain visible without being overwhelming. So, movies like Baz Luhrmann’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Ian McKellan’s fascist Europe-set Richard III do not count. The most obvious example of what we are referring to is West Side Story (from Romeo and Juliet), which is celebrating its 50th anniversary later this year complete with a one-night-only theatrical re-release, but there are many others worth considering.
Why this topic now? This week, Roland Emmerich is releasing his latest film, Anonymous. In it, he ponders, “Did Shakespeare really write his own plays?” It’s a question asked by scholars as lofty as the first teacher from Head of the Class. The studio must have great faith in the newest work from the director of The Day After Tomorrow, Independence Day, and 2012, since it’s releasing it to only 200 lucky theaters.
Emmerich’s eight films have made over $1 billion domestic, at least let him crack 1,000 screens.
Nevertheless, here’s The Listicle.
Sons of Anarchy (creator Kurt Sutter, 2008- PRESENT)
Tempted by the words of his dead father, a moody son returns home to find his mother married to his uncle as he tries to unravel the truth behind his father’s death. Show creator Kurt Sutter has made it clear that his outlaw motorcycle gang drama, Sons of Anarchy, was born from Hamlet. Despite the obvious parallels, Sutter takes the show in its own direction while still letting the death and Jax Teller’s (Charlie Hunnam, as the show’s Hamlet) distrust of his uncle/stepfather/President of the Sons of Anarchy Clay Morrow (Ron Perlman as King Claudius) remain central to the program.
Currently in its fourth season, Sons of Anarchy remains one of television’s best series. Although in season 3 the show took a bit of a misstep (so much time in Ireland…), this season, it has repaired a lot of the damage. The show has returned to its roots: the town of Charming and the SoA’s relationship with it, the rivalry between Jax and Clay Morrow, the club pondering its future, enemies within and without, and the issue of how a group of outlaw gunrunners can survive in today’s world. More importantly, letters gathered by Jax in Ireland have brought the looming spectre of his father and his possible murder into the foreground once again. During the first few episodes this year, the show seemed very close to The Shield, with the Sons acting as a more illegal Strike Force, but it has recovered its own personality and upped the intensity with each passing episode culminating with this week’s fantastic offering.
Reconnecting with Hamlet, this season’s twelfth episode will carry the title of “Burnt and Purged Away,” a quote from Hamlet’s dad in Act 1, Scene V.
And it’s a travesty that Katey Sagal as the latter day Gertrude, hasn’t been nominated for an Emmy yet.
Throne of Blood (dir. Akira Kurosawa, 1957)
Legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa filmed a trilogy of Shakespeare-based movies. The Bad Sleep Well sets Hamlet it in the corporate culture of post-war Japan. Ran is the visually striking adaptation of King Lear featuring the relationship between an aging warlord and his three sons (instead of three daughters) and some of the most incredible and chaotic battles put on film. And there is Throne of Blood, a feudal Japan version of Macbeth and the first of the three.
Throne of Blood stars regular Kurosawa lead (at least in the early parts of their careers) Toshiro Mifune as samurai Taketoki Washizu, the film’s equivalent to Macbeth. After learning about the prophecy regarding his destined leadership, Washizu (along with his wife Asaji) goes about making sure that his ascendency to the throne comes to pass. While the film might not follow the play beat-by-beat, it nevertheless does remarkable justice to the source material and serves as one of the best cinematic introductions to the works of Shakespeare. The arrow-strewn ending is among Kurosawa’s best sequences.
South Park: Scott Tenorman Must Die (dir. Trey Parker, 2011)
Only once turned into a movie (in 1999 with Anthony Hopkins as the lead), Titus Andronicus is Shakespeare’s most brutal play. While many Shakespearean villains do truly heinous things, Titus, a Roman general who takes sadistic glee in raping and murdering, is the most violent of them all. Titus isn’t alone in his love of destruction, and the character Aaron, upon being sentenced to death, declares his only wish to be to have done more evil and that “if one good deed in all my life I did, I do repent it from my very soul.” The titular character’s most evil act occurs at the end when he reveals to his enemy Saturninus that the pie his wife is currently eating contains a filling of her sons.
This method of vengeance was adopted by Eric Cartman in one of South Park‘s greatest episodes, Season 5’s Scott Tenorman Must Die. Although Scott Tenorman, an eighth grader who torments Cartman and sells him fake pubes, does not have children, he does have parents. In the episode, Cartman successfully plots the Tenormans’ death and cooks them into chili, which he serves to Scott at the Chili Con Carnival. To add insult to injury, learning about the contents of the meal makes Scott cry in front of his favorite band Radiohead. And then Cartman licks his tears. Considered a turning point in the show, Scott Tenorman Must Die showed the depths of Cartman’s evil and made him an iconic cartoon character.
