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Queering Classic Literature Through Cinema

by Oana-Maria Moldovan

While we now have a selection of queer movies to choose from, this wasn’t always the reality. Well, not in the way we tend to think about it anyway.

As far as Historians know, the first ever example of a film sympathetic (take this with a pinch of salt) to homosexuality was released back in 1919 by a German silent production and tells the story of a violinist who falls in love with one of his male students. 

In hindsight, it's evident that this portrayal falls short, yet it remains a significant artefact - and talks about a bigger problem of how media portrays gay men as predatory.

It took twelve years after that for the first WLW (woman-loving-women) coded character in a film. 

‘Maedchen in Uniform,’ released in 1931 and directed by Leontine Sagan and Carl Froelich, is a German film considered the earliest cinematic portrayal of lesbianism.

The story is set in an all-girls boarding school, where a student develops romantic feelings for one of her female teachers. While not explicitly labeled as a lesbian character in the modern sense, the protagonist’s feelings and the movie’s portrayal of their relationship mark an early instance of queer representation in cinema.

Then, the film ‘Suddenly, Last Summer’ from 1959 appeared. Based on the play by Tennessee Williams, this movie adaptation explores themes of queerness and repression. The character Sebastian Venable, whose mysterious death is central to the plot, is implied to have had relationships with both men and women; this was the birth of the bisexual character.

It’s safe to say that it took too many more years until an openly transgender character got its spotlight on our screens. However, the classic Marilyn Monroe movie ‘Some Like It Hot’ from 1959, directed by Billy Wilder, featured Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon as two musicians who disguise themselves as women to join an all-female band. Although their motivations are comedic rather than explicitly queer, the film plays with gender roles and features elements of cross-dressing – and even gender non-conformity.

We could talk about queer coding in classic literature, like anything ever written by Virginia Woolf or Oscar Wilde. We could even speak of the birth of the Hays Code in 1927, which talked about what not to do and what to be careful of in old Hollywood. This set of guidelines stated movies could not include “pointed profanity” (that would have been even any form of LGBTGIA+) or things like “miscegenation” (that’s relations between races). In short, the code stated that “any inference of sex perversion,” including homosexuality, was prohibited.

But we have to discuss the undiscussed: queer movies inspired by classic literature where the source material was not initially that queer-coded.

There are numerous reasons why we don’t know about or discuss enough these movies. They are produced by indie studios, oftentimes with a smaller budget, and most of the time well-known actors don’t star in them.

Add that to the fact that the performative queer-friendly society we live in doesn’t like when straight media becomes accessible for the LGBTQIA+ community and we get ourselves dozens of movie adaptations each year and never one where we can depict a queer couple. Or do we?

Amid all I have stated, there are a few movie interpretations that were indeed inspired by classic literature and reimagined in the realm of a gay story. Let’s start. Shall we?

The first one I can think of is the ‘96 interpretation of 

‘Romeo and Juliet’ directed by Baz Luhrmann. While the representation is not much and is more used as a satirical element it’s still important to talk about.

In Luhrmann’s ‘Romeo + Juliet,’ Mercutio is not portrayed as a drag queen per se. Instead, the character of Mercutio, played by Harold Perrineau, has a flamboyant and eccentric personality, that does indeed wear drag once.

It’s crucial to note here that when Mercutio provokes Tybalt to engage in a conflict, Tybalt accuses him of associating closely with Romeo. Mercutio attempts to divert the insinuation by playing on the alternate meaning of “consort” and retorts, “Are you suggesting we’re like musicians?” 

Hence, it’s plausible to infer that Tybalt implied Mercutio and Romeo were intimatly – sexually mostly in this case – involved with each other.

On the topic of Bard’s queer universe, Private Romeo’ is another modern adaptation of William Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ Directed by Alan Brown and released in 2011, the film transports the timeless tale of tragic love to a military academy. It portrays the story with a contemporary twist, featuring an all-male cast and exploring themes of love, identity, and the consequences of prejudice and discrimination.

Listen, “Private Romeo” is not the best movie you will ever see, visually speaking anyway, but it may just be the ‘Romeo and Juliet’ play-by-play that you remember the best, even after a decade later – like I do.

