Bending Shakespeare

As a woman of color who spends an absolutely ludicrous amount of time reading fanfic, I’m a huge nerd for gender, queer, and racebending. I’ve read some amazing fem!Destiel, adore racebent Harry Potter fanart, and to the OP who first came up with the brilliant idea to cast Taylor Swift and Kristen Stewart in an all-girl remake of Grease, I love you. In a lot of cases, I tend to prefer the bent versions over the original canon. I mean, if you don’t think Lucy Liu is the greatest Watson to ever Watson, well, I’m here to tell you that you’re just plain wrong.

I’m also someone who grew up in the 90s, which means I was drowning in a sea of hormones and emotions during the peak of America’s Shakespeare movie adaptation phase. To this day the soundtracks to Romeo + Juliet and 10 Things I Hate About You are on my iPod…and I still have the original CDs, even if they’re too scratched to ever play again. Julia Stiles’ Kat made me fall in love with Shakespeare, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Romeo sealed the deal, Ethan Hawke’s Hamlet made me reconsider my life choices, and Mekhi Phifer’s O set my heart a’flutter once again. And now, with the magic of the internet and several streaming services with extensive catalogues, I can combine my obsession with Shakespeare with my passion for bending.

Basically what I’m saying is that I have spent the last few weeks since initially pitching this article watching nothing but bent versions of Shakespeare, and it has been glorious.

So, you want to watch some movie adaptations of Shakespeare. Congratulations! There’s a lot of movies to choose from. Like, a lot a lot. Have you seen this Wikipedia entry on movie adaptations? It’s crazy, dude. Even worse, I’ve actually seen a fair number of them. Unfortunately, very few are race/queer/genderbent. The thing about Shakespeare adaptations is that I’d much rather see a new take on old material than a straight retelling. It’s not about improving or fixing Shakespeare, it’s finding a new angle and telling new stories. As much as I dislike the 2000 version of Hamlet, I’ll take it any day over Mel Gibson’s version, partly because Mel Gibson (*shudder*) and mostly because the modern adaptation at least attempts creativity and interpretation, even if it fails miserably. We’ve had centuries of Shakespeare recitation. It’s time for Shakespearean modification.

 

Ran—based on King Lear

Ran Lear Kurosawa

Directed by Akira Kurosawa, 1985

Just as a movie, Ran is a bloody masterpiece. It is a spectacle of epic proportions. Cecil B. DeMille couldn’t come close to this movie. It’s visceral, theatrical, heart-pounding, and gorgeous to look at. The cinematography alone is worth the price of admission. The sight and sound of hundreds of soldiers marching and riding around the eye-popping landscapes is like nothing you’ve ever seen. Ran isn’t just a Japanese version of King Lear. Kurosawa sets it in the Sengoku period, modifies Shakespeare’s story with the Japanese legendary figure Mōri Motonari, and sets the whole thing in the style of Noh.

In King Lear, Shakespeare centers the story on an aging king whose two eldest daughters compete for control of his kingdom with charming words and effusive praise, while the youngest is content to receive no inheritance because her love is genuine and pure. Vain and arrogant Lear disowns her, which is fine because she goes off to marry the King of France. Lear’s other daughters slowly strip their father of his power, and, because it’s a Shakespearean tragedy, everyone dies. Ran swaps daughters for sons and renames Lear Hidetora Ichimonji, but otherwise it is pretty straightforward.

The best addition by Kurosawa is Lady Kaede. I can’t tell you why she’s so awesome without spoiling the whole movie, but needless to say she is the most ruthless, heartless, amazing character ever created. I want a thousand movies about her. Every second she’s on camera the whole movie becomes about her, Hidetora and his sons forgotten in the background. Ostensibly, Kaede is a mashup of Regan and Goneril, but she’s so much more than anything Shakespeare could have ever dreamed of. She is my new goddess divine. Kneel before Lady Kaede.

Also check out: Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (Macbeth) and The Bad Sleep Well (Hamlet).

 

Om Shanti Om—loosely inspired by Hamlet

Om Shanti Om

Directed by Farah Khan, 2007

As Ran is serious, Om Shanti Om is flippant and fun. It is an extravagant and lavish Indian movie musical with a massive cast of some of the most well-known Indian actors. Plus, its songs are so damn catchy that I’m still humming “Dhoom Taana” days later. It’s been hailed as a pleasant parody and an earnest homage to Hindi Films, which I will just have to go with since I haven’t seen enough of them to speak with any authority on the matter. It has raked in awards right and left.

The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, tells the story of a prince driven to revenge after his father is murdered by his uncle. During his rage to destroy his enemies, his poor, put upon girlfriend, Ophelia, is pushed to suicide, and, once again, everybody dies. Except Fortinbras. Someone has to be king after all. Om Shanti Om is split in two parts, the first set in the 1970s. Om Prakash Makhija, a lowly actor, falls in love with superstar Shanti Priya. He’s reincarnated after they’re horribly murdered, and the movie jumps forward to present day. Now Om Kapoor is the famous actor, and once he recovers his memories of his past life, he gets revenge on his killer by restaging a film production of Om Shanti Om starring a Shanti lookalike. Alright, so it’s not a straight adaptation of Hamlet. Really, the only things Hamlet-esque are all the murdering and the “Mousetrap” play-within-a-play concept, but I’m including it in this article anyway because it’s so worth seeing. India’s film industry is nearly as in love with Shakespeare as I am, and they’ve been adapting his works for decades.