Scott Tenorman later returned to get his vengeance in the rarely seen (because of Comedy Central’s cowardice) 201. In this effort, Tenorman paid homage to another classic villain by setting up an amusement park of doom that mimicked The Joker’s from the graphic novel classic The Killing Joke.
Just One of The Guys (dir. Lisa Gottlieb, 1985)
The 1980s were the decade for cheesy teen comedies. Some were good, most weren’t, and the John Hughes The Breakfast Club/Pretty in Pink/16 Candles “trilogy” is highly overrated. I know a lot of people look on them fondly, but plenty of other genre films were significantly superior. Fast Times at Ridgemont High was a funnier and better written movie with more interesting and memorable characters. I would put Mark Harmon’s Summer School against The Breakfast Club any day. And Just One of the Guys still ranks among the best high school comedies.
The film is about Terry Griffith (Joyce Hyser), a wannabe high school journalist who cannot get an internship at a newspaper because of her gender. Maybe a bit antiquated for 1985, but nevertheless, she attempts to prove her skills by masquerading as a guy in another local high school. She enlists her brother Buddy (Billy Jacoby) and friend Denise (Toni Hudson) to help pull off the ruse, which includes keeping the change a secret from her image conscious college boyfriend Kevin (Leigh McCloskey). While at the new school, Terry “appeals” to another girl (a pre-Twin Peaks Sherilyn Fenn), pisses off the bully (William Zabka, the asshole from The Karate Kid and Back to School), and makes another boy (Clayton Rohner) question his sexuality. Teri might not be believable as a guy, but the film is good enough not to care.
Although not an ensemble, Just One knows to give side characters enough of a personality to make them more than an extra-with-a-line. The friend, the nerds, the horny lady student, and even the love interest all have decent moments throughout the film. You actually end up wanting the brother to lose his virginity.
How this relates to Shakespeare…
The most popular Shakespeare-in-high-school movies are probably O. (based on Othello) and 10 Things I Hate About You (based on The Taming of the Shrew), but Guys has its genesis from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, or What You Will. One of his gender bending, love triangle comedies (see also As You Like It), Twelfth Night was also later turned into the Amanda Bynes vehicle She’s The Man, also set in high school.
Forbidden Planet (dir. Fred M. Wilcox, 1956)
Renowned as The Tempest in outer space, Forbidden Planet will always be one of the most beloved and outlandish riffs on Shakespeare. The degree to which it began as an intentional adaptation is disputed, but by now the two stories have been examined parallel to one another that it is a generally accepted fact.
Like the sailors who blunder onto the island of the sorcerer Prospero, the explorers in Forbidden Planet, led by Leslie Nielsen, have no idea what awaits them on this “brave new world.” Investigating the disappearance of a previous expedition, they encounter the strange and sinister Dr. Morbius, his lovely daughter (Anne Francis), and his comical robot Robby, who has since become a science fiction icon. Morbius reveals himself as a survivor of the lost expedition, and slowly we learn he has been conducting some very unusual research alone on the planet. As our hero discovers that the doctor’s sheltered young offspring has eyes for him, he also comes face to face with a monstrous secret that could get them all killed.
The parallel between science fiction concepts of human advancement (to a 1950s audience) and sorcery (to an Elizabethan audience) forges a strong thematic tie between the two stories. By exploiting the remains of the planet’s previous civilization, Morbius has invested himself with advanced intelligence, but pays the price by creating dangerous superhuman forces which even he may not be able to control. As in any science fiction parable, experiments of this kind never end well for the scientist.
Ran (dir. Akira Kurosawa, 1985)
Akira Kurosawa, one of the most prolific and celebrated Japanese directors ever to live, had a recurring fascination with Shakespearean themes. At the later end of his distinguished career, when declining health and personal problems were starting him on a downhill slide, Kurosawa invested heart and soul into the monumental period drama Ran. At first an imaginative twist on a Japanese historical tale, the script began to fuse with the plot and ideas of Shakespeare’s King Lear as Kurosawa composed it.
Tatsuya Nadakdai stars as Hidetora, a fearsome but age-stricken warlord with three sons waiting to inherit his domain. Having built his fortune through ruthless conquest, he blindly abdicates all but his nominal title, handing over to his equally ambitious and treacherous eldest son Taro. His other son, Jiro and Saburo, are to receive castles of their own, and pledge support to the eldest son as master of the realm. Saburo objects, warning Hidetora not to trust in the loyalty of sons he has raised with such a bloodthirsty example. For his trouble, Saburo is banished as an ungrateful and possibly treacherous character. Forced to walk away from the father he wants to protect, he must go abroad and make his way elsewhere.