In this film, the characters are cadets at a military academy, where they grapple with their feelings for each other amidst the strict rules and regulations of their environment. 

Retaining Shakespeare’s original language, the film blends in modern dialogue and settings to create a unique and compelling interpretation.

Through its portrayal of same-sex relationships within the context of a conservative institution, ‘Private Romeo’ delves into issues of homophobia, conformity, and the struggle to be true to oneself. The film received praise for its innovative approach to Shakespeare's classic play and its exploration of LGBTQIA+ themes.

‘Private Romeo’ offers a fresh perspective on such a renowned story, highlighting the universality of its themes while also addressing contemporary issues of sexual identity and societal expectations.

Another one that you may not know is the 2023 Japanese movie ‘Old Narcissus.’ I don’t think we can get more classic literature than this, since the film is a modern twist to a Greek legend about a literal God.

‘Old Narcissus’ draws inspiration from the Greek myth of Narcissus, a tale that has been reimagined and interpreted in various forms of art and literature throughout history.

In the original Greek myth of Narcissus, Narcissus was a handsome young man who was admired by many but showed no interest in romantic pursuits. One day, he encountered his reflection in a pool of water and fell deeply in love with it, not realizing it was his image. Unable to tear himself away from his reflection, he wasted away and died, becoming the flower that now bears his name, the narcissus.

While Narcissus was never as much as implied in the original text, we do know that both men and women fell in love with him. Greek mythology has lots of homoeroticism present within these legends – take Appollo and Achilles as examples.

The film is a Japanese drama that delves into the psychological journey of a 74-year-old man named Yamazaki, who struggles with his aging and narcissistic tendencies. The story follows Yamazaki’s encounter with a young man named Leo, which sparks a transformative experience for him as he learns to love another person and reconcile with his past relationships. The film explores themes of beauty, aging, homosexuality, and self-discovery through a serious and captivating narrative.

The plot involves elements of sexuality, including gay themes, male nudity, and prostitution, while also focusing on the emotional conflict and relationships experienced by the characters. With its psychological depth and exploration of human connections, ‘Old Narcissus’ offers a compelling portrayal of personal growth and acceptance.

Do you remember when, at the start, I told you about how gay men are depicted in media as predatory and often having inappropriate relationships? Well, this is kinda it. However, the film is better than anyone could expect – if you can get over the power dynamics at play and the big age gap.

The 2022 movie directed by Andrew Ahn ‘Fire Island’ cleverly reimagines ‘Pride and Prejudice’ with a modern, LGBTQIA+ twist. 

It begins with a playful riff on Jane Austen’s famous opening line. The characters form a found family similar to the Bennets, with Noah (Joel Kim Booster) as the protagonist akin to Elizabeth Bennet. The romance between Noah and Will (Conrad Ricamora) mirrors that of Elizabeth and Darcy, with initial misunderstandings leading to deeper connections.

Antagonistic characters like Dex and Cooper parallel figures from Austen’s novel, creating tension within the narrative. The plot structure remains faithful to 

Pride and Prejudice,’ with modern updates and deviations to fit the contemporary setting of Fire Island.

The movie talks about societal pressure and money and critiques what is the fine line between a prejudiced person and a prideful one; really, you can’t get more Jane Austen than this if you ask me. It’s a fun movie, in most instances, that normalise the idea of queer spaces – and it’s more than I expected it to be.

More than one century later, after the first two queer characters appeared on the screens we still have some problems in media production (like gay men being predatory and gay women not existing at all), but things are getting better. Amid the fact that the films we discussed are not the greatest cinematographic creations, they exist.

It’s sometimes hard to be the first in something, but it’s worth it. The movies from the Golden Age of Hollywood had the purpose of existing – as bad as some were – just for the sake of it, for the act of normalising seeing queer people in movies. Just like that, the few modern twists and interpretations we have now are – for the most part – another means to an end.

I would actually so love watching a lesbian modern “Emma” reinterpretation starring Reneé Rapp. Can you imagine how fun that would be?

Edited by Emily Duff

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