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Movie Review: 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'

Hollywood does Shakespeare
The Bard makes a comeback at the box office
By Casey Hailey

From the 1996 "Romeo and Juliet" to this year's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," Shakespeare has been at the box office lately almost as much as Spielberg; however, the Bard is not as new to the big screen as some might think.

"It's no novelty that Hollywood is doing Shakespeare: Some of the first silent films were scenes from Shakespeare, and they've been making film versions ever since then, quite frequently," says Dr. Coppelia Kahn, an English professor at Brown University.

What is a novelty, though, is the fact that the scripts haven't attracted this many mainstream viewers -- especially teenagers -- and pulled in the big bucks for over two decades.

"I attribute most of the (recent) interest in the Bard on film to the fact that there simply wasn't a lot of interest in the '60s and '70s; it was due for a rebound at some point," says Marc Pressley, editor for the Shakespeare Resource Center (http://home.earthlink.net/~feiffor/bard/body).

But why is the "rebound" happening now?

"It's primarily due to a production cycle," says Pressley. "There was a generation in the 1930s-40s that grew up with the Laurence Olivier films ('Hamlet,' 'Henry V,' etc.). There was a downturn in filmed production for the next few decades, and now there's a whole new generation of directors as well as audience."

Pressley says that producer Kenneth Branagh has laid the foundation for the films that are coming out now.

"Kenneth Branagh has thrown himself wholeheartedly into the middle of this-I don't think we'd be seeing quite the same interest in Shakespearean film were it not for his 'Henry V,'" says Pressley.

The critically acclaimed film hit movie theaters in 1989 and was followed four years later by "Much Ado About Nothing," which starred Michael Keaton, Keanu Reeves and Denzel Washington. In 1996 Branagh attempted "Hamlet," but the four-hour movie was buried in the wake of Franco Zeffirelli's production, which starred Mel Gibson.

Even with big-name actors and fancy cinematography, the movies' seventeenth century dialogue may alienate mainstream audiences. Subsequently, some producers are taking Shakespeare's works and modifying them into twentieth century scripts.

For example, this year's "Ten Things I Hate About You" is Shakespeare's "Taming of the Shrew" rewritten for today's teenagers.

"If you've turned on your tube in the last 10 years, you've run into this formula over and over again: kids who seem sex-crazed and loony on the outside but are world-wise, conservative and sensitive at heart, ruled by parents and teachers who are imbeciles on the surface and deviants just below it," writes movie critic Heath Ledger on his Culture Vulture web site (www.culturevulture.net/movies/10things.htm).

And who better than Shakespeare to write about sex-crazed teenagers and deviant authorities? The question some viewers are asking, though, is how true are the movies to Shakespeare original plays.

"I've felt pretty satisfied with most of the film versions I've seen in the last 10 years. The only ones I felt entirely missed the boat were the (Oliver) Parker production of 'Othello'... (Trevor) Nunn's 'Twelfth Night' ... and 'Romeo and Juliet,'" says Pressley. "I genuinely liked this recent 'Midsummer Night's Dream.'"

Shakespeare's influence hasn't waned. Another version of "Hamlet" starring Ethan Hawke, Bill Murray and Casey Affleck is currently being filmed, and "O," an update of "Othello" with a teen cast, is slotted for next year, according to the IMDb movie database (http://us.imdb.com). And Branagh is considering a production of "Macbeth."