STAGE TO SCREEN: Will Bevy of Big-Screen Bards Bring Big Business?

STAGE TO SCREEN: Will Bevy of Big-Screen Bards Bring Big Business? With the staggering critical and popular success of "Shakespeare in Love," everybody's talking about all the Shakespeare films that will undoubtedly start flooding the multiplexes. Too late: Before "Shakespeare in Love" even opened, nearly a dozen screen adaptations were either being filmed or in development. This trend has been picking up steam ever since a 29-year old Kenneth Branagh unveiled his mud-soaked, revelatory "Henry V" in 1989. (It got an unexpected boost in 1991 when indie icon Gus Van Sant dropped Falstaff into the modern-day world of narcoleptic L.A. street hustlers in "My Own Private Idaho.")

With the staggering critical and popular success of "Shakespeare in Love," everybody's talking about all the Shakespeare films that will undoubtedly start flooding the multiplexes. Too late: Before "Shakespeare in Love" even opened, nearly a dozen screen adaptations were either being filmed or in development. This trend has been picking up steam ever since a 29-year old Kenneth Branagh unveiled his mud-soaked, revelatory "Henry V" in 1989. (It got an unexpected boost in 1991 when indie icon Gus Van Sant dropped Falstaff into the modern-day world of narcoleptic L.A. street hustlers in "My Own Private Idaho.")

Since then, though, most film adaptations seem to have left audiences Bard senseless. Branagh's 4-hour "Hamlet," "Twelfth Night," Al Pacino's quirky but fascinating "Looking for Richard," Laurence Fishburne's "Othello," the Ian McKellen "Richard III" -- you need to go back to "Much Ado About Nothing" in 1993 to find a Shakespeare movie that crossed over to a broader audience. Will the momentum from Gwyneth & Co. turn the genre into more than just prestige projects? Here are the next 10 potential offerings, more or less in the expected order of release. (Please let me know if I've missed any.)

The season's first entry, "10 Things I Hate About You," opens March 31. This modern-day Taming of the Shrew comes from the "Clueless" school of modernizing classics: Keep some of the names, inject it with teen lingo and music, and stay out of the story's way. The setting here is a 1990s high school; the cast is largely devoted to new TV faces, but Allison Janney, who plays guidance counselor "Ms. Perky," will be a familiar presence to theatregoers (A View From The Bridge).

"A Midsummer Night's Dream," due out May 5, may be the most faithful of the current crop, even if the setting has been transplanted to turn-of-the century Tuscany. With names like Kevin Kline, Michelle Pfeiffer, Calista Flockhart and Rupert Everett attached, it's certainly the starriest. And check out these Rude Mechanicals: In addition to Kline, there's Roger Rees (as Peter Quince), Bill Irwin (Snout), Max Wright (Starveling) and Gregory Jbara (Snug). Coproducers Michael Hoffman and Leslie Urdang may also collaborate later this year on a "Taming of the Shrew" film.

Dimension, long considered the cheap horror imprint of Miramax, appears to be cleaning up its image a bit with two Shakespeare offerings. First up is "O" which is basically "Othello" set in the roiling, deadly world of high school football. (The trend appears to be shortening the play names to just one word or letter; "R&J" and "Titus" are also pending. Since all the various "Richards" and "Henrys" are virtually the only plays left to film, this strategy could soon provide confusing.) Tim Blake Nelson (The Grey Zone) is writing the screenplay; stars include Mekhi Phifer in the title role, Josh Hartnett as Hugo and Julia Stiles as Desi. "O" is slated for an October release. Dimension also owns the rights to a modern-day "Hamlet" set in the financial world. Ethan Hawke stars, along with Bill Murray, Sam Shepard, Diane Venora and Kyle MacLachlan. Julie Taymor is following up her Lion King triumph with "Titus," an independently funded version of Titus Andronicus set in mid century Europe. Details are sketchy about the project, which stars Jessica Lange, Alan Cumming and Anthony Hopkins in the title role, but shooting reportedly went over schedule by several weeks. (This resulted in Cumming's on-again, off-again stint in Cabaret late last year.) Elliot Goldenthal, Taymor's husband and frequent collaborator, contributes the score. "Titus" is expected by the end of the year.

Scheduled for a release sometime in 2000 is Branagh's fourth screen Shakespeare, "Love's Labours Lost." Branagh's currently filming in London, and once again he's going the starry route -- Alicia Silverstone and Nathan Lane star, along with Branagh, Matthew Lillard ("Scream") and Natasha McElhone ("Ronin"). Reports indicate that this will be a musicalized version, with interpolated pop standards. Miramax will handle the North American rights for this as part of a three-picture deal with Branagh's Shakespeare Film Co.; the other two projects are "As You Like It" and "Macbeth."

Ironically, the only scheduled film to spring from a stage production is one of the least traditional Shakespeare stagings in recent memory. Joseph Calarco has just finished the final draft of R&J, his prep school reconceptualiztion of Romeo and Juliet. The original cast of four has been tentatively expanded to eight, but the basic concept remains the same. The plan is to begin filming this summer; no word yet on whether any of the original cast members will repeat their roles.

Cutting-Room Floor: The Lion in Winter is coming back to the silver screen. The 1966 James Goldman play, which was already filmed once with Katharine Hepburn, Peter O'Toole and Anthony Hopkins, will most likely see script revisions before director Pat O'Connor comes on board. This project is in no way connected to the current Roundabout revival with Fishburne and Stockard Channing. O'Connor last year directed the film version of Dancing at Lughnasa. ... Two female tour de forces are also supposedly in the works. A Variety report on two producers embroiled in a legal skirmish over "The Thin Red Line" offhandedly mentioned several of their future projects. One of them is based on In the Boom Boom Room by David Rabe, whose Hurlyburly hit the screens in December. Patricia Arquette is attached to star as the erotic dancer; Oscar-winning documentarian Barbara Kopple ("American Dream") is slated to direct. And a press release about a new play by Erin Sanders incidentally mentions the fact that her play Sally Marr ... and her escorts, a Joan Rivers vehicle that quickly flopped in 1994, is "currently in development as a feature film for Universal Pictures." More on either of these projects as information becomes available.... Despite poisonous reviews (one reviewer lamented the fact that its 82-minute running time didn't give him sufficient time to slit his wrists and bleed to death before it ended), the film of The King & I made $4.1 million at the box office this weekend. Assuming an average ticket price of $7, a conservative estimate taking into account the high number of lower priced children's tickets, this works out to about 585,700 paying customers. The St. James Theatre, where the original stage production debuted in 1951, seats 1,623 and has eight performances a week. Given these numbers, King & I on stage ran for more than 10 months of sold-out performances before it reached the same number of people as "King & I" on screen did in one weekend.

Eric Grode is New York bureau chief for Show Music magazine and a theatre critic for Back Stage.