'She's All That' and 'Clueless' are only the start: Ty Burr tells Hollywood which classics are in need of a teen-beat makeover

By Josh Wolk
February 02, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST
Warner Brothers Television

‘Moby Dick’ in the ‘Hood

I blame “West Side Story.” The beloved 1961 musical was the first to prove you could take a plot from that boring old geez Will Shakespeare (“Romeo and Juliet”), gussy it up with hip tunes and sweet-faced teen leads, and end up with a zeitgeist hit. Consider: In 1995, “Clueless” relocated Jane Austen’s “Emma” to Beverly Hills. The following year brought us Leo DiCaprio and Claire Danes in “William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet,” which, despite the title, probably would have given the Bard an aneurysm. The No. 1 movie this week is “She’s All That,” which is George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion”(okay, and Hollywood’s “My Fair Lady”) set in home room.

And this is only the beginning: The broad-appeal success of these movies (and of their tonier, more legit cousins like “Shakespeare in Love” and “Elizabeth”) means more and more reconstituted classics are coming to the mall. Disney is updating “The Taming of the Shrew” into “Ten Things I Hate About You”; the upcoming “O” sets “Othello” in a prep school; Alicia Silverstone and Matthew Lillard will be starring in a version of “Love’s Labor Lost” set as a 1930s musical; and there’s a version of “Hamlet” in the works that mixes Ethan Hawke and modern-day New York City (not that that particular combo worked with “Great Expectations”).

But why stop there? There are scores of deathless works by dead white males just itching to daub on the Clearasil and get a Teen Beat makeover. For instance:

Moby Dick In this hip-hopping update of the fusty old Melville snoozer, “Shuggie” Ahab is the leader of the skate-punk faction at Pequod Junior High. He’s so obsessed with finding the mysterious white SUV that sideswiped him one evening and cost him a leg that he leads his crew through suburb after suburb, ultimately meeting his quarry for a blistering showdown in a parking lot behind a Chuck E. Cheese. Featuring Seth Green as Fishtail.

The Country Wife Warren Beatty already updated this one in 1975 (“Shampoo”), but that was still before our target audience was born. In this version, James Van Der Beek does an about-face to play the scheming Jason Horner, who pretends to be gay so he can sleep with all his friends’ girlfriends. Sarah Michelle Gellar plays Heather Pinchwife.

The Canterbury Tales One rockin’ cross-country Spring Break road trip. You’ll never forget Denise Richards as the Babe of Bath (and, yes, she takes one…).

Jane Eyre So, this sheltered Catholic schoolgirl gets a gig as an au pair for a single dad, one faboo hunk named Jack Rochester. At least, she thinks he’s a single dad. But how come he won’t let her go in the attic? Kevin “Scream” Williamson literally infuses the classic tale with new blood. If Charlotte Bronte were alive and making films for Harvey Weinstein, you know this is what “Jane Eyre” would look like.

The Trial Joe Kay is a high school junior whose one minor infraction — he shone a laser pen on his bio teacher’s bald spot during a slide presentation — results in suspension, endless eraser clapping, and his college prospects being placed in jeopardy.

Candide A boy from an upper-middle-class bedroom community somehow manages to retain his irritating optimism when transferred inexplicably to an inner-city public school. Featuring Samuel L. Jackson as Ziggy Pangloss, cultivator of the local community garden.

If any of these show up on the big screen within a year, I reserve the right to bring in the lawyers.