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What Could Remake-Obsessed Hollywood Learn From Shakespeare?

By J. M. Evenson  |  18-May-2013

If there's one thing everybody likes to do in Hollywood, it's complain about remakes. One article after another voices disgust at the latest reboot. Remakes, they say, are absolute proof that Tinseltown has lost its imagination.

But are remakes really a new phenomenon? Absolutely not. In fact, one of the greatest writers of Western literature did it: Shakespeare.

Shakespeare is generally regarded as the most uniquely gifted writer of all time. But the truth about Shakespeare is shocking. Few of his stories are "original" in our sense of the word. In fact, only two of Shakespeare's thirty-eight plays have no known source. The rest were stolen -- that's right, stolen -- from specific, identifiable sources. In other words, Shakespeare loved a good remake.

So why are Hollywood's remakes universally despised by critics?

Rehashing old material isn't the problem. Every artist knows that good material comes from making old stories new. Shakespeare understood that cannibalizing other people's work was a powerful tool, and he wasn't afraid to use it.

"Hamlet," for instance, is based on the Norse legend of Amleth. The story is fundamentally the same as the legend, but Shakespeare radically revised the main character. In Shakespeare's play, Hamlet is smart, introspective, angry, despondent, euphoric, nostalgic, witty, and possibly mad. Like a prism, the character of Hamlet reveals a rainbow of emotions. Audiences are drawn in almost as if they are solving a puzzle: "To be, or not to be?"

The key to a good remake is giving the audience something new. Shakespeare always made the work his own, and he invariably improved the story.

The problem with Hollywood, then, is not that they are making too many reboots and remakes, but rather that they are making them bigger, more visually stimulating, more expensive -- but not necessarily better in terms of character, plot, and dialogue. At the end of the day, all audiences really want is a good story.

The Hollywood remakes that have done well at the box office have all offered audiences something new. Take "Snow White and The Huntsman" (2012), for instance. The movie provides an intriguing re-imagining of Snow White as a dirty, fearless leader dressed in chain mail. It is remarkable vision of princess femininity, and one that resonated with audiences. The movie represents exactly what Shakespeare would do if he were alive today: take an original property and give it a twist that challenges the audience in all the right ways.

For every story Shakespeare stole, he added his own unique flavor. And that flavor is exactly what audiences crave. What Hollywood filmmakers could learn from Shakespeare, then, is simple: always offer your own spin on the story. Don't be afraid to make improvements. And make sure to add your own unique flavor.

J. M. Evenson is the author of the forthcoming "Shakespeare for Screenwriters: Timeless Writing Tips from the Master of Drama" from the leading publisher in screenwriting books Michael Wiese Productions.

The book breaks down famous stories, scenes, and characters in Shakespeare's greatest works and shows readers how to capture their power in their own screenplays. An award-winning teacher of Shakespeare, composition, and film, J. M. Evenson holds a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan and an M.F.A. from UCLA's famed film school. She currently teaches at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California.

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