Shakespeare on the silver screen

Director Joss Whedon helmed the highest-grossing film of 2012. Can he bestow the same magic on the financially troubled Shakespeare film genre?

Roadside Attractions
‘Much Ado About Nothing’

On June 7, director Joss Whedon’s take on the Shakespeare comedy “Much Ado About Nothing” will come to theaters. Mr. Whedon may be the box office king after helming the highest-grossing movie of 2012, “The Aven­gers,” but can he break the streak of Bard-based films that have bombed at the box office?

Many efforts to convert Shakespeare’s plays into movies in the past two decades have been critically lauded but largely avoided by audiences. The most recent, Ralph Fiennes’s 2011 adaptation of “Coriolanus,” was overwhelmingly well received by critics but didn’t even crack $1 million in ticket sales. Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 “Hamlet” is often called the best film adaptation of that play ever, but it earned less than $5 million domestically.

One of the last Shakespeare movies to use the Bard’s original script, and which also raked in box office gold, was Mr. Bran­agh’s take on “Much Ado About Nothing,” but that was 20 years ago. Meanwhile, Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film “William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet,” also a box office hit, had the characters speak the original dialogue but updated the action to 1990s California.

Many of the Shakespeare movies that have succeeded since then are the ones that took a cue from Mr. Luhrmann and adapted the classics even more loosely, often losing Shakespeare’s dated dialogue. Both “10 Things I Hate About You” (1999), a contemporary update of “The Taming of the Shrew,” and “She’s the Man” (2006), a modern spin on “Twelfth Night,” were box office successes.

So is bringing Shakespeare into the present – and losing the clunky language – the only way to make money? (For the record, Whedon’s “Much Ado” is set in modern day but uses the original script.)

Mark Wunderlich, literature faculty member and Shakespeare teacher at Bennington (Vt.) College, says the Elizabethan way of speaking could be one of the biggest reasons adaptations flounder at the box office.

“Mostly it is the language barrier that people are afraid of,” he says.

Adaptations should take chances with Shakespeare’s stories to keep the already short attention spans of audiences engaged, says Mr. Wunderlich, who points to “Romeo + Juliet” as a success story.

“That one captured something of the populist spirit of those plays,” he said. “The reason we still read Shakespeare today is that it’s a living piece of art and not a museum piece.”

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