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Guilty Pleasure: Ten Things I Love about Cheesy Shakespeare Adaptations

Written by: Anastasia Salter, Pop-Culture Editor

ImageAs a devotee of great literature, I’m often expected to rattle off at short notice about great stories. I can explain at length why it is students should still study Shakespeare and his ilk: their works are powerful, universally moving, essential to understanding society, etc, etc, etc. And when I’m at home, away from prying eyes examining my book collection with its mandated Norton scholarly editions and well-worn copies of Joyce and Proust, I still turn to the bard and other great writers for my daily enlightenment.

Well–sort of.

My classics collection–the one that gets played, not the one that gets dusted–looks a little different up close. For one thing, the characters tend to be better dressed, and the dialogue has definitely gotten an update. These are the adaptations that get mocked when they show up in theatres, which can be labeled chick flicks at a single glance. These are the films that teachers live in fear of their students watching in lieu of reading the great texts.

I’ve read the great texts, but for my quiet nights, I’ll take the high school versions. No, not the Cliff Notes. I mean the high school films–classic stories, ages-old angst, and cheerleaders. For instance, 10 Things I Hate About You–featuring the stunning young Heath Ledger before he became a tragic hero in his own tale–isn’t just a high-school makeover of Taming of the Shrew.

It’s better than Taming of the Shrew.

Ok, ok, maybe not better in the “grand scheme” of things. 10 Things relocates the machinations over winning lovers and bets to a California high school. The petty scheming and class rivalry makes perhaps even more sense there than it did in the original context. This, perhaps, is one of the great successes of these apparently slight films–the systems of status and marriages driven by wealth or title in many plays and novels of centuries past can seem very distant. The internal politics of high school, and the intensity with which these same types of struggles and relationships play out, are more immediately relatable. And where Taming of the Shrew’s ending disappoints, with Shakespeare’s ambiguous resolution leaving feminists and misogynists alike wondering who should be offended most, 10 Things ended much more satisfyingly with female characters who retained their strength, and even grew in their independence.

To be fair, high school adaptations are not solely the province of romantic comedy. Another Shakespeare adaptation set in a California high school, O, takes on the violence of Othello. But despite the appearance of Julia Stiles (Kate in 10 Things), this is not to be confused with a guilty pleasures worthy movie night flick–although it does serve as a reminder of the ability of these adaptations to resonate with modern concerns.

Shakespeare’s not the only author who looks good in high school (or, for that matter, in California). One of the most famous high school flicks, Clueless, was adapted from Jane Austen’s Emma–though it wasn’t often marketed as such, perhaps because flashbacks to English class wouldn’t have sold as many movies as Alicia Silverstone’s valley girl with her magnificent computerized wardrobe. The match-making plot of Emma plays out in a less professional context, but with similar circumstances, including the substantial wealth and spoiled nature of the heroine. Emma and Alicia Silverstone as Cher hold a great deal in common, but most importantly they are both members of a spoiled, wealthy class that the rest of us seem to find continually fascinating. This seems to be essential to the California teen flick: they offer windows into the lives of a privileged upper class, and also a reminder that those same people are just as screwed up as the rest of us. (True, the same satisfaction comes of reading tabloids and celebrity gossip blogs, but without the poetic resolutions of Shakespeare or Austen.)

It’s worth noting that both 10 Things I Hate About You and Clueless were successful enough to inspire TV series spin offs–although both were short lived, with almost none of the film’s actors and most of the plot of the adapted work lost somewhere in the shuffle. Without the great story arcs to follow, both were utterly forgettable if harmless. By contrast, another teen Shakespeare adaptation of the past decade, Get Over It, held to a familiar arc and still was mostly forgotten. Get Over It is loosely based on Midsummer Night’s Dream, and even uses the concept of the play within a play to some effect. The tangled love lives of a team of high school actors intertwine and mingle with their own Shakespeare production. However without a clear relationship in class or social context to anchor this adaptation in the original, it remains mostly shallow–an adaptation, but to no great purpose.

To leave Shakespeare behind for a moment, She’s All That is often overlooked in the ranks of great books remade into teen chick flicks. Like 10 Things and Clueless, She’s All That is set in a California high school with the same attention to the class divide. It is less recognizable as an adaptation, perhaps because it is taken from George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion–better known as My Fair Lady. The outline of the story is there, with the rich and well-educated prom king shoo-in taking a bet that he can make the poor, fast-food employee, art-geek girl into a prom queen. The division between high school royalty and the freaks table is just as clear as the divide between the London elite and the gutter-snipes of previous incarnations, although the final message that beauty and self-confidence come with this outward class transformation is harder to swallow comfortably.

Another less obvious adaptation, Cruel Intentions, moves us to New York. It is no less concerned with the romantic schemes of rich high school students, although it is adapted from Les Liasons Dangereuses, a French novel that is decidedly absent from the average high school curriculum. (Wealth, incidentally, seems to be crucial to these sorts of adaptations–perhaps because only the extraordinarily wealthy would have the time and resources to idle away in the pursuit of sexual conquest with such single-mindedness.) There are echoes of Clueless in the sexual tension between step-siblings Kathryn (Sarah Michelle Gellar, during her vampire-slaying days) and Sebastian (Ryan Phillipe), but there is nothing innocent or romantic in this relationship.

There are other great adaptations that move past high school and still offer great cultural moments–for instance, Bride & Prejudice and Lost in Austen deal with Austen’s narratives in the lives of the more marriage-ready–but I don’t find myself putting those on for a repeat viewing nearly so often as their high school kin. American high school, particularly when distorted through the lens of memory, is an experience of such grand gestures, overwrought love interests, and vicious social maneuvering that it seems perfectly in tune with literature itself. These adaptations don’t have to be true to the original’s narrative to be true to the spirit of the story.

When I saw the trailer for the upcoming Easy A, I immediately penciled it into my calendar. Finally, another film set to join the rotation of my guilty pleasure “classics”. Given that the scandal attached to a promiscuous woman hasn’t faded much with age, I think the novel is well-suited to the sexual battlegrounds of high school. The classic novels and plays are still relevant, readable, and, yes, immensely enjoyable even in some cases centuries after their writing. Yet that does not preclude the value of the adaptation, of a new setting, a new context, and a cheerleader or two.