The BBC is a hotly-debated topic right now, but with the launch of the BBC digital archive (accessible via eStream), we’ve been thinking about some of the great adaptations the BBC has produced over the years. Not least, their many, many adaptations of Shakespeare plays. We’ve already talked about The Hollow Crown (with the second series currently showing on Saturdays!), and we could go on for ages about the BBC adaptations of all of Shakespeare’s plays from the 1970’s and 1980’s. However, one of my favourite adaptations of Shakespeare doesn’t use his text – for a modern-day update of four of Shakespeare’s plays, try Shakespeare Re-Told (NORFOLK HOUSE 822.331).
Much Ado About Nothing
This is the stand-out adaptation of this collection for me. Beatrice (Sarah Parish) and Benedick (Damian Lewis) are news anchors with a scandalous romantic history, but when the regional news program they work for decides to put them back on the air together, something has to be done to make sure they don’t kill each other before the weather. Their friends, Hero (Billie Piper), her fiancé Claude (Tom Ellis) and Leonard (Martin Amis) unite to convince the rivals that they should be together. At the same time, Don (Derek Riddell) is determined to split up Hero and Claude, and plays on Claude’s insecurities to convince him Hero has been unfaithful. Leading up to a dramatic conclusion at Hero and Claude’s wedding, this adaptation is clever, slick and fun. Sarah Parish and Damian Lewis are fantastic and steal the show as Beatrice and Benedick, both making fun of themselves, and the problematic story of Much Ado (in which Hero is rejected by her father for her supposed infidelity and she just takes Claudio back when he apologises) is updated for a modern audience.
My second favourite of these adaptations, Macbeth is a surprisingly creepy and forboding modern-day version. After an encounter with some supernatural binmen, ambitious chef Joe Macbeth (James McAvoy) and his wife Ella (Keeley Hawes) decide to murder the owner of the restaurant where they work so they can assume control. However, when the binmen also predict that Macbeth should beware Peter Macduff (Richard Armitage), the couple begins to spiral into paranoia, and the bodies mount up. For such a mundane environment, Macbeth manages to make a doom-laden atmosphere and, while not everything works (especially the ‘impossible’ prediction that replaces the famous Birnam Wood moment), it works well. Very different tonally from the other adaptations in this series (and the only tragedy), Macbeth takes full advantage of some fantastic actors and wonderful characters.
The Taming of the Shrew
The Taming of the Shrew is quite a challenge to adapt as it’s one of Shakespeare’s most controversial plays to a modern audience: the story of a fiercely independent woman dismissed as a ‘shrew’ who is forced into marriage with a cruel and uncaring man only after her money is made even worse by the fact that at the end of the play, the newly ‘tamed’ Katherine proves her love by telling women that they should be subservient to men. Thankfully, this adaptation works out how to make the story much more interesting than that. Katherine (Shirley Henderson) is a politician who has a ‘shrewish’ image and is told that the only way she can progress in politics is to show her softer side by getting married. However, Petruchio (Rufus Sewell) is a charming, penniless aristocrat whose arrival in Katherine’s life shakes everything up. His eccentric personality makes him a strange match for Katherine, and they hate each other at first, but slowly they make a strong and lasting relationship. Her PR team get a marriage, but not the one they expected, and the most controversial moment of the play, Katherine’s final speech, is shown as a sarcastic commentary on their image of what makes a woman in a position of power acceptable. It doesn’t quite get the same brilliance as ’10 Things I Hate About You’, an American teen drama adapting the same play, but it makes for a fun watch, and Rufus Sewell and Shirley Henderson manage to make even a shrew and a wastrel sympathetic and lovable by the end.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Out of the adaptations, this had the most dramatic changes to the plot. Hermia (Zoe Tapper) and her family are staying at Dream Park (a thinly-veiled Centre Parcs) to celebrate her engagement to James (William Ash), but the party is disrupted by Xander (Rupert Evans), Hermia’s true love. The fairies who look after the park, Oberon and Titania (Lennie James and Sharon Small) have a duty to make sure that the story ends happily, but their interference only makes things worse. At the same time, Nick Bottom (Johnny Vegas), a security guard at the park, hopes to make it onto the entertainment staff, but becomes embroiled in the fairy politics. Since this is the only adaptation with actual magic (barring the mystic binmen in Macbeth), it might not appeal to everyone, but it’s a ridiculous romp and the recasting of the forest outside Athens as a holiday resort is perfect for a summer evening’s viewing.
Make sure to catch up on The Hollow Crown, check out ShakespeaRe-Told and have a look at the BBC Digital Archive via eStream (accessible via your Blackboard portal).
Looking for more adaptations of Shakespeare plays? We have plenty with the original text, but try these re-imaginings for a different take.
Throne of Blood is Akira Kurosawa’s adaptation of Macbeth, set in feudal Japan, and a great film in its own right from a master film-maker (BOOK ZONE 822.33).
10 Things I Hate About You is a teen comedy adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew and is cutting and funny, romantic and wonderful. Everyone should watch this, especially since it turns Katherine’s final speech into a sonnet that is empowering and touching (BOOK ZONE 822.33).
Get Over It came from the same era of teen adaptations of classic literature as 10 Things I Hate About You, but with the twist that it’s set during a school production of a musical Midsummer Night’s Dream. While it doesn’t always work as well as 10 Things, it’s a light, fun comedy (BOOK ZONE 822.33).