Two rival Hollywood producers are racing to get separate versions of William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice onto the big screen, fearing that the one completed second could be a box office disaster.
Stars including Sir Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Joseph Fiennes and Al Pacino are caught up in the race, which began when it was discovered that two film adaptations were under way simultaneously. The producers are convinced that the scenes of unrequited love and racial tension in the play, which was written in 1596, will make a film version enormously popular.
Insiders admit, however, that it will be difficult, if not impossible, to attract big audiences for two films screened close together and fear that the second to appear will struggle even to recover its costs. One of the films is produced by Stewart, who is famed for his roles in the X-Men and Star Trek films. He will also star in the film, which will cost £13 million, giving it a contemporary setting in corporate America.
The rival version by Michael Radford, the award-winning director of White Mischief (1988) and Il Postino (1995), will be a more traditional adaptation set in Venice itself. It is likely to cost almost twice as much as the Stewart version. Radford, who has a cast including McKellen as Antonio, Pacino as Shylock and Fiennes as Bassanio, will begin shooting next month. He will film until February in Prague and Venice and is hoping for a release date around Christmas 2004.
He told The Daily Telegraph that he was confident of box office success, but suggested that the rival production should be shelved. “I am not going to criticise Patrick because he is a brilliant actor. But I doubt that the world can take two versions of The Merchant of Venice and our film is already under way,” he said.
“There is a market for Shakespeare but it is not like the market for a film like Matrix Reloaded. We have Al Pacino who is a huge star. People will want to see what he does with Shylock, and Ian McKellen is now very much a box office name.”
Radford added that he was not convinced by his rival’s idea of giving the play a modern makeover. “I personally do not think these contemporary things work that well on screen.”
Stewart has long dreamt of making a contemporary version of the play in an attempt to emulate the success of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, which starred Leonardo DiCaprio in a modern setting of the play.
He hopes to begin six months of filming in October and is aiming to release his film in early December next year, shortly before the Radford version.
One colleague said: “Patrick has made the character of Shylock very much his own in recent years. He wants to get that performance on screen and he knows he has to act fast in the light of the Radford film. The project is under way and final details are being put in place.”
Stewart said: “I am working on a contemporary adaptation of the play but I do not want to say any more than that.”