Putting Shakespeare in the Schoolyard: Celebrating movie adaptations


Lots of classic literature has been adapted for modern audience on the big screen. Romeo and Juliet was adapted into a 1996 film starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. (Photos courtesy of wikipedia and thegoodfolks)

When reading Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, it may be difficult to understand why it’s such an insult that Mr. Darcy refuses to dance with Elizabeth. Or it may not seem like a big deal for Lydia to run off with a soldier, or it may be confusing when Mrs. Bennet gets mad at Lizzy for refusing to marry a boorish idiot. Without understanding the culture of Regency Period England, it’s hard to understand why these things matter. Or when reading Shakespeare for the first time as a freshman in high school, it may be hard to understand why Romeo and Juliet think killing themselves is the only option, without the cultural context.

Sometimes for non-English majors and those who don’t find explicit joy in uncovering the underlying human truth in literature, it’s hard to remember why stories from William Shakespeare and Jane Austen and Homer and other old, dead authors are still important to us today. For readers who have trouble working their way around antiquated language, or understanding the impact of cultural context, it can be hard to enjoy old stories, and even more difficult to get something real and meaningful out of them. Even sometimes when you do understand the meaning of a story, it’s hard to translate the themes into something relevant to today.

The answer to these difficulties is adaptations. Modern movie adaptations of older works, especially those that wildly change the setting and characters, make those older stories more accessible. Movies like 10 Things I Hate About You and Easy A, among lists of others, take old stories (in these cases Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew and Nathan Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, respectively) and put their plots and characters and themes into a modern setting. Big name actors and promises of high school drama attract young and modern audiences, and tell old stories about love, relationships, gender, and slut-shaming, in ways that their intended audiences will understand and enjoy. 

“Modern movie adaptations of older works, especially those that wildly change the setting and characters, make those older stories more accessible.”

Even if you can get into older literature, new adaptations can still make you think about an old story in new ways. For example, the Pride and Prejudice adaptation Bridget Jones’s Diary compares the financial dependence of women in Jane Austen’s day to emotional dependence of women in Bridget’s. As a viewer, you can consider in what ways things have changed and in what ways things have stayed the same.

Adaptations are also just a lot of fun. It’s indulging to imagine what Romeo would look like today, or how to represent Odysseus’s trials as modern challenges. It’s fun to draw comparisons between past and present.

While I focus mostly on movie adaptations in this post, adaptations pop up across genres: books, plays and movies can all emulate and pull from one another to think about stories in new creative ways.

The movie adaptations you should add to your watch-list:

“She’s the Man” is Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” in a private high school.

She’s the Man (2006): A soccer-themed retelling of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Amanda Bynes takes part in some traditional Shakespearean cross-dressing to tell a story about equality, family, and emotion. Plus it’s really funny.

Clueless (1995): I may be biased because I love Jane Austen, but this adaptation of Emma is one of the best things the ’90s bequeathed to us. A little ridiculous, with some great outfits and strict stereotypes, Alicia Silverstone and Paul Rudd weave a story about pride, egotism, and class that’s just as relevant today as it was in the 1800s.

Romeo + Juliet (1996): I won’t lie, part of the reason I love this movie is because Leonardo DiCaprio is like a Greek god in his youth, but this was one of the first Romeo and Juliet adaptations that actually made me feel something like sympathy for the young lovers. I actually felt Romeo’s desperation. Plus, even if it’s a little cheesy at times, the artistry of this movie can’t be ignored.

This 1996 version of “Romeo and Juliet” featured the original text of the play in a modern setting.

10 Things I Hate About You (1999): Heath Ledger and Julia Stiles not only take part in some iconic scenes (“Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” on the bleachers, anyone?) but also retell Twelfth Night in a way that says something new about gender, while rehashing something old.

Easy A (2010): In this adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorn’s The Scarlet Letter, Emma Stone is fantastic, first of all, but this movie also takes a fun and glitzy looks at the age-old prevalence of slut-shaming, as well the more modern problems of judgement, stereotyping, and double standards in high schools today.

Little Women (2019): Typically I prefer adaptations that wildly modernize older texts, but the newest Little Women film is too beautiful to ignore. Telling an old story for a twenty-first century audience, Little Women flawlessly inspires visceral emotions and makes jabs at patriarchy and racism throughout. This was by far my favorite movie of 2019.

Alex Houdeshell is the Long River Review blog editor and a nonfiction panel reader. She can be reached at alexandra.houdeshell@uconn.edu. 

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