Much Ado About Shakespeare: From Joss Whedon to the Beyond

Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof in ‘Much Ado About Nothing’/Still © Lionsgate
Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof in ‘Much Ado About Nothing’/Still © Lionsgate

After uniting The Avengers, writer-director Joss Whedon recharged with a pet project: adapting and shooting a black-and-white version of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing over twelve days at his house in Santa Monica, CA. Out June 7, the film stars Whedon veterans Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof as Beatrice and Benedick, sharp-tongued adversaries who grow into love after friends play matchmaker. The film keeps the Bard’s language but adds modern dress, smartphones, jazz, and pratfalls.

“The language, the jokes, and the attitudes translate really, really easily,” Whedon said in Entertainment Weekly. He loved how the characters are fools for love: “I realized that everybody in it behaves like such a dolt — an articulate dolt, but a dolt. I fixated on this notion that our ideas of romantic love are created for us by the society around us, and then escape from that is grown-up love, is marriage, is mature love, to escape the ideals of love that we’re supposed to follow.”

Filmmakers love not only to pay homage to Shakespeare but also reimagine his works, either through modern touches like Whedon or all-out revamps. Kenneth Branagh, acclaimed for his effervescent version of Much Ado (1993) in the Italian countryside and his four-hour version of Hamlet (1996), flopped in 2000 when he tried to turn Love’s Labour’s Lost into a 1930s Hollywood musical.

“Let me be that I am, and seek not to alter me,” the villainous Don Juan remarks in “Ado” -- but that never happens, does it? Here’s a look at some unusual Shakespeare adaptations. While a rose by any other name might smell as sweet, if you’re a purist, these are acquired tastes.

Tempest” (1982)
Director Paul Mazursky changes Prospero from a sorcerer and the overthrown Duke of Milan to Phillip Dimitrius (John Cassavetes), a modern-day architect enduring a midlife crisis. He decamps to a Greek island with his daughter, Miranda (Molly Ringwald, in her feature film debut), after his wife, Antonia (Gena Rowlands), proves unfaithful. The New York Times wasn’t kind, suggesting Mazursky and co-writer Leon Capetanos might have fared better by “writing a comedy to stand on its own.”

The Tempest” (2010)
Writer-director Julie Taymor changed Prospero to Prospera (Helen Mirren), the exiled duchess of Milan who lands with her young daughter on an island after her brother usurps her. Gorgeously shot in Hawaii, with Djimon Hounsou as Caliban, the film is a mixed bag, but Mirren is a force of nature. "Mirren has the range and power to play a woman with unprecedented control of the elements, and over men, too,” The New Yorker said.

“As You Like It” (1992) and (2006)
The play most famous for the “All the world’s a stage” speech received two anachronistic settings in these UK films: an industrial wasteland in the former, and nineteenth-century Japan in the latter. The 2006 film, adapted and directed by Branagh, includes a prologue where ninja warriors attack Duke Senior and stars Bryce Dallas Howard (nominated for a Golden Globe) as Rosalind. Kevin Kline, as the melancholy Jaques who lives in the Forest of Aden, received a Screen Actors Guild Award for his performance.

Romeo + Juliet” (1996)
The film that triggered several teen-oriented Shakespeare retreads, director Baz Luhrmann's tale mixes original text with pop music, silver handguns, and hyperkinetic style. While Mercutio as a drag queen makes no sense, we can’t help but smile at Father Laurence’s poor choice of overnight delivery service. Most important, Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes enchant as the doomed lovers, dressed as a knight and an angel when they first meet. As they fall into a pool during the famous balcony scene, it’s hard not to fall in love with them.

10 Things I Hate About You” (1999)
A hit with the MTV crowd and critics alike, this modern twist on Taming of the Shrew cast Heath Ledger as Patrick Verona (the Petruchio character), who woos the headstrong Julia Stiles (as Katarina “Kat” Stratford) for money so her younger sister, Bianca, can date too. Of course, he truly falls for her. Critics enjoyed the young cast’s performances and chemistry, the humor, and touches such as Kat reading The Bell Jar.

O” (2001)
Director Tim Blake Nelson helmed this modern update of “Othello” set at a high school where Odin, or O (Mekhi Phifer), is the only black student and a basketball star. Josh Hartnett is capably evil as the envious Hugo (the Iago character), who preys upon O’s doubts regarding his beloved Desi (Julia Stiles again, this time as Desdemona).

All Night Long” (1962)
This loose update of “Othello” starred Patrick McGoohan as duplicitous drummer Johnny Cousin, whose schemes against a bandleader and his wife don’t meet with near-as-tragic results. The film showcases fine jazz music from Charlie Mingus and Dave Brubeck.

Richard III” (1995)
Ian McKellen and director Richard Loncraine transplanted the king’s bloody rise to power to a fictional fascist 1930s England, replete with uniforms, weapons, and symbols inspired by the Third Reich. Empire magazine called it “splashy” and more a “fascinating, cerebral exercise” than an emotionally involving film, but still “a notable cinematic tackling of the Bard.” In addition to changing some death scenes, the film notably makes Richard (McKellen) bellow, “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” after his Jeep becomes stuck on the battlefield.

Coriolanus” (2011)
Ralph Fiennes directed and starred as the titular Roman general who allies himself with an enemy (Gerard Butler) to take revenge on the city. Shot in Belgrade, with graffiti-covered walls and warriors who wield  AK-47s and grenade launchers, it has too much blood for Shakespeare and too much Shakespeare for an action movie, to paraphrase Roger Ebert, but still is well done.

Theatre of Blood (1973)
Shakespeare’s bloodiest work, “Titus Andronicus,” becomes a comedic horror movie. Vincent Price stars as a Shakespearean actor taking revenge on his critics.

Ran” (1985)
Director Akira Kurosawa received an Oscar nomination for this epic blend of Japanese legends and “King Lear.” A once-powerful sixteenth-century family meets its downfall after a warlord’s attempt to divide his kingdom.

Johnny Hamlet” (1968)
The moody Danish prince becomes a Civil War soldier whose father’s ghost asks for vengeance in this spaghetti western directed by Enzo Castellari.

Hamlet” (2000)
Director and writer Michael Almereyda envisioned Hamlet (Ethan Hawke) as a New York City film student after his murderous uncle (Kyle MacLachlan), the new CEO of the Denmark Corporation. Rife with technological touches, such as the ghost of Hamlet’s father on closed-circuit TV.

Scotland, Pa.” (2001)
Writer-director Billy Morrissette reframes “Macbeth” as a 1970s comedy-thriller in this Sundance favorite set at the fictional fast-food restaurant Duncan’s. Ambitious Pat (Maura Tierney) nudges her burger-worker husband, Joe McBeth (James Le Gros), into robbery and murder. The always-enjoyable Christopher Walken pops up as an offbeat vegetarian cop, McDuff.