Here's a question for all you cinephiles: who is the most prolific writer for the silver screen? Let me give you a hint: curly hair, bearded, revered for his craft. No, not Charlie Kaufman. With 1,547 writing credits at the time of writing, it's everyone's favourite bard, William Shakespeare. With everyone from Indian veterans Gulzar and Vishal Bhardwaj to international stalwarts like Baz Luhrmann and Akira Kurosawa interpreting his work for the movies, it wouldn't be too difficult for one to make a case for Shakespeare to claim the aforementioned title. The transcendent universality and humanity within his works fuels a diverse set of films, and it is funny that one of the best adaptations of Shakespeare's works comes from one of his least palatable plays by modern standards, The Taming of the Shrew. I am, of course, talking about the 1999 classic 10 Things I Hate About You.
The Taming of the Shrew is a strange read. A large proportion of the story revolves around a husband "taming" his wife Katherina, the titular "shrew". Katherina is an extremely unlikeable, angry, and violent character, going as far as tying her "virtuous" sister Bianca up as Bianca pleads for mercy. To counter this, Katherina's husband Petruchio systematically deprives her of food, sleep, and clothing, torturing her into docility, until he breaks her into an almost captive-like submission. The play ends with her giving a speech on a woman's place to be obedient and how a wife should place her hand beneath her husband's foot, an ending considered her husband's victory, a moment to applaud. Yet, despite its thematic problems, the play remains appealing due to the extremely compelling characters and the rapid-fire banter.
And this is exactly what 10 Things I Hate About You does best. The film, which does not feel dated over 20 years after its debut, retains the banter and characters of the play whilst successfully subverting the story's sordid aspects; turning them into something new-age and sharp; a comedy that explored the themes of gender politics, false identities, and romantic intrigue.
The first thing that strikes me about the movie is that, other than the wry nods to the source material (the sisters' names retained with their last name changed to Stratford after Shakespeare's birthplace, the school called Padua after the city of the story, Petruchio renamed Verona after where he lives), it does not feel like the retelling of a Shakespearean play at first glance. And I say this in the best possible way. It is treated like a movie of 1999. Not just in the way the characters look and feel, in that they come across as teenagers and not children speaking like 16th-century adults, but also the beats of the movie. Whether it's Bianca and Kat's gynaecologist father making Bianca wear a fake baby bump to understand some of the more grim repercussions of dating, or Heath Ledger's Verona sweeping Kat (and everyone watching) off her feet by asking her to go out with him as he sings and dances to "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You", the movie has all the notes of a good teen movie. The rhythm and tempo of the movie play out exactly like any other good high school movie of that era would, moving from fast-paced to meditative to cringeworthy to outright sappy, hitting all the right notes at the right time. Yet, upon re-watching it, I realised that beneath the surface of its structure lies the genius within the writing. The humour, witticisms and repartee, as well as the more affectionate moments, are presented in a way that feels more than a bit reminiscent of the Bard. None of this more on display than with the titular shrew, Kat.
Despite the way she is treated for the most part in the play, Katherine is one of Shakespeare's most memorable and indelible characters. She is shown as a strong character, one with agency, smarts, and desires (her courtship pun-off with Petruchio is one of the most masterful displays of flirtatious wordplay in literature). She has a desire to be respected, to be able to act against those who come in her way; a desire to be free. As a result, her anger, while played off as being a shrew in the play, is justified. And here is where the movie is able to adapt to modern times most effectively. Kat's anger is justified. The world around her is deeply misogynistic, as shown by her previous dalliance with Joey Donner. And the reason Verona is a perfect match for her is that he respects her opinion, instead of mocking it. He does not try to tame the rage out of her.
That is not to say that her character is perfect. She treats her sister with a lot of contempt and condescension for being a 'girly girl.' She lies to Bianca about her relationship with Joey rather than tell her about him. But to a large extent, the world works. Because somewhere in her head, the internalised misogyny makes her hate her sister. Which is why the scene towards the end of the movie that sees both of them not only reconcile after a fight but also see the world as the other sees it is extremely moving, whilst upholding the feminist values the movie has espoused thus far.
10 Things I Hate About You has a lot going for it. A killer screenplay with great lines ('I know you can be underwhelmed and you can be overwhelmed, but can you ever just be whelmed?', or 'There's a difference between like and love. Like, I like my Sketchers, but I love my Prada backpack'), a smattering of great leads at the cusp of stardom (Julia Stiles, Heath Ledger, and Joseph-Gordon Levitt all broke through with this movie), and a spectacular supporting cast (including a Shakespeare-rapping English Teacher and a scene-stealing Allison Janney as the erotica-writing guidance counsellor). But what makes it perhaps the greatest interpretation of the bard's works is that it takes a play that is impossibly tricky to recreate and somehow manages to represent it in a way that stays relevant over 20 years after release.