But will audiences snap up tickets to new movies that use the Bard's actual words?

By Josh Wolk
April 07, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT
Mario Tursi

Shakespeare has become the most popular name in Hollywood, whether it’s the seven-Oscar-winning, $84 million-grossing ”Shakespeare in Love” or the upcoming wave of teen flicks (starting with ”10 Things I Hate About You”) that are loosely based on his plays. Ol’ Willy is hot, no doubt, but will audiences still welcome him when faced with movies that use his actual dialogue? ”A Midsummer Night’s Dream” with Michelle Pfeiffer and Kevin Kline (opening May 7) is the first of many upcoming adaptations that are faithful to the Bard’s work.

Chockful of iambic pentameter, and with nary a ”Whatever” to be found, these movies’ futures may not be rosy by any other name. ”If the question is, To be or not to be at the box office,” says CNN film analyst Martin Grove of the prospects for such films that use ”authentic” language, ”the answer is, Shakespeare alone has always been a negative.”

History shows that faithful Shakespearean adaptations have appealed to a very specialized audience — a nice way of saying they ain’t moneymakers. Even with the star power of Mel Gibson, 1990’s ”Hamlet” took in only $20.7 million. Kenneth Branagh’s four-hour take on the same Dane brought in only $4.5 million in 1996, and his 1993 version of ”Much Ado About Nothing” ended with $22.5 million. The only breakout hit was 1996’s ”Romeo and Juliet” ($46.3 million) with Leonardo DiCaprio, a version that was sugarcoated with a greatly abridged script, a matinee-idol cast, and an intensively marketed soundtrack.

To add sizzle, some of the upcoming releases experiment with Shakespeare’s settings while pledging allegiance to the original text: Next year’s ”Hamlet” with Ethan Hawke is set in 1990’s New York. And Kenneth Branagh has transformed ”Love’s Labour’s Lost” into a 1930s musical (Alicia Silverstone breaks into Cole Porter and Irving Berlin classics between thous and forsooths). But in general, studio execs believe that even if you were to set ”As You Like It” on Tattooine and add megastar Tom Hanks, audiences will still shrink from these classic titles.

”Midsummer” producer Leslie Urdang says that folks at her film’s studio, Fox Searchlight, were nervous about the reported $13 million film, despite her who’s-who of actors: ”Even though we had Kevin and Michelle and Calista Flockhart and Stanley Tucci, all through the process we heard from the executives, ‘Let’s not forget, it’s still a Shakespeare film.’ Any other romantic comedy with that cast, we’d probably have had five times the budget.”

The hope is that the popularity of ”Shakespeare in Love,” which fictionalized the Bard’s life, will entice more people to sample his actual work. ”Even if one-eighth of the people (who saw ‘Love’) now say, ‘I’m ready for the real thing,’ then we’ve broadened the audience for Shakespeare, and I think that’s great,” says Urdang. In other words: No one likes having their labor of love lost at the box office.