The Ten Nerdiest Modern Shakespeare Adaptations

By M.V. Moorhead in Books, Daily Lists, Movies, TV
Tuesday, April 23, 2013 at 7:30 am

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Happy Birthday, William Shakespeare! Well, maybe, anyway. The Bard was baptized on April 26, 1564, and the guess is that this would have taken place about three days after his birth. Plus, Shakespeare is recorded as having died on April 23, 1616, and there's a fine sense of cosmic symmetry, of coming full circle, in the idea of a great man dying on his own birthday (much like Mark Twain both coming into the world and leaving it during flyby years of Halley's Comet). PLUS, April 23 is St. George's Day, so, you know, England. Happy St. George's Day, by the way.

Pop culture has always stolen shamelessly from Shakespeare, and indeed pop culture has not the slightest need to be ashamed of doing so - Shakespeare was pop culture, and he stole more shamelessly, industriously and eclectically than just about any literary artist in history. He transformed what he stole into a canon of lofty yet accessible works that has provided a resource, almost like a database, to generations of artists of all kinds in the centuries that followed, not least those who create horror, science-fiction and fantasy. Here are ten of the many, many co-optings of Shakespeare's work into nerdish pop culture.

10.) Forbidden Planet (1956)

It's a safe bet that most of the little kids who lined up for this, one of the first big-studio, big-budget space opera spectacles, didn't notice that it followed (and not really all that loosely) the story of The Tempest, with the distant planet Altair 4 standing in for Shakespeare's island. Walter Pidgeon as the inhospitable Dr. Morbius stands in for Shakespeare's deposed and marooned Prospero and his fabulous daughter Altaira (Anne Francis) for the play's innocent Miranda. The play isn't echoed only in its plot, but also in its psychology symbols: Caliban, here, is the invisible, unstoppable "Monster From the Id" (the source of any monster worth its salt) manifested from the Doc's subconscious by an ancient alien technology, and lethally pissed off by the daughter's interest in Earthmen, especially a pre-buffoon Leslie Nielsen. This one really holds up awfully well; if you've never seen it, or not in a long time, check it out.



9.) Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing

Joss Whedon has always clearly loved to stylize his dialogue almost as much as the Bard did, and he made a splash at this year's Toronto Film Festival with this modern-dress adaptation of Shakespeare's bickering-lovers romantic comedy, shot at his home (Whedon's, not Shakespeare's). The cast is full of such members of his repertory company (again, Whedon's, not Shakespeare's) as Amy Acker (Beatrice), Alex Denisof (Benedick), Clark Gregg (Leonato) and Nathan Fillion (Dogberry). It's slated for a summer release this year; hard to say much more than that, other than from the trailer, it looks cool.

8.) The Klingon Hamlet

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Star Trek is a tissue of Shakespearean references. At least four episodes of the original series - "Dagger of the Mind," "All Our Yesterdays," "By Any Other Name" and "The Conscience of the King" - have titles drawn from the Bard, as does one from the animated series ("How Sharper Than a Serpent's Tooth") and one of the feature films, The Undiscovered Country. Other quotes and motifs turn up everywhere in the show. But possibly the ultimate in Shakes/Trek geekdom is the "Klingon Shakespeare Restoration Project" of The Klingon Language Institute, which seeks to offer the Bard's work in the original Klingon - some Klingons, needless to say, claim the author as their own, and the earthly versions of his work as pale knockoffs. Though they have produced Klingon editions of Much Ado About Nothing (and, oddly, Gilgamesh) their triumph is The Klingon Hamlet, published in 2000 by Pocket Books. The amusement in these volumes (for non-lunatics, that is) is in the footnotes and appendices, with their sly parody of academic Shakespeare criticism. Still, in 2010 the Washington Shakespeare Company staged scenes from these texts for a benefit performance.

7.) Monty Python's Julius Caesar on an Aldis Lamp

The Pythons know them some Shakespeare too. This interesting staging of Shakespeare's great tale of Roman political intrigue, in which the actors hold nautical signal lamps and flash the grand poetry to each other, is promoted along with The Semaphore Version of Wuthering Heights and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Morse Code. But from the warped world of the Pythons we've also seen the "Richard III Ward" at the Royal Hospital for Overacting, and Sir Philip Sidney being read to from the Bard's little-known effort Gay Boys in Bondage, not to mention the great man himself, played by Eric Idle, helping Beethoven with his Fifth Symphony (The composer, in turn, suggests that Shakespeare call his hero "Hamlet," rather than "David"). And of course there's the man who's working on an anagram version of Shakespeare: "A shroe, a shroe, my dingkome for a shroe."

6.) Strange Brew

On the other side of the Atlantic, another great comedy troupe couldn't resist Shakespeare. The big-screen vehicle of SCTV's hapless "hosers" Bob and Doug McKenzie - Canuck brothers whose great passions were beer, back-bacon and donuts - is an adaptation of Hamlet. The drama is set in Elsinore brewery, and the Hamlet figure is the daughter (Lynne Griffin) who learns that her father has been murdered by an evil Brewmeister, played with a splendidly straight face by Max von Sydow. The Ghost, here, is a video game. In the scheme of the saga, Bob and Doug are sideline figures, sort of joint Horatios. But who could fail to catch a ring of Shakespearean poetry in such dialogue as "Jeez, you're real nice. If I didn't have puke breath, I'd kiss you."


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