Adapting Shakespeare: A How-To Guide

March 26, 2024

Graphic by Ariana Perales 

Rest in Peace William Shakespeare. You would have loved Anyone But You (2024).

        The marketing for Sydney Sweeney and Glen Powell’s rom-com “Anyone But You” was incredibly odd to me. While it’s very directly an adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” laden with direct quotes from the original play, I hadn’t seen any promotional material that mentioned Shakespeare. If I had, I probably would have seen the movie sooner.
        Most contemporary exposure to  Shakespeare is reduced to awkward readings in high school English classes — which makes Shakespeare feel impossible to understand. No wonder audiences may be averse to seeing Shakespeare on the big screen.
        However, some of the most critically acclaimed rom-coms of our time are adaptations of Shakespeare plays. “10 Things I Hate About You?” is “The Taming of the Shrew.” “She’s the Man?” is “Twelfth Night.” “High School Musical?” Is very (very) loosely “Romeo and Juliet.”
        Romantic Shakespeare adaptations aren’t a new concept, either. Some argue Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” is loosely based on “Much Ado About Nothing” — though this may just be because they are two of the most popular examples of the enemies to lovers trope.
        The traditional route is to adapt the original script within a modern setting. Successful stage adaptations tend to approach adaptations in this way, and it works (see: “Much Ado About Nothing” (2011), a personal favorite, and “Hamlet” (2018).) The problem with taking this approach in film is that it really only appeals to two specific audiences — theatre kids and scholars.
        While I, admittedly, sit in the middle of that venn-diagram, most people sit outside of it completely. So, how do we adapt Shakespeare’s comedies for a larger audience?

Note: While I’ll be primarily focusing on the rom-com for this story, I encourage you to watch “West Side Story” and “The Lion King” to see incredible (and in my opinion, perfect) dramatic Shakespeare adaptations (Once you can recognize Shakespeare, you’ll see him everywhere, anyways. As my High School English Teacher once said, “everything is Hamlet”)

        Lean into the comedy.        
        There’s a truism: “All tragedies are finished by a death. All comedies are ended by a marriage” - Lord Byron. Since the romantic-comedy would be categorized as a Shakespeare comedy, it needs to be funny. If you’re turning a tragedy into a comedy (say: “Romeo and Juliet”), adding comedy will be a larger feat. A lot of Shakespeare’s humor relies on situational humor or on wordplay — both of which can be incorporated into your adaptation.

Graphic by Ariana Perales

        “She’s the Man” is the greatest example of this. It takes all of the situational humor from Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” and sets it in a modern-day prestigious boarding school named Illyria, after the island “Twelfth Night” takes place on. The major comedic plot in “Twelfth Night” stems from Viola, posing as a male soldier, falling in love with Duke Orsino. Duke Orsino, however, is in love with Olivia. And, of course, in true Shakespearean fashion, Olivia is in love with Viola disguised as a man — creating what may potentially be one of the most complicated love triangles of all time.

        In “She’s the Man,” Viola, posing as her brother, Sebastian, attends a boarding school in his place. While its plot incorporates modern elements, the focus of the movie is the comedy and the humor thrust upon the characters by the situation.

        Flesh out all of the characters, not just your protagonists.
        When altering any plot to fit the rom-com formula, it’s easy to focus on the primary relationship and  dismiss the rest of the characters in the narrative.
        In “10 Things I Hate About You,” we follow Cameron as he tries to get Patrick, the “bad boy” from Australia, to date Katarina Stratford — proclaimed “shrew” — so he can date Katarina’s sister, Bianca. While we, the audience, are invested in the romance between Katarina and Patrick, the movie still goes out of its way to develop its side characters.
        Shakespeare’s characters are all fully fleshed out people — due in part to the people playing them, but also because of his development. While characters in Shakespeare often say what they’re thinking to the audience, which works on the stage, you can’t necessarily do that in film.

        Lastly, while this may seem antithetical to everything I’ve said before, don’t rely too much on the source material.

        The narrative structure and characters are a great place to begin, but don’t rely too much on the work Shakespeare did. You need to do work on your own. Some elements of the plot will need to shift to fit the modernization.

        Here’s an example from “Anyone But You:”

        In “Much Ado About Nothing,” the characters in the show devise a plot to get the main characters, Beatrice and Benedick, together. It works on stage because of the implication that Beatrice has unresolved feelings for Benedick, so she is more inclined to believe that Benedick loves her, and Benedick thinks that the conversation is completely serious — so he believes it.
        In “Anyone But You,” the characters devise the same plot for the main characters, Bea and Ben. They switch this plot, however, by having Ben believe the story entirely (as Benedick does), but Bea clocks that they’re trying to set her up with Ben immediately.
        This completely changes the narrative of “Much Ado About Nothing,” but it works for a modern adaptation. It isn’t very believable that Sweeney’s Bea would be as gullible as Powell’s Ben, or that she’d be gulled in the same way that “Much Ado’s” Beatrice was. By changing this one scene, they allow “Anyone But You’s” narrative to shift into a unique one , although it still shares substantial narrative beats with its source material.

        Shakespeare continues to be taught and performed for a reason — it still resonates. These characters still feel real to us today. So, as long as we keep his work alive, the Shakespearean rom-com will not fall into obscurity. ■  

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