Also check out: Maqbool (Macbeth), Omkara (Othello), and 10ml Love (A Midsummer Night’s Dream).

 

The Tempest—based on The Tempest

The Tempest Julie Taymor

Directed by Julie Taymor, 2010

Not only is The Tempest fantastic to look at—there’s a reason Sandy Powell won an Oscar for costume design—and powerfully acted—Helen Mirren, Ben Whishaw, Djimon Hounsou, David Straithain, Chris Cooper, Alan Cumming, AND Alfred Molina under one roof—but it stars and is directed by women. At first the film was set to be a fairly standard retelling, but by tweaking the disenfranchised Duke of Milan to the Duchess accused of witchcraft, the story takes on a darker turn. The story is no longer just about some rich white dude justifiably angry about not being rich anymore who uses magic to redeem himself while exacting revenge on his enemies. Instead it’s about a woman banished using charges historically thrown at women who get a little too powerful, and the Herculian efforts she undertakes to protect herself and her daughter. Shakespeare isn’t known for his subtle hand in terms of gender relations (The Taming of the Shrew is repulsive), so thank Hera for The Tempest, Helen Mirren, and Julie Taymor. Now if only they’d do a feminist take on Hamlet.

The only thing that annoys me about this production is that they renamed Prospero to Prospera so Helen Mirren could play the character. Look, we’re all adults here. We’re capable of understanding that not all women have names that end in “a,” and that having a traditionally male name does not make a woman any less female or feminine. I know, I know, a rose by any name and all that jazz, but if Queen Elizabeth II can be a duke and Hatshepsut a pharaoh, then Helen Mirren can be Prospero. Djimon Hounsou as Caliban makes up for all that Prospera nonsense, but still. Come on, filmmakers.

Also check out: Um…the only ones I can think of are Mandella in 10 Things I Hate About You (Biondello from The Taming of the Shrew) and Conrade and the Sexton (Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing). Major genderbending casting hasn’t really made it from stage to screen.

 

Romeo + Juliet—based on Romeo and Juliet

Mercutio Romeo + Juliet

Directed by Baz Luhrmann, 1996

Say what you will about Romeo + Juliet, but it’s a fairly accurate translation of the play. Of course there’s some fudging with the characters (Abra and Petruchio go from Montagues to Capulets and Sampson and Gregory go from Capulets to Montagues), plot points are moved around or cut altogether, and the setting is decidedly not Elizabethan England. But the overall tone and lessons of the play are what count. Romeo and Juliet isn’t just about a couple of lovestruck teenagers and their grudge-bearing family members, though you’d never know it based on the myriad adaptations of the play. Romeo is hot blooded and fickle-hearted, a lover who thinks poetry and romance is the same as genuine love, and Juliet, a young woman betrothed to a man she cares little for, sees love as nothing but a dream. Their love story isn’t just a romance for the ages but a cautionary tale. Their actions destroy a centuries-old war between the families, but also destroys the families themselves.

Mercutio plays the key role in the story. Everyone thinks he’s a bit mad so they discount or disregard his warnings, but in reality he’s the sanest one of the bunch. He’s the only one who sees where Romeo and Juliet’s love will lead, and he’s the first one punished for their selfishness. He’s always been my favorite character in the play, and seeing Harold Perrineau as Mercutio was one of the first times I saw racebending in action. The terminology didn’t exist back then, but I recognized I didn’t want to hang out with anyone who didn’t like that Mercutio was Black (and Tybalt Colombian). Not only does a Black Mercutio not take away from the character, it actively enhances him. He’s the only major Black character in the film, gets the best lines, has the best death scene, is the smartest character around, and gets all the action moving. From that moment on, the only role I cared about was Mercutio.

Also check out: The 1996 version of Much Ado About Nothing for racebent Don Pedro, 10 Things I Hate About You for racebent Widow (The Taming of the Shrew), and West Side Story for racebent everybody (Romeo and Juliet).

 

Private Romeo—based on Romeo and Juliet

Private Romeo

Directed by Alan Brown, 2011

Speaking of Romeo and Juliet, turns out it’s the perfect vehicle to talk about Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. There have been a million interpretations of Shakespeare’s most famous play, but only one of them is LGBTQ-centric. Brown’s adaptation is set at McKinley Military Academy where the cadets are studying said play during a long, unsupervised weekend. Sam and Glenn’s real lives begin to reflect their Shakespearean ones as a forbidden love blossoms between them. Dialogue from the play filters through the gym and basketball courts. Suddenly “Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight! For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night!” stops being about a guy with the hots for a pretty girl and turns into a young man discovering his homosexuality.

Private Romeo takes a lot of liberties with the play, but in ways that heighten the story rather than detracting from it. The Montague-Capulet feud isn’t about homophobia but DADT (which was repealed after the film wrapped production). The cadets accept Sam and Glenn’s love for what it is; the tension comes in trying to get them to quash it before it ruins their futures. It’s a sweet and heartbreaking look at gay love through the kaleidoscope of Shakespeare.

Also check out: …OK, so there aren’t any other LGBTQ Shakespeare film productions that I’ve been able to track down, but there’s a ton of fiction and stage plays out there. Frankly, I’m shocked no one’s made an all-queer version of Twelfth Night. Talk about a wasted opportunity. Hollywood, I am very disappointed in you. In the meantime, go watch Forbidden Planet for The Tempest with a 1950s sci-fi twist.

This post was originally published April 28, 2015 as part of our on-going Shakespeare on Tor.com series.

Alex Brown is an archivist, research librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter and Instagram, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.

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