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Sea changes

Daniel Rosenthal looks at how modernised film versions can illuminate Shakespeare's original texts and engage young people

The language barrier that can make Shakespeare's drama seem remote and impenetrable to pupils is also a powerful deterrent for cinema-goers confronted by film versions of the Bard's plays - few Shakespeare films have been commercially successful. To overcome this, many film-makers aim to combine the Bard and box-office appeal: retain Shakespeare's plot and characters, but jettison the blank verse and centuries-old setting, replacing them with contemporary dialogue, locations and genre conventions.

There are no language problems when film-makers offer us science-fiction, gangster thrillers, musicals, Westerns and teen comedies. Shakespeare's plays have been adapted to all these genres, in films I call "variants".

They include Joe Macbeth (US, 1955; sadly unavailable on video), an enjoyable thriller that transforms Macbeth's 11th-century thanes into ambitious hoodlums gunning each other down in 1950s New York, and Akira Kurosawa's The Bad Sleep Well (Japan, 1960; Cert PG; Connoisseur Video pound;15.99), which skilfully reworks Hamlet into a bleak revenge thriller about corporate corruption in post-war Tokyo. Variants pose questions that can yield fresh perspectives on Shakespeare's craft, and on the political, moral and philosophical ideas in his drama. Do all the modern film's protagonists have counterparts in the original play? If certain characters have been combined, omitted or replaced what do such changes tell us about Shakespeare's original intentions? How far must Shakespeare's world view and the conventions of the Elizabethan stage be altered to satisfy the demands of a modern screen genre?

Generally, the answers to these questions will emphasise the Bard's matchless genius, since contemporary scriptwriters cannot hope to emulate the variety and depth of his action and characterisation, let alone his poetry. Sometimes, however, a variant can remind us that Shakespeare's work is anything but perfect.

Forbidden Planet (US, 1956; Cert U; currently deleted on retail video but available in many public libraries) Watching this enjoyable Hollywood adventure, it is remarkable to note how neatly a slimmed-down version of The Tempest fits the sci-fi mould. The play's sea voyage to a remote island becomes a spaceship's trip to Altair-4, a distant planet; Prospero becomes Dr Morbius, a gifted scientist with an innocent, Miranda-like daughter, Altaira; Ariel becomes Robbie the Robot; Stephano and Trinculo are combined in the form of the spaceship's boozy, wisecracking cook. The dialogue is anything but poetic, and at the half-way point the plot descends into pure sci-fi hokum, but the ending puts some fascinating psychological spin on Prospero's motives for revenge, and his renunciation of magic.

West Side Story (US, 1961; Cert PG; MGM Home Entertainment pound;9.99) West Side Story turns Romeo and Juliet's soliloquies into solos and its duologues into duets. Romeo becomes Tony, Juliet becomes Maria, with the Capulets now Puerto Rican Sharks, and the Montagues white American Jets. Yet the greatest screen musical ever made does much more than just borrow Shakespeare's plot and characters.

The human catastrophe in Romeo and Juliet scars two generations of both families; in West Side Story the focus on youth wavers only momentarily. Maria's volatile brother, Bernardo, is a combination of Tybalt and Capulet, which means that Maria's parents are heard but ever seen. The fiery Anita, who is only slightly older than Maria, acts as the heroine's confidante, filling the Nurse's shoes and removing another older character. Doc, the soda shop owner who is equivalent to Friar Laurence, and Lt Schrank and Officer Krupke, who shoulder the Prince's authoritarian burden, make only a handful of brief appearances.

The songs make us care about every member of the rival gangs, spreading our sympathies across a broader dramatis personae than Shakespeare's, and deepening the core of his tragedy: impetuous, young lives cut short. The New York kids are blue-collar not blue-bloods, so love and sex become their joyous escape from low expectations, rather than the greatest luxury in the pampered existence enjoyed by Romeo and Juliet. That is not to devalue Shakespeare, merely to point out that the social environment in West Side Story is inherently closer to tragedy than comedy.

Similarly, the divide between Romeo and Juliet is narrower and less convincing than the gulf separating Tony and Maria. In the play we accept the "ancient grudge" between the two houses because it kick-starts the story, but we don't know its origins. In West Side Story, the grudge which leads to the deaths of Riff (equivalent to Mercutio), Bernardo (murdered by Tony) and Tony (murdered by Chino, the Paris equivalent) stems from all-too-plausible racial prejudice.

West Side Story provides a devastating climax without relying on blind fate, an undelivered letter and a sleeping potion, reminding us that, despite its power, Romeo and Juliet stretches credulity to almost fairytale limits.

10 Things I Hate About You (US, 1999; Cert 12; Touchstone Video pound;12.99) This intelligent, good-natured high-school reworking of The Taming of the Shrew begins with Cameron (the Lucentio figure) arriving at Padua High, Seattle. He instantly falls for Bianca, a beautiful, vapid sophomore, but Bianca's father will not let her start dating until her boy-hating older sister, Kat, does too. As 1990s teenagers do not have servants, Cameron is equipped with a loyal, if nerdish friend, Michael, who takes on Tranio's role, dedicating himself to Cameron's pursuit of Bianca.

The plot moves into gear once an impossibly vain pupil, Joey Donner (Hortensio and Gremio rolled into one) sets his sights on Bianca. Michael and Cameron convince Joey that he can only reach Bianca by hiring a boyfriend for Kat, and the wild Pat Verona (the school's answer to Petruchio) reluctantly takes the job.

In a series of comic set-pieces, the chauvinism of the Shrew is replaced by behaviour more in tune with contemporary morals. Where Baptista desperately wished to marry his daughters to rich men, the Stratfords' father is an obstetrician desperate for his daughters not to end up like the teenage moms he treats.

While Petruchio's chauvinism was reasonably in tune with Elizabethan attitudes, no teen comedy heroine can be won over by shameless machismo, so the Shrew's sexual politics take on a "caring, sharing" slant: Pat stops smoking and pretends to enjoy reading feminist prose. To tame the shrew, the hero manages to tame himself.

The film's conclusion, with Kat and Pat acknowledging their mutual affection, observes one of the cardinal rules of romantic comedy: a screen couple who fight when we first see them will be in each other's arms when the end credits roll. It is a rule that the Shrew helped establish in 1594.

Daniel Rosenthal is the author of 'Shakespeare on Screen' (Hamlyn, pound;20)

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