April 2005

Liz Miller

hollywood madam

Hot Teen Shakespeare!

I've been working on this column, off and on, for a year now -- ever since I read the most bizarre development announcement I'd ever imagined possible:

The Great Gatsby. Produced by Lance Bass. Starring Paris Hilton and That Guy From The O.C. Tentative title: Jay G.

There are a lot of different reactions to have to that news. But shock shouldn't be one of them, because the sad reality is that this is just one more link in a very strange chain of fun bad movies. Jay G., according to all conventional wisdom, was a horrible idea that will never see the light of day. But that doesn't mean that other classic works of literature have been spared the same fate.

Although the trend originates in 1996 with Amy Heckerling's Clueless (adapted from Jane Austen's Emma), ever since the breakout success of She's All That (adapted from Pygmalion) and 10 Things I Hate About You (Taming of the Shrew) in 1999, the teen movie genre has been cheerfully robbing the graves of dead authors for stories that seem fresh to their target audience. You could teach a comprehensive high school English class from Julia Stiles' filmography alone, at this point.

But what is the modern high school student taking away from these adaptations? What happens when these stories are separated from their legendary prose, updated to modern times, set to a pop-rap soundtrack and spiced up with hot young teens?

According to the Amazon.com box copy:

Get Over It! (2001)
(As adapted from William Shakespeare's Midsummer's Night Dream):

Kristen Dunst (BRING IT ON), Sisqo, and Ben Foster (TV's FREAKS AND GEEKS) shine in this hilariously hip comedy! After Berke (Foster) gets dumped by Allison, the hottest girl in school, he'll do anything to get her back! Against the advice of his buddies Dennis (Sisqo) and Felix (Colin Hanks -- THAT THING YOU DO!), Berke desperately follows Allison into the high school play! But when he's inept onstage, Berke gets bailed out by his friend's little sister (Dunst) ... who just might be the one to help him get over Allison! Also featuring Martin Short (FATHER OF THE BRIDE) and Shane West (DRACULA 2000) -- nothing goes as planned in this entertaining treat!

I personally don't know about "entertaining treat," but hey, what a cast! Beats the crap out of that other Midsummer's Night Dream -- I mean, Kevin Kline? Sure, he's a truly talented actor, but he's no Sisqo.

Crime and Punishment in Suburbia (2000)
(As adapted from Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment):

Trapped in a suburban Hell with an alcoholic stepfather (the always nasty Michael Ironside), suffering, molested high-schooler Rosanne (Monica Keena) begs her quarterback boyfriend (James DeBello) to help her bump him off. Things get complicated with the involvement of her weary mother (scrappy Ellen Barkin, still waiting for a decent role) and a sensitive, outsider classmate (Vincent Kartheiser). Larry Gross's script has Barkin's selfish character acting too much the idiot, though you won't hear a bad note from her or the rest of the appealing young cast (the invaluable Jeffrey Wright also has a nice bit as Barkin's lover). Even if director Rob Schmidt has too much of an MTV sensibility (showy cuts, booming soundtrack, etc.) and indulges himself with the gruesome murder, his glossy sensitivity to teen trauma redeems some of the pulp.

I mainly know Michael Ironside from that other classic literary adaptation, Starship Troopers. One would presume that the giant bug guts factor is somewhat less in this story -- though I have to admit, Crime and Punishment in Space? I'd watch that. Space is always more fun than suburbia.

O (2001)
(As adapted from William Shakespeare's Othello):

Othello is now Odin (Mekhi Phifer), star of the basketball team and the school's only African American student. Desdemona is Desi (Julia Stiles), the dean's daughter and Odin's girlfriend, and Iago is Hugo (Josh Hartnett), the coach's steroid-shooting son, who jealously plants seeds of doubt that fester in Odin's mind, leading them all to a tragically violent fate.

The lesser of the Julia Stiles Modern-Day Shakespeare Series -- for my dollar, I prefer the uber-pretentious but dove-free Ethan Hawke Hamlet, in which Stiles's take on Ophelia is striking similar to her "Desi." Funny how that happened, Stiles's approach to the characters being strangely identical to her work in such other classics as Save the Last Dance and Mona Lisa Smile. It's like Stiles wants to draw parallels between the classic characters and the modern-day ones -- using her craft to develop a critical analysis of Shakespeare's doomed maidens as viewed through the eyes of the modern-day teenager. Wow. Stiles is so talented.

MTV'S Wuthering Heights (2003)
(As adapted from Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights):

Luscious Erika Christensen plays Cathy, who grows up alongside the rough, passionate Heath (Mike Vogel), a lost boy who wants only to play his kind of rock & roll. The fates, of course, will not allow their true love to blossom, although they allow quite a few of his songs to get on the soundtrack. Some genuinely spectacular seaside locations (in Puerto Rico) form the backdrop for the creaking dialogue and Jim Steinman's typically melodramatic music. It's pretty grisly unless you're 14 years old and cherish "Total Eclipse of the Heart." Cultural note: Aimee Osbourne, the Ozzy daughter who opted out of the Osbournes series, takes a small role.

This movie loses ten points for settling for Erika Christensen, the second-tier Stiles, and drops the other ninety for its failure to cast actual Heath Ledger. But what can you do? Aside from consider yourself thankful that you've never had to sit through this.

Sure, these sorts of adaptations, as unfaithful as they are ridiculous, could be seen as a symbol of our nation's decay -- but that would be to underestimate the subtle genius of using classic works for modern teen purposes. Aren't we better off, as a people, if the folks doomed to write these stories have the opportunity to cut as many corners as possible, right down to lifting a story wholesale from the Barnes & Noble hardcover sale rack? You'd think it'd be better to keep them busy, but just imagine what they'd come up with on their own. And try not to tremble.

Besides, if the choice for our nation's youth is no exposure to the classics or the latest Stiles opus, the decision to be made seems clear. I mean, how else are teenagers going to be exposed to these stories? Books?