Later in our Shakespeare on Tor.com essay series, Emily Asher-Perrin will tell you about a high school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that was engineered to get teens excited about Shakespeare. It did not work. It also wasn’t the only scheme of its kind: There’s always some well-meaning drama teacher—or movie director—who wants to make Shakespeare speak to the youth of today. Whether that involves playing up the sex, drugs, and violence that characterize various works; dropping Shakespearean verse into a modern setting; or building something entirely new off the framework of a play—many have tried.
In the best of these adaptations, Shakespeare’s work serves as a jumping-off point for meditations on race, sexuality, and gender roles, with films that embrace diversity in more meaningful ways than just colorblind casting or genderswapping, and instead try to get to core truths about the human condition. (Often with outrageous musical numbers.)
Romeo + Juliet
How is it updated? Romeo and Juliet are the children of wealthy warring families in “Verona Beach”—which seems to be the bastard lovechild of Venice Beach and 1990s Miami. The soundtrack is a mix of Radiohead, The Cardigans, and Garbage.
The standard by which all are judged. Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet is still one of the best Shakespeare adaptations around, because rather than binding itself to the text, it claws its way into the heart of the play. Luhrmann’s take gives us an African-American, bisexual, glitter-dusted, Ecstasy-popping Mercutio (whose love for Romeo seems a lot more real than the titular couple’s crush…), John Leguizamo as Juliet’s cousin Tybalt, and an energetic, multicultural, genderfluid explosion of color and language.
10 Things I Hate About You
How is it updated? A nerd (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) with a crush on the prettiest girl in school (Larissa Oleynik) pays a bad boy (Heath Ledger) to date her mean older sister (Julia Stiles).
The Taming of the Shrew is one of Shakespeare’s plays that best lends itself to high school, what with the overbearing father forbidding his popular daughter from dating until her social outcast sister does, the thin line between love and hate, and the cliques with their various motivations for helping or hindering the process. Part of what makes 10 Things such a classic is how much it builds upon The Taming of the Shrew’s premise; so many lines are classics on their own right. (We still haven’t figured out if we can ever be just whelmed.) And if watching Heath Ledger serenade Julia Stiles on the soccer field with “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You,” then letting her return the favor with a poem that begins “I hate the way you talk to me” is what teaches kids Shakespeare—then let this be a staple for every generation.
How is it updated? Time travel, an extended cameo by none other than Jesus, some epic showtunes, and the idea that forgiveness can heal psychological wounds.
Steve Coogan is Dana Marschz, a high-school drama teacher who learns his department is about to be shut down. As a last-ditch effort to save his job, keep his wife, and encourage a ragtag group of students to follow their dreams, he comes up with Hamlet 2. He rewrites Hamlet into a sort of time-traveling analysis session, in which both Hamlet and Jesus are able to forgive their respective fathers, mostly so that Marschz can work out his own daddy issues. The kids performing the play are awesome, and Coogan has great chemistry with them. Parts of this film are brilliant, but it can never quite decide if it’s mocking inspirational teacher movies, or if it actually wants to be an inspirational teacher movie. But it gave us “Rock Me Sexy Jesus,” and for that we should be grateful.
Dead Poets Society
How is it updated? It isn’t, but it features Shakespere as performed by a high school student in the 1950s, so we’ve included it.
What most people remember about this movie is, of course, Robin Williams as John Keating. But the tragedy in the last third of the movie is actually not motivated by anything that goes on in Keating’s classroom, or in Welton School at all: One of his students joins a community theater production of Midsummer Night’s Dream, and after the kid’s slightly overbearing parents freak the hell out, things rapidly spin out of control. What we see of the play itself looks pretty good. Shakespeare’s work, and specifically the character of Puck, is used as a sort of beacon to nerdy misfit boys, particularly Robert Sean Leonard’s Neil, who looks like a perfect preppy achiever, but actually wants to become and actor and free himself from his high-pressure family.
