Shakespeare book adaptions: The good, the bad, the ugly

If you don’t know it already, I’m a Shakespeare Nerd. I wrote my master’s dissertation on queer productions of Shakespeare. One of my hobbies is to read adaptations of the plays, because I love a good modernization or reworking, and there’s so much interesting stuff that can be done with this dude’s work. He’s not a Classic ™ for nothing.

But having read a number of adaptations also means I’ve encountered a fair share of books that made me go “yikes” and “nope”. Sharing now with you: my short guide to the good and the bad of Shakespeare adaptations, as well as some non-book stuff I want to highlight, starting with…

The Bad

These aren’t just books I did not like. They have Something Wrong With Them that made me absolutely pissed off. These are fights I’m ready to fight with the authors. I don’t normally post negative shit like this, but for these books I make an exception. These are my ultimate “do not read, if you love yourself”.

Prince of Shadows, by Rachel Caine

Look, I’m sorry. I ended up following Caine when I joined twitter and she seemed like a lovely person. And I know she passed away a while back. It’s made me reconsider some things.
Nonetheless… wow, is this book bad. My bookclub still calls it “Piece of Shit” and there’s a reason for that. It’s not just that the writing is flowery in the worst ways (it is) or that it suffers from a bad case of “Romeo is stupid for being in Love but I, Benvolio, am much better in the exact same situation”. It’s just… Well, let me say this. It features a graphic and gratuitous lynching of a queer character. The POV character, who’s supposed to be a good guy, then completely drops his friend (whose dead boyfriend got executed), because “he’s too whiny” or some shit. There’s much I can excuse but none of this was ok.

The Gap of Time, by Jeanette Winterson

Winter’s Tale is my absolute favourite play, and it’s about, in short, women having to work around a deeply misogynistic man for their survival. The Gap of Time was a very promising story, part of the Hogarth Shakespeare Project to modernize Shakespeare’s works. And Winterson is a well-loved lesbian writer. I was very excited about this book!

But here’s what happened. Winterson cranks up to 11 just how bad Leontes is. He’s an antisemitic homophobe, jealous to the point of violence, who rapes his 9 month pregnant wife and leaves her for dead.

That would have been fine (except for the graphic descriptions) only THEN the narrative turns to… forgiveness. This absolute asshole of a man gets none of the narrative karma coming for him, he instead gets his lovely wife back and his daughter back and everyone forgets whatever horrible things he said and did. He does not spend a day in prison, is never worried by the law, only “oh no my wife left me!” til she comes back of her own volition, and they are Happy Ever After as a family.

“Surely”, you’ll say, “it’s about how society gives a pass to some people despite whatever horrors they commit” or some other dark observation. It would’ve made a lot of sense. I could’ve lived with a dark, dark criticism of society. But Winterson writes an Author’s Note at the end in which she again emphasises the Power of Forgiveness and how this is all right and powerful to just Forgive a man like that and it’s all for the best.

I’m sorry but no. On behalf of women, on behalf of queer people, on behalf of anyone who’s ever been the victim of bigotry and of abuse: fuck this. There is no Power of Forgiveness in the face of certain horrors. If society forgives and forgets sometimes, it is not Right and should not be lauded as such. /end rant.

If We Were Villains, by M. L. Rio

I’ve seen this book complimented as a positive example of “Absolutely Horrible Queer Characters” but it’s that, in a not so positive way. This book is full of boring, haughty Shakespeare actors, in an art school so badly worldbuilt it’d make you think Rio has never seen an art school.

It’s full of misogyny in the characterization (as in, not just that the characters are sexist to each other, but that the women are bimbo pinups with no brain who only catfight and want d*ck, and that the sexist comments are justified by the narrative). It is, quite frankly, also homophobic.

The narration is pretentious, the characters are pretentious and brainless, the narrator sexualises 20something women (from the future where he’s like 35yo), everyone quotes Shakespeare like no real person ever does because the writer seems incapable of using her own words. It’s bad on a craft level and on a human level. Pass.

The Good

There is truly some brilliant stuff out there, however. These are well worth a read even if you’re not familiar with the originals, although extra context doesn’t hurt any! (these are in no particular order, they’re all great)

Miranda in Milan, by Katharine Ducket

I recommended this book to everyone who would listen to me, back when I read it in 2020. It’s a YA sequel to The Tempest that asks the hard questions, like “why was Prospero exiled in the first place” and “what about the mother?” and also tackles issues of colonialism in the original play. It’s queer, it’s lovely, it’s full of magic, and I heartily recommend it.

Shakespeare’s R&J, by Joe Calarco

I have a soft spot for this play. It’s about four boys at a Catholic school who find a copy of Romeo and Juliet, read it between themselves in secret, and start to discovering things about themselves in the process. I saw a production of this with actual teenagers and it was one of the most powerful plays I’ve ever seen, full stop.

It’s well thought-out, it’s powerful, it explores the weight of organized religion on queer kids, and it’s just beautiful. It also inspired Private Romeo, a movie with a similar premise about US military schools, to protest “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” at the time.

Wyrd Sisters, by Terry Pratchett

A classic of fantasy, and the first book that properly introduces all three Witches, it stands the test of time remarkably well.

It’s primarily a mix of Hamlet and Macbeth, but also a Discworld novel in its own right, and includes fun Easter Eggs like, oh, a Dysk theatre in Ankh Morpork, and a playwright called Hwel… Other than saying the witches kick ass, and the text is full of little details that make my Shakespeare-loving heart go, I love it so much because it does bring out humour, and that’s something that often gets forgotten in modern Shakespare adaptations. Those plays were supposed to be hilarious! Even, or perhaps especially, the trajedies.

Honourable mentions

Perhaps they don’t get their full paragraph, but they’re still good:

  • “Immortal Coil”, by Ellen Kushner, short story published in Uncanny Magazine… about Shakespeare and Marlowe having a good ol’ time.
  • Rosemary and Rue, by Seanan McGuire. I’m in the middle of a reread and I thought it was a lot more Shakespearean than it actually is (you know, aside from the title), but it still gets a mention for the literal King Of Cats named Tybalt.
  • These Violent Delights, by Chloe Gong. It’s still on my TBR, I will get to it I swear! But I hear so much good about this 1920s Shanghai Romeo and Juliet retelling, so I thought it deserved a mention.

The Ugly (no these are cool actually!)

There are a lot of good movies and not enough space to talk about them, but I also want to take some time to talk about good game adaptations.

To Be Or Not To Be

Choose your own Adventure Hamlet game, hilarious and available on Steam. You can choose to play as Hamlet himself, but also Ophelia, or the dead King… Try to solve the mystery, or die trying (mostly die trying).

Great Shakespearean Deaths

It’s a card game, illustrated by Chris Riddell (who also illustrated a few of Neil Gaiman’s works, among other things). Your goal is to have the most dramatic, emotional, gore, etc. death… uhm, I mean character death card.

A bit of a chat

What about you, have you read any of these books? Played any of these games? Disagree with me on my Bad rants, or have other horrors to complain about? Other good adaptations I should definitely read?

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