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The Review/ Feature/

What Shakespeare Work Should Hollywood Adapt Next?

We tap directors for the next celluloid bard classic

Jun 9, 2016

Ever since Rashomon found an international audience in the 1950s, filmmakers have lustily borrowed from Japanese legend Akira Kurosawa. The unreliable narrators of Rashomon have been reused ad-infinitum, but he also saw narrative and stylistic elements of Seven Samurai, Yojimo and High and Low repeatedly recycled into Western cinema, from the Zhang Yimou wuxia epic Hero to that episode of Dawson’s Creek wherein nobody wants to reveal that Pacey and Joey have been dating. And of course there would be no Star Wars without the storytelling tricks and plot machinations of The Hidden Fortress.

But just as often as Kurosawa was ripped off, he also did plenty of recycling himself, most notably in the form of three key films based on three plays by William Shakespeare: 1957’s Throne of Blood (showing this Sunday, June 12 at TIFF Bell Lightbox), 1960’s The Bad Sleep Well and 1985’s Ran, which use the jumping-off points of Macbeth, Hamlet and King Lear, respectively. However, the Bard himself was no stranger to borrowing—many of his plots, and sometimes entire characters, were lifted from Greek theatre and all manner of religious myths and folklore.

Kurosawa used Shakespeare as a staging area for his various internal struggles with his own culture: The Bad Sleep Well filters the ruthless nature of Japanese business culture through the literal backstabbing of Hamlet; Throne of Blood uses Macbeth’s crude ambition as a metaphor for the slippery slope of military might; Ran turns the generational divide at the center of King Lear into a literal war. All the while, he loops in bits of Noh theater and a fixation on the historical formality of Japanese culture — elements that are found in all his films but are particularly illuminated with the aid of Shakespeare.

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Kurosawa doesn’t own the patent on that particular wheel, as many filmmakers have used the familiar tropes of Shakespeare as a crutch to tell all manner of stories, whether they be musicals about doomed attraction (West Side Story), teen comedies set during prom season (10 Things I Hate About You), or animated flicks about jungle cats (The Lion King). But since Kurosawa, no filmmaker has used Shakespeare as a way of expressing deeper truths, not only about the stories being told but also about the artist’s particular quirks. There was a certain purity to the way the filmmaker translated Elizabethan-era hang-ups into Japanese culture — notice the way the particular aggression of the news media fuels the escalation of events in The Bad Sleep Well. In a lot of ways, Kurosawa is at his purest as a filmmaker when working with Shakespeare as his jumping-off point. (That is certainly true in the case of Ran, undoubtedly the most Kurosawa of any Kurosawa film.)

With that in mind, and on the quadricentennial anniversary of the playwright’s passing, here are a handful of directors who would do well to take on Shakespeare, not only to re-tell these classic tales with their own lens, but also to highlight their identities as filmmakers. Let this also act as a handy bit of advice for young filmmakers looking to make a splash. If you’ve got endeavoring ideas but lack the inclination to create your own original narrative, the greatest English language user’s public domain awaits.


Obviously Luhrmann crafted one of the more fascinating Shakespeare adaptations of the ‘90s, with fresh-faced Leonardo Di Caprio and Claire Danes playing out the sad journey of Romeo and Juliet. This movie exists within Luhrmann’s filmography the same way that Kurosawa’s interpretations live in his: as both a narrative opportunity for building a world, on top of well-trod words and an extension of the filmmaker’s unique vision. Romeo + Juliet had everything we’ve come to know about Luhrmann as a director: the saturated colours, the whipping cameras and the blurry line between fantasy and reality. The Tempest, with its shipwrecks and spells, allows for all of that, plus the borderline-hallucinatory collisions between Miranda (let’s say Maika Monroe) and Caliban (Miles Teller).


Arnold is no stranger to high-school British lit: her 2012 adaptation of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights is a marvel. Awash in twilight, with the emotional tumult played out via the winds of the English countryside, Arnold’s interpretation is a masterclass in naturalism and storytelling efficiency. So why not let her loose on Shakespeare’s most unruly creation and set it in the chilly lowlands, as it was intended? Arnold’s intimacy with the camera would ideally mirror Hamlet’s fractured psyche, particularly if she brought back Fish Tank star Michael Fassbender as the lead (which would create a nice little bookend to his performance as Macbeth from Justin Kurzel’s 2015 iteration). Arnold is also particularly adept at finding raw acting talent — the young versions of Catherine, Isabella and Heathcliff in Heights were a particular revelation — so Hamlet would give her ample opportunity to break in fresh faces as Ophelia, Gertrude, Polonius and Laertes.


The Polanski-obsessed real estate horror Darling announced Mickey Keating as a master of building dread and dealing with the ghosts of both people and places. Shakespeare never wrote a true horror piece, though spirits haunt plenty of his scripts—particularly the mildly psychedelic comedy Midsummer. The temptation in adapting something like this would be to escalate the imagery (the very literal 1999 adaptation directed by Michael Hoffman is guilty of that), but Keating is a rugged minimalist, so his Midsummer would be set at a road-weary carnival, with midway workers standing in for the Mechanicals. Let’s get some sideshow performers as the Theseus and Hippolyta and Larry Fessenden as Bottom.


