Poets Rock: Why We Still Burn, Pine and Perish for 10 Things I Hate About You 

Katarina Stratford (Julia Stiles) contemplates the prospect of a poetry reading.  
Katarina Stratford (Julia Stiles) contemplates the prospect of a poetry reading.  

As 10 Things I Hate About You leaps up the Letterboxd rankings, scriptwriter Kirsten “Kiwi” Smith shares precious memories and personal photographs with super-fan Marcie Neubert. 

“It’s quite possible that cinema peaked on March 31, 1999,” writes Joe Aragon in a Letterboxd review of 10 Things I Hate About You, a film that successfully captured both a decade and a millennium-ending moment in teenage time. 

In the years since its release, the high school romantic comedy has become an enduring comfort classic (that I have personally watched at least 50 times). I know without a doubt there has been widespread admiration and growing love for the modern retelling of William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. I just couldn’t prove it—until now. 

The data team at Letterboxd recently ran an update on their “most fans” lists—these are the films that most often feature in the four favorites on members’ Letterboxd profiles. They first ran this query more than six years ago, producing an overall list of 50 films, and then running the data again in 2018 with break-out lists according to opt-in member pronouns (she/her, he/him and xe/zir) to see what fandom looks like along varied gender lines (answer: the lists change a lot; Interstellar remains high on all variations).

10 Things I Hate About You did not appear at all on the “most fans” masterlist for 2019’s update; now it’s at number 28, between Lady Bird and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Significantly, it leaped from 43rd position in the she/her “most fans” list to number four, baby. 

The top ten films with the most fans on Letterboxd who use the pronouns she/her.
The top ten films with the most fans on Letterboxd who use the pronouns she/her.

Not only that, but the film’s average Letterboxd rating has climbed from 3.4 out of five stars to an impressive 4.0 in a little over a decade, joining female-led films like Jennifer’s Body, But I’m a Cheerleader and Real Women Have Curves in a slow and steady rise up the ratings ranks. It’s thanks to social communities like Letterboxd that I know I am not alone in my love for 10 Things I Hate About You. I get to wholeheartedly agree with reviews such as Ellie’s (“I consider watching this film a form of self care”) and Sophie’s (“I constantly mistake this movie for therapy”). But we’re not the reason the film rules; our reviews and ratings are merely reflections of its genius. 

The Letterboxd statistics sparked in me an excited interest in working out some of the factors contributing to the ever-increasing popularity of 10 Things I Hate About You. But while Letterboxd reviews and statistics can explain a lot, they can only prove a certain amount, so I also invited one of the film’s writers, Kirsten “Kiwi” Smith, to join me for this Deep Impact column. 

Karen McCullah and Kirsten “Kiwi” Smith with Julia Stiles on set (left); with Heath Ledger at the film’s premiere (top right); the screenwriters on the high school location of 10 Things I Hate About You. — Credit… Kirsten “Kiwi” Smith
Karen McCullah and Kirsten “Kiwi” Smith with Julia Stiles on set (left); with Heath Ledger at the film’s premiere (top right); the screenwriters on the high school location of 10 Things I Hate About You. Credit… Kirsten “Kiwi” Smith

Kiwi is an American screenwriter, poet and novelist who frequently works with her friend and fellow screenwriter and novelist Karen McCullah. (Kiwi’s “sweet mom” gave her the nickname as a term of endearment; her friends picked up on it and later, in Hollywood, it turned out to be a more memorable and consistently pronounceable name than Kirsten.) 10 Things I Hate About You was their first film together, and they would go on to write other hits including Legally Blonde and Ella Enchanted

The idea to adapt Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew grew out of watching the 1995 comedy Clueless. Kiwi and Karen both loved Amy Heckerling’s update of Jane Austen’s Emma. “It felt like such a cool thing, making a classic story in a modern high school setting,” Kiwi reflects. The pair knew Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet—another Shakespearean adaptation—was also on the horizon. A friend suggested The Taming of the Shrew, and for Kiwi it “felt so relevant” to recreate that story in the late nineties, the height of third-wave feminism. 

From there, cinematic magic began to happen on the page, and the script was bought not long after completion—their very first sale. “I remember being so excited,” Kiwi recalls. “I also remember the same day, I told my boss, who was a literary manager, and she fired me. So it was like, ‘Yay! My dream came true!… Oh wait, I’m unemployed’.”

Patrick (Heath Ledger) and Katarina (Stiles) eventually get to the point.
Patrick (Heath Ledger) and Katarina (Stiles) eventually get to the point.

Originally from California, Kiwi grew up and went to high school on the Olympic Peninsula, Washington, very close to where the film takes place. She “peppered in real-life experience” throughout the script. At the time she was an avid writer of poetry, and was—and still is—a fan of indie rock, two key components she would add to the film. Kiwi loved going to concerts in the Pacific Northwest and it was important to have her love of this genre form the centerpiece of the movie’s soundtrack. She also felt it was necessary to write about being an angsty teen—and in the nineties, angst was our middle name. 

