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Anyone who’s ever attended a high school English class probably recognizes the name Ophelia from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, one of the Bard’s most famous plays and arguably his most celebrated. At the beginning of Hamlet, Ophelia’s actions and decisions are, for the most part, dictated by the men in her life (including her brother Laertes and Hamlet himself). At the end of the play, Ophelia goes mad with grief after her father dies and ultimately drowns herself.
Ophelia is possibly Shakespeare’s most passive female character, and to say that her arc in Hamlet is all but nonexistent is probably understatement. But director Claire McCarthy is fortunately trying to change our perception of Ophelia with a movie named after the Danish noblewoman herself.
Starring Star Wars’ Daisy Ridley and adapted from a 2006 novel written by Lisa Klein, Ophelia is a reimagining of Hamlet told from the perspective of the play’s only two female characters, Ophelia and Lady Gertrude (Allegiant’s Naomi Watts). The film, as does the novel, follows Ophelia as she tries to navigate and eventually escape from the political and emotional landmine that is 17th century Denmark. Along with Ridley and Watts, Ophelia also stars Harry Potter’s Tom Felton as Laertes and George MacKay (Captain Fantastic) as Hamlet.
In a recent interview with Entertainment Weekly, McCarthy discusses the importance of reframing victims as heroes in light of the Time’s Up movement, as doing so pays homage to and more accurately reflects women’s efforts to put themselves in positions of power. And while Ophelia may be one of the most recent films to highlight the heroic qualities of perceived victims (and perhaps one of the only films to do so in a pointed, deliberate way) it certainly isn’t the first.
From other centuries-old Shakespeare epics to beloved fairy tales, an increasing number of writers and directors are taking it upon themselves to transform stories of pain and loss into stories of triumph and perseverance (though, sadly, women of colour are still grossly underrepresented in such stories). Ophelia premieres at the Sundance Film Festival at the end of January and won’t comes out in theatres until later this year. So to tide you over until then, here are a few other movies that turn the damsel in distress narrative on its head.
This mid-2000s retelling of Cinderella stars Anne Hathaway as Ella, a woman bestowed with the “gift” of obedience. Ella is literally cursed to listen to others and thus often acts against her own best interest, despite her resilience, determination, and generally badassery. But the fact that she—not Lucinda, and not Prince Char—finds a way to break the curse makes it clear that Ella Enchanted isn’t your average modern-day Cinderella remake. Instead, it’s a story about how one can find happiness and reclaim agency despite seemingly insurmountable odds.
In The Terminator, Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor is saved by resistance fighter Kyle Reese. At the beginning of Terminator 2: Judgement Day, we discover that Connor has become a fighter herself and has been training her son to become a member of the resistance. Kudos to James Cameron and William Wisher for (eventually) giving Connor the respect and storyline she deserves.
Sure, Flynn (aka Eugene) helps Rapunzel fulfill her dream of seeing Corona’s famous sky lanterns up close in Disney’s Tangled. But it’s Rapunzel who escapes her tower and convinces Flynn to take her to the lanterns in the first place. She also literally saves Eugene’s life. Multiple times.
The Taming of the Shrew is, in essence, about a headstrong man who “trains” a headstrong woman into becoming more and more submissive. In 10 Things I Hate About You, however, neither the headstrong man (Heath Ledger) nor the headstrong woman (Julia Stiles) become less opinionated or stubborn. Instead, both people learn that having strong opinions and forming close, meaningful relationships don’t have to be mutually exclusive. The result? Stiles’ Kat gets the guy and gets to keep on being the cynical, assertive feminist we all aspire to be.
The Scarlet Letter’s Hester Prynne is no pushover, but Easy A gives us an idea of what Hester might have done had she been born in the 20th century instead of the 17th. In Easy A, Olive Penderghast’s (Emma Stone) classmates criticize and mock her for her perceived promiscuity. Instead of letting the criticism get to her, Olive embraces her new reputation and sews a red “A” onto all of her clothes, effectively reclaiming control of her own narrative.