The 1999 film 10 Things I Hate About You probably could not have lived up to the hype that I had heard about it. I was getting ready to graduate from college the year it came out, so I was just barely outside of the age range it was intended to appeal to. Later, people between 2 and 10 years younger than me would tell me that it was the greatest thing since sliced bread, better than any of the various teen movies that defined my childhood. As for this week at Movie Klub? I liked the film just fine, but I think you have to see it when you’re fourteen years old in order to love it.
I remember seeing television ads for the film in 1999 and thinking, “who the heck is in this movie? I don’t recognize any of these people.” As it turned out, Touchstone Pictures had simply stumbled upon an immense confluence of talent before it hit the A-list: Julia Stiles, Heath Ledger, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt are all here, plus we have a pre-West Wing Allison Janney and a painfully young Gabrielle Union in supporting roles.
The film is essentially a remake of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. Cameron (Gordon-Levitt) wants to date Bianca (Larisa Oleynik), but Bianca and her sister Kat (Stiles) live under a rule that they both have to date at the same time, and Kat seems to hold the entire world in contempt. Cameron finds local burnout Patrick (Ledger) to tame the shrew, they fall in and out of love, et cetera. It may sound like the formula for a modern romantic comedy, but only because that formula began with Shakespeare.
However, it’s not trying to hide its embarrassment at being adapted from the Bard, in the way that movies like Romeo Must Die did. In fact this is really a triumph of a screenplay from Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith, in the way that it keeps the essential parts of the source material while adding all of the key beats of a teen film. Snippets of the play appear in the movie – Cameron confesses his love for Bianca by saying, “I burn, I pine, I perish” – but other moments capture the mood of the Bard with modern dialogue. The title sonnet is a perfect example: it’s written in iambic pentameter, but it is also a wholly new invention that sounds perfect coming from the pen of a bright high school student.
The studio might have thought that, even if the rest of the cast turned out to be a dud, they could capitalize on the television stardom of Gordon-Levitt and Oleynik at the time, thanks to their roles in 3rd Rock From The Sun and Nickelodeon’s The Secret World of Alex Mack respectively. They had nothing to worry about, because Stiles and Ledger completely walk away with the movie. Each of them has a moment – Stiles’ drunken table-dance, Ledger’s romantic serenade – in which they exude movie-star charisma, and not just because audience members of the opposite sex might be attracted to them. They both have an teenager’s sense of reckless abandon combined with an adult level of self-control, a mix that even many successful child actors never find.
Watching 10 Things I Hate About You today, this movie practically screams “the ’90s,” but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. John Hughes’ films practically scream “the ’80s,” but they’ve also held up well today. The soundtrack is the only thing that really suffers when watching the movie in 2013: the bands Letters to Cleo and Save Ferris were at the peak of their popularity at the time, but they seem like one-hit wonders more than a decade on. That’s kind of the idea. Teenagers’ preferences are dictated by the times and pass away quickly, but a well-made film such as this one can use that fact to evoke a youthful mood.
Reviewed by Mark Young