William Shakespeare, whose 450th birthday is being celebrated around the world Wednesday, never seems to go out of vogue for movie directors eager to put their own spin on his classic texts.
Most of Shakespeare’s plays have been adapted for the big screen multiple times over, ranging from faithful (Laurence Olivier’s “Hamlet”) to wildly unconventional (Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet”). Because Shakespeare’s plays exist in the public domain, adapting them for the movies is an economical way of co-opting some literary prestige.
In the past 20 years or so, the unconventional appears to have outnumbered the faithful. Ian McKellen’s “Richard III” took place in a Third Reich-style regime; Julie Taymor set “Titus Andronicus” in a postmodern mashup of ancient Rome and present day; and Kenneth Branagh adapted “Love’s Labour’s Lost” as an old-Hollywood-style musical.
Here are five more unconventional Shakespeare adaptations committed to the big screen, their creative liberties often taking precedence over the Bard’s text.
“Much Ado About Nothing”: Joss Whedon’s low-budget 2012 adaptation of this Shakespearean comedy updated the action to the present day and locations around Santa Monica. The script retained much of the original dialogue, with the cast speaking in verse while wearing contemporary clothes. Shot in black and white, the movie starred a number of Whedon veterans, including Alexis Denisof as “Benedick” and Amy Acker as Beatrice.
“Caesar Must Die”: This Italian film directed by the Taviani brothers depicts a production of “Julius Caesar” mounted by inmates of the maximum security Rebibbia prison in Rome. The movie, which won the top prize at the Berlin Film Festival in 2012, is shot in the style of a documentary, but is actually a fictional movie.
“Hamlet”: Michael Almereyda’s 2000 adaptation of Shakespeare’s most famous play set the action in modern New York, with Ethan Hawke playing Hamlet as a hipster. The oddball cast included Bill Murray as Polonius and Kyle MacLachlan as Claudius. Actress Diane Venora, a former Hamlet on stage, played Gertrude, enacting her death scene not as an accidental poisoning but as a public suicide. (Almereyda is next adapting “Cymbeline” for the screen.)
“Prospero’s Books”: Shakespearean adaptations don’t get much stranger than Peter Greenaway’s take on “The Tempest,” starring John Gielgud as Prospero. This nonlinear movie is visually dense and sonically bizarre, with Gielgud voicing the lines of many of the supporting characters. The Michael Nyman score sets some of the Shakespearean text to song.
“My Own Private Idaho”: Gus Van Sant transposed “Henry IV” and parts of “Henry V” to Portland, Ore., with Keanu Reeves playing a modern-day Prince Hal and River Phoenix as his narcoleptic friend. While most of the dialogue is Van Sant’s, the 1991 movie contains snippets of Shakespeare’s verse, including Mistress Quickly’s soliloquy on the death of Falstaff.