Big bard-on

Just when you start to believe our society has turned into nothing but a bunch of barbarians with credit cards, you end up reading a feature on a wave of movies based on literary classics. It almost makes you think that – despite the fact that we live our extremes and then entertain ourselves with them – we are unwittingly groping for a balance between melancholy and mirth.

A literary classic on film is no new trend, but it is a strangely evolving one. (I swear that lately I’ve read more of "the Bard this" and "the Bard that" in reviews than ever before.) And it covers nearly the entire spectrum of movie genres, most recently and most unlikely, teen flicks. We could see the beginnings of the trend a few years ago with sunscreen guy Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet and Amy Heckerling’s Clueless (based on Emma by Jane Austen).

This year, taking things a step further, director Robert Iscove decided to take George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion on an MTV date with destiny. And She’s All That, starring prom king shoo-in Freddie Prinze Jr. and Rachael Leigh Cook – as an arty nerd teetering on the brink of swandom – showed us that anything can be done, if not well, then at least with enough memorable pranks and supposedly pubescent sexuality to sell tickets. The voluptuous Jodi Lyn O’Keefe, who played the ex-girlfriend of said dreamboat purred and posed like part of the cast of She Does All That. As hard as I’ve tried, I still can’t get that pubic hair pizza scene out of my head. And Six Pence None the Richer is now all the richer for the song "Kiss Me," the bonbon highlight of the movie’s soundtrack.

The sharper 10 Things I Hate About You, based on Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, may have shared a high school classroom with She’s All That, but the former, to its credit, carried a much lower GPA (Goofy Performance Average). Granted, it had its share of predictable romantic scenarios – boy wants girl; director keeps boy away from girl for 90 minutes; boy gets girl – and emotional peaks that would fit nicely into a gym locker, but the script and cast were surprisingly gratifying. And beside that, 10 Things I Hate About You didn’t make us watch any bad performance art or that guy from "The Real World" dancing with the sofa and floor during a stock party scene.

I’m sure Shakespeare never imagined his tragicomic tales being recycled through the klutzy machinery of today’s teen culture, which imagines itself as a something between a fashion ad in Details and the extras from a Backstreet Boys video. All this and Letters To Cleo doing a cover version of "I Want You to Want Me"? If this is the bomb, set it off now.

Nor could Shakespeare have imagined that he’d get credit for authorship and/or inspiration in movies via a souvenir coffee cup from Stratford, which appeared in Shakespeare in Love, or in the name of the main character in 10 Things I Hate About You, Bianca Stratford. Of course, Shakespeare in Love, a movie made for and by people who can get into bars without a fake ID, was yet another cut above the Tiger Beat takes on the classics. But still, we can’t seem to get away from the fact that our references ultimately come across in the slick suit of advertising instead of the subtle spirit of verse.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in all its fireflies and fairy dust, makes its bid for authentic appeal, but loses. Calista Flockhart forgot to wipe off her sassy Ally McBeal expression before she turned into the lovesick Helena, which makes for an unsettling view. And Michelle Pfeiffer whispering iambic pentameter in a negligee leaves us wishing for one of those coffee mugs. At least the message is painted right on the ceramic, and we don’t have to go digging for it underneath acting that can’t seem to shift gears from the usual popcorn film fare to Renaissance drama. Admittedly, it’s no small feat.

Kenneth Branagh’s Shakespearean show-stealing is now in a lull. And even if most of the world thinks he is an egomaniacal, high-collared nitwit whose head has gotten too big to fit on a screen, I’d watch his Henry V (1989) or four-hour Hamlet (1996) instead of a braying Kevin Kline drooling on Catwoman in a homemade forest cradle any day. Away with thee, indeed.

Somewhere in the middle ground, between the pop and snap of literary classics as bubblegum in the mouths of nervous adolescents and actors who hath no business doing Shakespeare, there have been a few films that take on literary classics without tumbling into drivel. At least they don’t alarm us to the point of organizing to Save the Western Canon.

Among them, I’d count last year’s Les Misérables, a respectable and believable version of Victor Hugo’s novel. Liam Neeson as Valjean pitted against the persisting evil presence of Javert (played superbly by Geoffrey Rush) captured the engrossing yet frustrating tension of the novel and also happened to make a great movie. In his role as Queen Elizabeth’s ruthless bodyguard, Rush also managed to imbue the historical Elizabeth with one much needed element of unpredictability.

That’s more than I can say for its quirky contemporary, Great Expectations, which failed to succeed in swapping the historical setting of the Dickens novel for a modern-day, big city backdrop. News flash: Not everyone can pull off what the late Derek Jarman did with Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II in 1991. Except for maybe Richard Loncraine in his macabre jackboot version of Richard III (1995) brilliantly set in Nazi Germany.

Great Expectations did offer us a whimsically interesting Anne Bancroft in her role as the decrepit soul, Ms. Nora Dinsmoor (Havisham). If only the entire movie had been held together by something more than the repetition of the color green and bad art clichés, maybe the love story would have been more engaging. Maybe.

In the meanwhile, we’ll have to wait till fall for O for Othello, the next inevitable Shakespeare treatment, starring Julia Stiles and Ethan Hawke.

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