Why Remake Shakespeare?

It seems these days that we don’t so much make new movies, we just remake old ones.  Here’s one list of 25 or so remakes either coming or already here, and there are plenty more depending on how you count. Is the same true with Shakespeare?  The man was involved in 38ish plays, all public domain, that most people will argue represent the foundation of English literature.  Yet we keep making Macbeth/Lear/Hamlet/Dream over and over again.  Why? Is it an issue with moviemakers? Is it part of their pattern to find what works and just keep doing it?  Why take a chance on Cymbeline if you can get Al Pacino signed on for Merchant again? Or, to tie this in to the Timon thread, is it an issue with the source material?  Is it simply the case that some of the plays are harder (if not impossible) to make a good movie out of? I’m very curious to see how Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus does when it comes out.  But if it succeeds will that be due more to the all-star cast, to the fact they’ve already attached “Hurt Locker” imagery to it to capitalize on a known quantity, or because the source material is that strong?  For that matter, does it matter?  Should we just call it a good thing that we get another mainstream movie of a, for better or worse, lesser known play?  Whatever puts the butts in the seats, I always say.  Waiting to hear “So, did you see Coriolanus yet?” come out of a random stranger’s mouth.

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4 thoughts on “Why Remake Shakespeare?

  1. It may be something to do with the tightness of plot. The way movie scripts are written, and the way that movies work differently as a medium from other narratives, the story has to be fairly streamlined — think about how much gets cut out whenever a book is adapted for the screen. It seems like a lot of the plays that get made into movies more often are the ones with tight plots, one main line of action, fewer central characters, fewer tangenting subplots/subordinate lines of action, etc. Or at least they're the ones that can be more easily edited down in that way.

    This is probably why we see, on the whole, more movie adaptations of Shakespeare's tragedies than of his comedies (Midsummer and Twelfth Night, and maybe Taming, being the exceptions), and fewer histories and late problem plays/romances/things-we-can't-agree-on-what-to-call-them than of either tragedies or straight comedies.

  2. That had somehow managed to totally slip my mind as well — but then Julie Taymor's one for the odd choice. I wonder if we'll see more interest in the late romances, on screen and on stage, after her Tempest comes out, the way her Titus helped with the revival of interest in that play.

  3. You know, Cass, until you mentioned late romances it didn't even occur to me that later this year we'll be seeing a very mainstream Tempest as well! I'm even more excited by that one, and how that Russell Brand does not end up getting top billing. No matter how popular he may be with the MTV crowd, it is not the Trinculo show.

  4. My personal preference regarding re-writes borrows heavily from something I attribute to Stravinsky, "I love Mozart, I love him so much I steal from him." Of course, you'll never hear the theft, because he hid it so well. My favorite "remake" of Hamlet is Catcher in the Rye. In my opinion, Salinger suggests that Holden and Hamlet share similar traits, while Holden contemplates Shakespeare early in the book.

    In the end, "remakes" are great if you see something inspired, remakes or repeats of the same thing that are simply copied or going along for the ride may not be so bad if done with some taste (i.e. Shakespeare has an intrinsic value worth copying)… just copying to capitalize, hmm… it's like advertising stealing for stealing's sake.

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