West Side Story
How is it updated? This Bernstein/Sondheim musical recasts Romeo and Juliet as Tony and Maria, two kids from rival gangs in 1950s New York.
Though not as recent as the other entries on this list, West Side Story deserves a spot for being one of the first Shakespeare adaptations to take the struggles of modern teenagers seriously. (Well, as “seriously” as an elaborately choreographed dance-fighting musical can, anyway.) Gone is the ennui of Verona’s noble elite, replaced with a look at the hardscrabble lives eked out by blue-collar kids and recent immigrants in a claustrophobic urban setting. And by removing the parents from the action entirely, the story focuses on the pressures the teens place on themselves to stick with their own kind—you’re either a Shark or a Jet, till your last dying day.
Get Over It
How is it updated? High schoolers use their spring musical adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to act out their various love triangles.
The poor man’s 10 Things, Get Over It earns its spot by getting even zanier with its Shakespeare adaptation—not surprising, considering it’s based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This movie has everything: A show (musical, rather, overseen by Martin Short as a crazed theater teacher) within a show; Shane West as a haughty Australian boy-bander; Colin Hanks and Sisquo (of “The Thong Song” fame) as the protagonist’s best buds; a drunken rendition of Elvis Costello’s “Allison”; and some truly awful (and one pretty) song inspired by the Bard’s crazy tale of mismatched lovers.
She’s the Man
How is it updated? Amanda Bynes plays up her screwball comedy talents as Viola, who pretends to be her twin brother Sebastian so she can play on his boarding school’s soccer team after her girl’s soccer team gets cut.
This take on Twelfth Night is one of the cheesiest ones in the list, a rom-com lacking the subtlety of 10 Things. Consider that “Sebastian’s” way of befriending his roommate Duke (Channing Tatum) involves squealing at mice and using tampons to stop nosebleeds. The movie shows its immaturity in a lot of dumb jokes and off-screen genitalia-flashing to prove which twin is which.
And this is just one of several Twelfth Night adaptations wherein a teenage girl secretly infiltrates a boys’ sports team, with wacky results! Word to the wise: Stay away from the Disney Channel Original Movie Motocrossed and the ’80s classic Just One of the Guys. The fact that She’s the Man is the best in this particular subset of teen movies probably means Hollywood should give it a rest.
How is it updated? The regicide and familial drama of Hamlet is updated into a Millennial corporate environment, in which Claudius has murdered his brother over the Denmark Corporation, rather than actual Denmark.
Ethan Hawke’s Hamlet is a film student, while Julia Stiles plays his younger squeeze Ophelia. (Hawke was about to turn 30, but since Stiles was only 19, and since the film updates the play’s setting to a super-slick corporate Manhattan environment, we’ll assume this adaptation was aimed more at youth audiences.) Hamlet 2000 works as a commentary on corporate culture and the corruption of the superrich, turning Hamlet into a Holden Caulfield-esque figure: a troubled, privileged, isolated young man who allows himself to be drawn into his family and its intrigues rather than asserting himself and becoming his own person.
My Own Private Idaho
How is it updated? Gus Van Sant took Henry IV, Part 1; Henry IV, Part 2; and Henry V and entangled the themes of conquest and coming-of-age into a tale of street hustlers in Portland, Oregon.
Mike is a young gay man, in love with his bisexual best friend Scott. The two men are guided by an older man, Bob Pigeon, who acts as the Falstaff to a group of street kids. We soon learn that Scott is only flirting with the dangerous life of a hustler while he waits to come into his inheritance; as the son of Portland’s wealthy mayor, he’ll inherit both an enormous fortune and instant mainstream cred as soon as he turns 21. When the mayor dies, Scott turns his back on the group to take on his rightful place in society.
Mike is brokenhearted, and Bob dies from grief. River Phoenix is amazing as Mike, and Keanu Reeves tries really hard to imbue Scott’s dialogue (some of which is verbatim from the Henrys) with gravitas and emotion. The film draws out the core of the Henry plays as an exploration of identity and responsibility. Is Scott’s duty to his biological father, or to Bob? Does Mike’s life as a street hustler diminish his intrinsic worth as a person?
