Twenty years ago Heath Ledger danced his way down some bleachers and into film legend with an enthusiastic rendition of ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’. Its lack of vocal finesse coupled with a total commitment to the ridiculousness of unabashed romance perfectly sums up 10 Things I Hate About You. The top-tier teenage romcom remains just as sharp, funny, and joyous as it was in 1999 through a combination of the silly and heartfelt: the aforementioned Frankie Valli homage, Allison Janney’s foul-mouthed guidance counsellor, and the unparalleled “That must be Nigel with the brie” are all iconic. However, its highest achievement may be taking an outdated, unpleasant Shakespeare play and bringing out the clever, comic heart that still feels relevant and genuine. This feat marks 10 Things as a uniquely excellent adaptation and arguably the best screen reworking of Shakespeare.
Simply put, films like West Side Story, She’s the Man, and The Lion King had much better source material (Romeo and Juliet, Twelfth Night, and Hamlet respectively) so did not have quite as far to go; 10 Things took a B-rate and highly problematic Shakespeare play and turned it into pure gold. The Taming of the Shrew features some fun slapstick moments and the playwright’s trademark bawdy wit but replaces his better plays’ timeless introspection with chauvinistic sexual politics and broad generalisations. There is no question that Taming was a comedy in its time but making it funny today is impossible without substantial revisions, omissions, and/or reinterpretations. The easiest way to achieve this is to establish a subtextual spark between Katherina and Petruchio upon their first encounter, which is absent in the pun-filled but verbally abusive dialogue (the 1967 Franco Zeffirelli version, starring the then-married Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, takes this route). However, the words still take a fair amount of tongue-in-cheek delivery not to horrify – possibly this battle of wills was best suited for a modern high school and a moderate helping of feminist thought all along.
The climactic moment of truth – when the tempestuous heroine reveals her love/Stockholm Syndrome for her lover/master – is cringeworthy in both Shakespeare’s and screenwriters Karen McCullah and Kristen Smith’s hands. The effect, however, is massively different in each. The original is irredeemable, disturbing, and – when played straight as the Globe did in 2016 – downright tragic. 10 Things does not break Kat’s spirit; she is justly disillusioned by Patrick beginning their relationship with a bet, but genuine affection – and her reluctant awareness of Patrick’s sincere intentions – underlies her change of heart. Her ‘sonnet’ (which is not actually a sonnet, but she did not seem to be aiming for a high grade with this one) is absolute cornballs, but it is delivered with an aching sincerity that sells the hell out of the contrivance.
The gusto with which 10 Things pays homage to its source material prevents an abundance of over-the-top literalisms from feeling awkward. When Padua becomes the name of the high school instead of the city, Verona becomes Patrick’s last name and not his hometown, and Cameron’s “I burn, I pine, I perish” coexists with his later “And I’m back in the game!”, suspension of disbelief is no longer the goal. The knowing winks throughout could have been prime examples of so-bad-it’s-good but the silliness is met with such entire commitment that it is just plain good.
A less literal update is seen in the treatment of 10 Things’ characters, all of whom (save the philandering Joey) are treated with far more heart and sympathy than Shakespeare’s originals. Yes, their high school woes may not be world-ending, but there is nothing but love in this story. Patrick is a classic bad boy whose willingness to sacrifice his dignity for the sake of his beloved subverts this trope while also possibly making him a perfect man – a far cry from the source material. Cameron, played by a baby-faced Joseph Gordon-Levitt, carries enough self-absorption without self-awareness to make his naivete endearing rather than bland. Larisa Oleynik’s Bianca gets the best makeover; while materialistic and lacking her sister’s academic drive, vacuity and subservience are replaced by forthrightness and autonomy. This character treatment does as much to strengthen the film’s feminist credentials as its revision of the central romance and heroine; allowing both Kat and Bianca complete dignity (well, except where ‘The Belly’ is concerned) and freedom to subvert the rebel/conformist dichotomy they seem to embody at the start.
However, the film’s greatest achievement is giving the titular shrew her voice. Kat is difficult, rude, and imperfect, but infinitely recognisable to all teenagers fighting a system that they feel is stacked against them. In Shakespeare, Katherina throws her barbs to her father and his friends in the opening scene, but her reputation is largely built by the words of the men around her. Much of her physical and verbal rebellions take place offstage. In 10 Things, Kat is introduced on her own terms as she drives up alongside a carful of popular kids, blaring ‘Bad Reputation’ and living up to its lyrics. She arrives like a whirlwind to Padua High School, tearing down prom posters and terrorising unskilled drivers. The script’s constant allegiance to Kat ensures that she does not need to be likeable at all times in order to be entirely lovable – a service afforded far too few female leads in film.
Perhaps 10 Things’ only dramatic flaw is that it peaks too early: the first classroom scene not only establishes Kat’s personality and reputation in Padua High School but becomes a cutting, hilarious, and still-relevant discussion of intersection and privilege. Kat’s initial snap at Joey’s taunting – “I guess in this society, being male and an asshole makes you worthy of our time” – could have been written in 2019, and while her English teacher Mr Morgan is sympathetic to her cause (and her desire for some Sylvia Plath or Simone de Beauvoir on the curriculum) his exhaustion with this all-too-common occurrence is immediately established. The maddening situation takes on added humour when the teacher brutally calls Kat and her classmates out for their teenage myopia:
Mr. Morgan: And Kat, I want to thank you for your view. I know how difficult it must be for you to overcome all those years of upper middle-class suburban oppression. Must be tough. But the next time you storm the PTA crusading for better… lunch meat, or whatever it is you white girls complain about, ask them why they can’t buy a book written by a black man!
White Rastas: That’s right man!
Mr Morgan: Don’t even get me started on you two!
In about a minute of comedy gold, Kat’s crusade is both supported and picked to pieces – instead of an ideal, idealistic heroine, viewers are treated to a teenager with rough edges and limited life experiences whose heart is in the right place.
Ultimately, Kat is the one sent to Ms Perky’s office for causing a disruption while Joey gets off scot-free – under the laugh-out-lough humour of the classroom and the justified unrepentance that follows (“I still maintain that he kicked himself in the balls”), this injustice still stings. Her righteous anger does not have an outlet accepted by society or supported by the institutions she finds herself in. While one hopes that this situation becomes as outdated as Taming’s wife-beating has, the compassionate, incisive commentary remains honest.
As with The Taming of the Shrew, not everything in 10 Things I Hate About You has aged gracefully (‘the plan’ comes to mind, not to mention some lamentable late-’90s fashion choices); however, its joyousness, hilarity, and wicked one-liners cement its status as a classic. The love it exudes for its characters – even at their most ridiculous teenage phases – elevates the high school romcom to a masterpiece of comic timing and genuine warmth. Ultimately, turning a fundamentally misogynistic text into a feminist narrative that respects and loves its characters, even at their most ridiculous teenage phases, remains a phenomenal feat of adaptation and reimagination.