Hearing this detail from Kiwi, an initial lightbulb went off for me about 10 Things’ long-lasting love. Most people can agree that our adoration for a movie is often tied to the personal connections we form while watching it. So I asked which movie she most related to as a teen. “Sixteen Candles was probably the movie I deeply connected to. Molly Ringwald was such a unique heroine with a misfit vibe and great style.” (Aspiration is often another point of connection: “I also loved the movie Modern Girls, which was about three best girlfriends in LA having a wild night out. I dreamed of being one of those girls and it’s probably a big reason I moved to LA.”)

And so, the fact that Kiwi shared personal aspects of her life for us viewers to cling to, I think, is a big factor in the film’s relatability. Also, many of us connected with it at a time when we ourselves were angsty teenagers, full of dread and anxiety, and very possibly being forced to watch some Shakespeare-adjacent movie in English class. (If we were lucky, it would be 10 Things I Hate About You, “arguably the best of the literary-classics-as-teen-romcoms genre,” according to Letterboxd member Samuel Mantsz.).

Kat’s troubles begin when Cameron (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) sets his heart on taking her sister Bianca (Larisa Oleynik) to prom—and pays Patrick to date Kat. Lol men. 
Kat’s troubles begin when Cameron (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) sets his heart on taking her sister Bianca (Larisa Oleynik) to prom—and pays Patrick to date Kat. Lol men. 

The original play involves the psychological and physical breaking-down of Katherina, a vital and strong young woman, by her suitor Petruchio, who submits her into becoming a compliant bride. There’s also a subplot concerning her younger sister Bianca, who is much better marriage material. This “comedy” is as misogynistic as it sounds, and modern retellings of the 16th-century story often play around with who’s really in charge, suggesting Katherina knows exactly what she‘s doing. 

But only 10 Things I Hate About You has truly come close to fixing Shakespeare’s mistake, by letting Julia Stiles’ Kat openly express her anger at the patriarchy, as Riot Grrrl culture vibrates around her. It is still problematic, yet still we love it, as Marsh Boy writes: “I hate the way this film romanticizes the hard-to-get girl trope… I hate the way that this demonstrates that our attractive, antisocial protagonist needs to be saved by a man… But mostly I hate the way I don’t hate this film.”

Kiwi, Larisa and Julia (left); Joe and Heath carve up the dancefloor at the wrap party (top right);  Kiwi and Julia in the production village (bottom right). — Credit… Kirsten “Kiwi” Smith
Kiwi, Larisa and Julia (left); Joe and Heath carve up the dancefloor at the wrap party (top right);  Kiwi and Julia in the production village (bottom right). Credit… Kirsten “Kiwi” Smith

Kiwi believes one of the main reasons 10 Things I Hate About You remains popular is the fact that the movie connected with so many young women, young feminists. It’s a core element of the film, and a core ethos in her work: “I love working with and empowering other women,” she says. “Sisterhood is the love story of the movie. Karen and I are like sisters. So basically, I wrote this movie with my sister.” 

Nineties nostalgia is, of course, another factor in the film’s rising rating. 10 Things I Hate About You lasts the distance because it’s just the right amount of nineties. As Cory writes: “Whenever a ’90s movie opens with something like Barenaked Ladies I get nervous about it being a complete time capsule. Luckily, Joan Jett immediately swept in to save the day in a self-aware and comedic way.” 

We couldn’t take our eyes off him. 
We couldn’t take our eyes off him. 

It’s all so late-last-century—the crops, the pants, the hair clips, the backpacks. The decade’s brief embrace of lounge music, embodied in Heath Ledger’s show-stopping performance of ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’. By the normal laws of cheese, that moment should be utterly cringe-inducing; it’s easy to forget that in the decade that followed, rom-coms came with an embarrassing amount of flash-mobs and ill-conceived grand gestures. But Ledger fully earns it. 

Which brings us to the rewatchability factor we need to acknowledge above all: the stellar casting. It is hard to believe now but their 10 Things I Hate You roles were the mainstream breakout moments for both Ledger and Julia Stiles. It was also the first romantic teen role for child television star Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and the debut year in movies for Gabrielle Union (Larisa Oleynik was already known for The Baby-Sitters Club and as the lead character in Nickelodeon’s The Secret World of Alex Mack). 

Ledger, Janney, Stiles, legends all. 
Ledger, Janney, Stiles, legends all. 

Taking the key adult roles are comic actor David Leisure, comedy stalwart Larry Miller, and yes, we do need more teachers like Daryl Mitchell (who plays Kat’s nemesis, Mr. Morgan). But the best of the grown-ups is the great Allison Janney as Ms. Perky, a guidance counselor who not only encourages Kat’s active-bitch-face, but also has a side hustle in erotic fiction. (“That’s cool, that’s very cool,” says Janney, when we tell her during the press junket for her new Netflix thriller Lou that 10 Things I Hate About You is one of the most obsessively rewatched, most loved films among Letterboxd members. She breaks into Ms. Perky’s voice—“What’s another word for engorge?” —⁠and tells us wistfully, “I miss Ms. Perky writing her romance novels on the side. Oh, that was so funny.”) 