Romeo Must Die
How is it updated? The Montagues and Capulets are now the Sing and O’Day families, who are embroiled in a racially-driven turf war.
Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet is the great classic, obviously, but Romeo Must Die’s take on Shakespeare has the better fight sequences. Rather than arguing over a family feud, here the lovers are kept apart because their families hate each other. Han, played by Jet Li in his second U.S. starring role, is investigating his brother’s murder when he becomes the Romeo by falling for Aaliyah’s Trish O’Day. Her brother was also murdered, and it’s looking very likely that their respective family gangs are responsible. Can these two crazy kids work it out? How many spines will Jet Li have to break before he can know love?
How is it updated? The setting has been moved to a Southern boarding school, and the battles are basketball games.
O’s greatest strength lies in its foregrounding of the racist subtext of Othello. O is Odin James, the star basketball player at an elite boarding school, where he is also the only black student. Iago is Hugo, whose father, the basketball coach, loves O like a son; and Desdemona is Desi (Julia Stiles again, who just has Shakespeare coming out of her pores!), the Dean’s daughter, who loves him, but has to hide their relationship from her father.
Since Hugo can’t bear to see O happy, he initially plans to accuse him of raping Desi, but then instead manipulates everyone around him until O is convinced that Desi is cheating on him with his best friend. Terrible violence ensues. The film either makes a bold move or a huge misstep by giving Hugo an emotional backstory that somewhat explains his actions, but the pressures on O to be a perfect student, boyfriend, and flawless young black male all come through perfectly in this setting.
How is it updated? What’s the highest-stakes way you could reimagine the Montagues versus the Capulets? By making them the Living and the Dead.
Isaac Marion’s novel (and the subsequent movie) follows R, a zombie who falls in love with human Julie after eating her boyfriend’s brain. (Awkward.) By absorbing the dead ex’s memories and creating new ones with Julie, R begins to regain his humanity, bit by bit. It’s a loose adaptation, but all the pieces of star-crossed love are here—there’s even a balcony scene! While Romeo and Juliet is one of the most-adapted Shakespeare plays (and takes up the most spots on our list), this retelling stands out by starting with death instead of ending with it.
A Midsummer Night’s Rave
How is it updated? It’s at a warehouse party! The characters are all teenagers, and they’re all craaaaazy high!
We’re introduced to the characters in rapid succession, learn who’s secretly in love with whom, and then we traipse through the woods to a secret rave, which lasts, no joke, the entire rest of the film. Puck (seen above) is a former prostitute who’s now the group’s hot-pink-boa-clad drug dealer. Nick, the strung-out Bottom stand-in, plays a donkey character at children’s parties, and at one point he swears he’ll get straight by announcing, “I am not an ass!” right before he passes out. Most of the giant declarations of love take place on inflatable furniture in the chill-out room, which looks like a bower. If any of you want to revisit a certain best night of your life subset of 1990s culture, this is your Shakespeare adaptation.
Sassy Gay Friend!
How is it updated? In this popular web comedy series, Second City decided to keep the trappings of Shakespeare and drop in a sassy, scarf-wearing counsel for all of the Bard’s doomed heroines.
While comedian Brian Gallivan’s take on the often problematic “gay best friend” stereotype may not be for everyone, the advice he dishes out while in character is inarguably effective, telling Juliet, “You took a roofie from a priest. Look at your life, look at your choices” and clueing in Desdemona to her incriminating handkerchief. The Sassy Gay Friend also helps some leading men, from Henry VIII to (the non-Shakespearean) Cyrano de Bergerac.
Those are our picks for Shakespearean adaptations for the youth set. Let us know in the comments if we’ve been light of brain and missed one of your favorites!
This article was originally published March 30, 2015 as part of our ongoing Shakespeare on Tor.com series.