Meanwhile, the two elder sons waste no time in vying for absolute power. In addition, Taro’s wife has a grudge to settle, and coerces her husband into turning on Hidetora the patriarch. Turned away and stripped of power and respect by the sons he trusted, Hidetora falls into the depths of despair, followed by madness. A civil war erupts, and we can only hope that Hidetora will find solace in the one son he sent into exile.
While not a note-for-note adaptation of King Lear, Ran hits nearly all of the same dramatic beats while re-imagining the very British tragedy as an eye-catching Japanese historical epic. Kurosawa had an unmatched eye for staging and scale, and the enormity of the conflict encircling the private pain of Hidetora/Lear finds physical substance in Kurosawa’s lens. Shakespeare was a master of words, and could use them to paint such pictures without the actual benefit of huge castles and forests in which to set his action. Ran is every bit the fascinating drama, and also stuns the eye with color, contrast, and movement for every frame in the film.
Theatre Of Blood (dir. Douglas Hickox, 1973)
Now please welcome of my all-time favorites, just in time for Halloween. Straying slightly from the topic of screenwriters and directors inspired by Shakespeare, Theatre Of Blood is a gleeful yet gruesome horror tale whose lead character finds the bard wa-a-a-ay too inspirational. Vincent Price, in perhaps the finest role of his distinguished career, plays Edward Lionheart, a hammy actor obsessed with playing Shakespeare. He has become a laughingstock amongst the London stage critics, whom the film admittedly depicts as a cruel, jaded pack of vultures. Believed to have committed suicide after being denied a major acting award, Lionheart is living in secret and blooding ghastly revenge on the critics he believes have wronged him out of spite. Some of the finest British character actors of a bygone generation make up the cast of victims, including Robert Morley, Harry Andrews, Arthur Lowe, Dennis Price, and “soon to be Mrs. Price” Coral Browne. You will recognize several of these names and faces from Peter Medak’s 1972 adaptation of The Ruling Class, which stars Peter O’Toole and happens to be inspired by one of the greatest plays of the twentieth century.
Theatre Of Blood is exactly the kind of film the title suggests. Lionheart lures his victims one by one into private “interviews” in which he stages outlandish and poetically just deaths for them, based on the performances which they panned. The opening sequence, in which a critic who scoffed at Lionheart’s Julius Caesar is cut to ribbons by a gang of derelicts, is absolutely terrifying. After that, the traps become increasingly bizarre, and eventually silly enough to provoke a few laughs. Like The Abominable Dr. Phibes, a similarly themed horror comedy, Theatre Of Blood has a sense of humor as keen as it is bitter. Vincent Price must have had a field day, not only getting to play so many Shakespearean villains, but getting to overplay them outrageously, with complete impunity. Though dedicated to his craft, Lionheart is nowhere near the actor he fancies himself. Though a little too derisive to his face, the critics are nonetheless justified in denying him awards. It is clear from the start that bombastic soliloquies are an outlet for his dangerous megalomania.
Several popular films from recent years – Se7en and Saw, particularly – owe a lot to films like these. Each of those films took its premise a lot more seriously, but it is hard to watch either and not think of Price in this film, or as Dr. Phibes. Diana Rigg, renowned for her dramatic work over the years, turns in a delightful performance as Lionheart’s devoted daughter, who just might be his right hand gal despite her outward appearance of not being totally nuts. This twist is fairly obvious early on, so don’t be mad for spoiling it. This has to be the goofiest thing she has ever done, and she is every bit a part of the magic as Vincent Price himself. In a rather disturbing turn, she has found her father a true following – local indigents with an insatiable appetite for methylated spirits, who are ready to help Lionheart carry out his nefarious schemes. For a group of filthy, shrieking street lunatics, they are surprisingly well organized. They gather to drink and adore their master as he plots his capers through the medium of extended playacting.
More than any film dealing with Shakespeare’s works as a whole, this film grabs at a few pretty obscure titles as Lionheart’s grim revenge spree unfolds. Sure, you’ll see bits of Othello, Richard III, and The Merchant Of Venice, but get ready to find out what kinds of nasty things happened in Cymbeline, Troilus And Cressida, Henry VI, and Titus Andronicus as well. If you like to temper your Halloween fun with a mischievous wink at the classics, you can do no better than Theatre Of Blood.
Fellow contributor Julia Rhodes fell ill and could not complete her section. She had planned to write on My Own Private Idaho, A Thousand Acres, and 10 Things I Hate About You.