10 Things I Hate About You is a modern retelling of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, transposed into a late 90s high school. One could easily miss the classical origins, though. From the opening notes of “One Week” by The Barenaked Ladies to the scene where a girl flashes a teacher in detention without receiving so much as a talking to, the film is an aggressively 90s affair. Despite being firmly grounded in its time and place, 10 Things holds up remarkably well over thirty years after its initial release. This is in part due to the fact that draws its inspiration from a timeless tale from one of history’s greatest writers, and in part because of the choice of setting. After all, the most likely places to find a group of horny people falling hopelessly in love and competing for each others’ affections in the most unnecessarily convoluted way possible are a Shakesperian comedy and any high school in America.
The plot of The Taming of the Shrew is fairly simple: There’s the cool sister, and the sister who everyone thinks is a pain in the ass. In order to get with the former, one needs to find a partner for the latter. The story of 10 Things I Hate About You is basically the same, except whereas Shakespeare concerned himself with marriage and dowries, our teen heroes are more concerned with snagging a date for the prom. Recent transfer student Cameron (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) falls head over heels for Bianca (Larisa Oleynik) due to the irresistible way she walks by and ignores him. Filling out the love triangle is Joey (Andrew Keegan), a rich kid and sometimes underwear model who Bianca is smitten with. However, Bianca’s father (Larry Miller) has imposed a strict no-dating rule, which he shortsightedly amends to include the fate-tempting loophole that Bianca is allowed to date when she convinces her older sister Kat (Julia Stiles) to do the same. The caveat seems harmless enough, as no one in the school wants to go out with a free-thinking, empowered woman like Kat who, according to her erotica-writing guidance counselor (Allison Janney), is typically described by her classmates as a “heinous bitch.”
In true Shakesperian fashion, scheme quickly begets scheme. Cameron poses as a French tutor so that he can spend time with Bianca. Bianca hatches a plan to get Cameron to find Kat a date so that she may in turn go out with Joey. Cameron and his friend Michael (David Krumholtz) convince Joey to pay self-styled bad boy Patrick (Heath Ledger) to be Kat’s disinterested suitor. Everything goes smoothly when Patrick impresses Kat with his feigned knowledge of indie bands and decision to quit smoking, but the plan goes awry when Patrick realizes that Kat is secretly the coolest person in the entire movie and starts to fall for her.
The love story between Kat and Patrick is one of the primary reasons that the film remains so endearing. With Heath Ledger and Julia Stiles both early in their careers, the casting of this incredibly talented and engaging duo is truly inspired. Ledger oozes Australian-drenched charisma that slowly breaks through his character’s reputation as a deranged lunatic, while Stiles’ perfectly tuned moody sarcasm grounds Kat’s intelligence and wit, helping her rise above the stock “shrew” character of literature. She is no mere “difficult woman,” much less a “heinous bitch,” but a complex, career-driven woman who refuses to be defined by other peoples’ perception of her. With their powers combined, they form an unbeatable power couple, equal parts smart, handsome, and miles outside the league of any normal human being. Whether pelting each other with paint balloons or dancing down the bleachers while singing “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” their love is so infectious that you’ll find yourself rooting for their relationship until the credits roll, even if it has no real chance of lasting beyond the first semester of college.
Verdict: 4 out of 5 stars
Despite its status as a teen comedy, 10 Things I Hate About You is a masterful adaptation that blends the original language of Shakespeare with modern, quip-heavy dialogue. Fast-paced exchanges are peppered with poetic quotes like, “sweet love, renew thy force,” which are in turn followed by realistic high school retorts such as, “Hey, don’t say shit like that to me, people can hear.” With stellar acting and an inspired script that are well above the levels of the genre, 10 Things is sweet, endearing fun that will continue to entertain high school English classes on substitute teacher day for centuries to come.