Shakespeare’s histories get very little love both on stage and on film, but American cinema’s most ambitious director deserves to take on a project that matches his ability. 15th century England saw a series of dynastic civil wars that were captured across the scripts of Richard II, Richard III, both parts of Henry IV, Henry V and all three sections of Henry VI. Rarely staged as a unit (and even then, often truncated), the cumulative effect of the dramas strung together is powerful and revelatory. Anderson is a master at both distilling sprawling epochs (the porn industry in the ‘70s, the California oil boom) into tight packages. He can also juggle a multitude of characters and zero in on complex individual personalities (particularly those of the kings themselves). Daniel Day-Lewis gets to inhabit the tragic Richard III, with Anderson regulars Julianne Moore and William H. Macy also inhabiting the houses of York and Lancaster.


Macbeth is Shakespeare’s most durable tragedy. Its narrative is relatively linear, which allows creators to turn it into a Samurai tale (Throne of Blood), a war epic (Justin Kurzel’s 2015 edition), or a restaurant-set melodrama (Scotland, PA). The accomplished star of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants just released her directorial debut, a stirring and mysterious portrait of grief called Paint It Black. It’s a moody, throbbing melodrama that captures a version of Los Angeles that feels emotionally immediate. It also appears to exist in a parallel dimension, wherein most of Echo Park is a ghost town, save for the clubs where White Lung is gigging. That’s the type of place where Macbeth could flourish, particularly with Tamblyn’s ability to express the complex desires of Lady Macbeth, the real star of Shakespeare’s most durable tragedy. She should even cast Paint It Black star Alia Shawkat as the cunning Lady M.


Sudden bursts of violence mark many of Shakespeare’s tragedies, and there is ample opportunity to stage those incidents with dark humour. (The death of Polonious in Hamlet is particularly ripe for parody, something exploited to great effect in Michael Almereyda’s 2000 version that featured Bill Murray in the role.) Raimi’s slyness in the face of splatter would help smooth the edges of the corpse-infested Titus Andronicus, a bloody affair centering around a cycle of revenge at the end of the Roman Empire. Raimi has been back in his Necronomicon-powered sandbox recently, working on the Ash vs. Evil Dead TV series. If he wants to bring that style back to the big screen (and cast Bruce Campbell in the title role), he could do worse than Titus.


Take Shelter and Midnight Special are dramas that center around feverish conviction and a manic sense of belief. That perfectly describes Caius Marcius, the lead character in Coriolanus, who is celebrated as a Roman general but is jettisoned from society when his radical ideas about thwarting popular rule force his exile. Ultimately, his commitment to his ideas leads to a lust for revenge and his ultimate downfall. Obviously, Nichols should cast regular collaborator Michael Shannon (his own Toshiro Mifune!) as Caius, then place him in Louisiana where he returns as a War on Terror hero who cannot reconcile his commitment to extremism after the horrors he has witnessed. The final film becomes an allegory for PTSD, as well as a cautionary tale about equating imperialism with leadership.


Heckerling is a directing genius with a criminally short resume. Her ability to graft classic literature onto cutting-edge pop culture worked out exceptionally well on Clueless, which acts as both a compelling time capsule for ‘90s fashion and slang and a deftly-executed spin on Jane Austen’s Emma. Her Twelfth Night would separate siblings Viola (Emma Stone, channeling her inner Alicia Silverstone) and Sebastian (Justin Long) on spring break, with all the cross-dressing hijinks and mistaken identity romances taking place amidst open bars and beach-based dance parties. We already know she can handle multiple overlapping narratives, thanks to Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Shakespeare’s prose would give Heckerling an ideal platform to explore her own obsession with the subtle ways in which language evolves.


Shakespeare’s “problem plays” are not staged as often than some of their more famous counterparts, largely because their shifts in tone are too jarring to make consistent sense. In that respect, they are generally considered inferior. (It’s weird to consider a writer as revered as Shakespeare as having some duds in his arsenal, but even Babe Ruth struck out now and again.) Some live up to their reputation (Troilus and Cressida is a genuine drag), but Measure for Measure is a fascinating puzzle that the Coens would be adept at decoding. While the play borrows several elements from Shakespeare’s other work (there’s a lot of play on gender, as in Twelfth Night), its convoluted climax is more disturbing in its psychosexuality. It features a brokered sexual encounter, a last-second body swap and what amounts to a technical shotgun wedding. There’s also a goofy sequence that plays around with a handful of human heads. It’s darkly funny, deeply weird, and inevitably misunderstood—not unlike many of the Coens' left-field comedies like The Big Lebowski, Burn After Reading, and the recent Hail, Caesar!


The Lear narrative, wherein a series of conflicts break out over a dying monarch’s series of bequests, is currently playing out on Daniels’ hit hip-hop soap Empire. But Terrence Howard’s Lucious Lyon doesn’t carry the same kind of existential confusion, nor the same capacity for true madness as Lear. Let Daniels’ pitch an alternate universe wherein Snoop, Dr. Dre and a still-living Tupac struggle over the soul of Death Row Records in the wake of Suge Knight’s complete collapse. (Perhaps Straight Outta Compton director F. Gary Gray could co-direct?) By far one of Shakespeare’s darkest works, Lear’s overriding philosophy perfectly matches the head-turning combination of ambition and nihilism that fueled most of mainstream rap in the ‘90s.

Can't get enought Shakespeare? Us too. Check out All the World's a Screen: Shakespeare on Film. As part of the global commemorations of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, we are proud to partner with Film London and the British Film Institute to celebrate the rich legacy of the Bard’s immortal works on screen.