The Ides of March are upon us — the 15th to be exact — but here at the ChiRB we’re more about commemorating dates than “bewaring” them (or so advised the soothsayer in William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar). You could spend the day with a hefty history book or biography of Caesar, but if those options fill you with more dread than a tribunal about to end in a stabbing, perhaps a Shakespeare adaptation is more your style. Below are six recommendations of books and films that borrow from the bard, which range from quite faithful to as treasonous as Brutus.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard
There are plenty of Hamlet adaptations out there, from Kenneth Branagh’s lavish four-hour extravaganza to the 2000 rendition where Ethan Hawke delivers the signature soliloquy in a Blockbuster (R.I.P.). But if you want to partake in the surreal, de-stabilizing experience of being a character on the outskirts of tragedy, Tom Stoppard’s 1966 play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (made into a film in 1990 and directed by Stoppard) is the gold standard. Filled with fizzy wordplay, it draws as much from Samuel Beckett as the bard, trapping its protagonists in an absurdist limbo as they wait for the family drama to play itself out, unaware that their ends were written for them long ago.
10 Things I Hate About You directed by Gil Junger
The late 1990s produced a bumper crop of high school-set adaptations of Shakespeare. Leo DiCaprio’s Romeo and his unbuttoned Bermuda shirt may have plastered all my friends’ bedroom walls, but for my money, the best of the lot is 10 Things I Hate About You, which tempers the ingrained sexism of The Taming of the Shrew into a genuinely sweet and funny romance between the surly-but-sensitive Kat and reformed bad-boy Patrick. It’s also the rare teen comedy that takes the time to shade in all the people milling about the periphery, from the put-upon father to the erotica-writing secretary, creating a colorful world as full and lived-in as 16th-century Verona.
Prince of Cats by Ron Wimberly
How cool is this hip-hop graphic novel adaptation of Romeo and Juliet that centers on Tybalt in 1980’s Brooklyn? So cool that Spike Lee himself just signed on to adapt it for film. Taking a cue from West Side Story, that other beloved remix of the high school curriculum staple, Prince of Cats renders the Montague-Capulet feud as gang warfare, though this time around there’s less dancing and more samurai swords. Ron Wimberly keeps the iambic pentameter, however, a bold gambit that’s comfortable referencing Wu Tang Clan in the same breath as bawdy olde English jokes. Shakespeare, who was as much a man of the street as the stage, would be proud.
Throne of Blood directed by Akira Kurosawa
Akira Kurosawa hasn’t always been spoken of as a Shakespeare adapter in the same way that directors Laurence Olivier and Orson Welles are. But he should be, and Throne of Blood, his 1957 reworking of Macbeth as a classic samurai tale set in feudal Japan, may be his most thrilling work. Featuring a ferocious lead performance from his frequent collaborator Toshiro Mifune, who was reportedly shot at with real arrows while filming the infamous Great Birnam Wood sequence, it breaks Shakespeare’s poetry down to its most basic elements, building a powerful and frightening visual language of fog, forest, and, yes, blood all its own.
A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley
Jane Smiley won the Pulitzer for this adaptation of King Lear set in Iowa farm country. Told from the point of view of one of the daughters (Goneril in Shakespeare’s play, Virginia “Ginny” here), it’s an austere and methodical novel that peeks behind the bucolic small town surfaces to reveal the dark secrets festering there. Incest, alcoholism, domestic violence, and attempted murder all play a part, but Smiley is aiming for more than just a melodramatic rehash. By flipping our sympathies from the mad king to the “evil” daughters, this staunchly feminist story shows how the patriarchal dynamics of a single family can poison entire communities, unmaking many of the myths America was built on in the process.
My Own Private Idaho directed by Gus Van Sant
Shakespeare wrote three plays that charted the unlikely rise to the throne of Henry IV, who starts as a layabout in thrall to the boisterous Falstaff and ends as a hero on the Agincourt battlefield. Orson Welles made an attempt to encompass that tricky character arc in his 1965 film Chimes at Midnight, which is well worth a watch. But for those seeking a more offbeat take on the play, look no further than Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho. A landmark film of the New Queer Cinema movement, it stars River Phoenix as a narcoleptic hustler and Keanu Reeves as a slumming-it rich boy who find themselves drifting in and out of one another’s orbit. It was one of Phoenix’s last performances and it’s downright spooky how the film’s final images presage his own demise, a more tragic end than even Shakespeare could envision.
Sara Batkie is the author of the story collection Better Times, which won the 2017 Prairie Schooner Prize and is now available from University of Nebraska Press. Her stories have been published in various journals, honored with a 2017 Pushcart Prize, and twice received Notable Story citations in the Best American Short Stories anthology series. Born in Bellevue, Washington and raised mostly in Iowa, Sara currently lives and works in Madison, Wisconsin.
If you want to read an absolutely marvelous modern version of “Romeo & Juliet” then you should read “All the Rivers” by Dorit Rabinyan, which I understand may be made into a movie as well. (Of course, we all know that West Side Story is one of these as well.) In addition, you should read Margaret Atwood’s “Hag-Seed” which is a retelling of The Tempest (of a sort). There’s also “Kiss Me Kate” which was a musical retelling of The Taming of the Shrew, and then Anne Tyler did her own version of that in the book “Vinegar Girl”. I could go on and on…