To say this cast is stacked is an understatement. “It was clear quickly we had a special group of people in this movie,” Kiwi remembers. Special indeed: in 1999 the Casting Society of America honored 10 Things’ casting directors Marcia Ross and Donna Morongbest with the award for best cast in a comedy feature film.  

“Heath Ledger with his hair tied up, covered in paint, looking like the human embodiment of sunshine. That’s it that’s the review.” —Gabby
“Heath Ledger with his hair tied up, covered in paint, looking like the human embodiment of sunshine. That’s it that’s the review.” —Gabby

A major contributor in all of this was the arrival from Australia of Ledger, who had moved into Kiwi’s Hollywood neighborhood only three months before auditioning for one of the most charismatic characters he ever portrayed. For his American movie debut Kiwi remembers thinking that, since he had recently moved to town, the role of Padua High School newcomer Cameron might be perfect for Ledger. 

Cameron, ultimately played by Gordon-Levitt, is the new exchange student at school, which is why Kiwi suggested that Ledger, the new boy in Hollywood, audition for the role. But, she tells me, he confidently replied to her, “I will be playing Patrick”. And he was right. 

An Australian and a Kiwi in America.  — Credit… Kirsten “Kiwi” Smith
An Australian and a Kiwi in America.  Credit… Kirsten “Kiwi” Smith

Speaking with Kiwi, it’s evident that there was so much love and pride poured into this movie. She is proud of the beautiful ensemble cast they were able to put together and also of pulling off the indie rock vibe she’d always envisioned. And her treasured photographs of the film’s production suggest that everyone was having a nice time. When we asked if she’d share any images, we imagined Kiwi would come through with one or two nice photos from set, but she filled our inbox with amazing memories.

Heath, Joe and Heath’s best friend and assistant, Trevor, in his trailer (left); the cast hanging out in Heath’s hotel room on location in Tacoma, WA (right top and bottom).  — Credit… Kirsten “Kiwi” Smith
Heath, Joe and Heath’s best friend and assistant, Trevor, in his trailer (left); the cast hanging out in Heath’s hotel room on location in Tacoma, WA (right top and bottom).  Credit… Kirsten “Kiwi” Smith

To have the privilege of seeing these relaxed, funny, energetic moments suspended in time—pre-social media, pre-selfies, just creative goofballs goofing around—is to only add more depth to the impact that 10 Things I Hate About You has had on me and many other film lovers. These are the records of fledgling scriptwriters Karen and Kiwi being on set with their first script, of Stiles and Ledger making their first big splash (it was Hollywood stalwart Gil Junger’s directorial debut, too). They look fresh, excited, awkward—they’re just like us! 

Personally though, the element Kiwi is most proud of within the movie is the poem read by Stiles’ character, Kat, towards the end of the film, which is quoted in seemingly every second Letterboxd review of the film. 

Kiwi was once an aspiring poet, but eventually decided to become a screenwriter to help support her poetry career. “A piece of my poetry, a piece of me, is in that poem,” Kiwi says. When there is a genuine quality to a movie it is felt by the viewer, and this helps create the endless bond between the watcher and the film. Stiles’ performance reading Kiwi’s poem is one of the most powerful moments of the movie. 

“I hate your big dumb combat boots.”
“I hate your big dumb combat boots.”

The 25th anniversary of 10 Things I Hate About You is approaching, which I can imagine will only increase the love, and the Letterboxd stats, even more. Kiwi says she “welcomes all suggestions” for what they should plan for the movie’s quarter-century. She is hoping to have a screening with the cast, since it has been some time since the majority of them were able to get together and celebrate their work. Whatever anniversary plan eventually forms, there will no doubt be many die-hard fans supporting the movie they love so dearly. 

One person will always be missing, however, and is forever in our hearts. 

Don’t ever let anyone make you feel like you don’t deserve what you want. 
Don’t ever let anyone make you feel like you don’t deserve what you want. 

While many other teen romantic comedies of the 1990s have fallen out of memory, 10 Things I Hate About You continues to thrive. With a combination of personal touches, genuine heart, smart rewriting of Shakespeare at just the right cultural point and an amazing cast, it is easy to understand—especially after speaking with Kiwi—why this slice of late-nineties life is already a classic.

The Letterboxd data confirms that there are, as yet, no diminishing returns from repeated viewings. As Fred writes in their review, “every single time I watch it, I think to myself, ‘it won’t be as great this time’. And it is, it feverishly is.” 


10 Things I Hate About You’ is currently streaming on Disney+ and Hulu. Allison Janney stars in ‘Lou’ on Netflix from September 23. Julia Stiles is currently in ‘Orphan: First Kill’, now in theatres, on digital and streaming on Paramount+. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the voice of Jiminy Cricket in ‘Pinocchio’, curently streaming on Disney+.

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