Centuries my have passed since William Shakespeare last put ink to paper, but the stories he’s spun aren’t going anywhere. Director Joss Whedon was a film festival hit with his updating of Much Ado About Nothing (2012), and today another re-telling of Romeo & Juliet hits select theatres (after Warm Bodies gave the story a zombie twist).
But period costumes and lofty dialogue isn’t the only mark of a Shakespearean story; in fact, more movies owe their plot and characters to the Bard than the average movie fan is likely to realize.
With that in mind, we put together the following list of 10 Movies You Didn’t Know Were Based on Shakespeare.
She’s The Man (2006)
Based On: “Twelfth Night”
The Twist: Change a shipwreck to a new high school, and Shakespeare’s tale of gender-bending, disguises and love triangles is tailor-made for a new generation.
In Shakespeare’s original comedy, the young Viola is separated from her twin brother after a shipwreck, and disguises herself as the male Cesario. Eventually acting as go-between for a wealthy Duke and his romantic interest, he/she begins to fall for the Duke, as the Duke’s would-be lover develops feelings for Viola/Cesario.
Amanda Bynes takes over the role of Viola’ when updated to a high school setting, posing as her brother to play on a boy’s soccer team. Although the film didn’t garner the same accolades as the source material, Shakespeare can’t be blamed for this one.
The Lion King (1994)
Based On: “Hamlet”
The Twist: The bulk of the story and several key scenes remain intact, with Denmark swapped for the African savanna, and people swapped for animals (mostly lions).
It’s easy to overlook the relationship between “Hamlet” and The Lion King, since Shakespeare certainly didn’t invent the idea of an ‘evil uncle.’ But any theater fan would be able to follow the parallels along: the proud king (Mufasa) is killed ‘accidentally’ by his evil, power-hungry brother (Scar), and after a time away from the kingdom, the prince and rightful heir (Simba) returns to bring the truth to light. The film even includes the ghostly vision of Mufasa, and Simba’s pair of fast-talking friends Timon and Pumbaa (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in the original).
A musical treatment and happier ending, of course, but “Hamlet” nonetheless.
West Side Story (1961)
Based On: “Romeo & Juliet”
The Twist: Swap out Italy for New York City’s Upper West Side, the wealthy families of Capulet and Montague for rival gangs the Sharks and the Jets, and add in some musical numbers, and you’ve got a hit on your hands.
It’s a rare feat to adapt a centuries-old story that ultimately becomes as famous as the source material (to a generation, at least), but West Side Story – based on the Broadway play – comes close. The tale of Romeo and Juliet’s forbidden love is almost second nature to movie fans, but by infusing their musical with issues of race, immigration, and class conflict, the minds behind the adaptation formed a truly American take on a classic.
The Puerto Rican Maria and the Polish-American Tony take over the title roles, but most of the plot remains the same.
Kiss Me Kate (1953)
Based On: “The Taming of the Shrew”
The Twist: The classic is re-imagined as the ongoing struggle between two key actors, whose disagreements jeopardize the entire play they are now attempting to perform – William Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew.”
American song writer and composer Cole Porter’s biggest hit, Kiss me, Kate was also based on the Broadway play of the same name, and possesses some of the most overt references to Shakespeare out of all the films on this list.
The film (and play) blend the story being performed with the one taking place behind the stage so well, some viewers may have realized some parallels were forming, but never grasped just how much of Shakespeare’s core story was adopted. Brilliance aside, the Porter’s songs and music take up much of the spotlight – something Shakespeare was apparently missing.
Forbidden Planet (1956)
Based On: “The Tempest”
The Twist: The supernatural elements of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” are re-skinned into an alien world, and sci-fi fans would have no idea they’re witnessing a story with elements written centuries before space travel.
Forbidden Planet is remembered for many reasons: as one of the original true science-fiction feature films, its style and imagery helped influence the genre for decades. But the wealth of laser beams and robots help disguise one of the film’s main influences – “The Tempest,” Shakespeare’s tale of magic and revenge, considered one of the playwright’s greatest works.
The shift from a remote island to an alien world means that much of the play has been adapted beyond recognition, but major themes and story arcs follow those set down by the Bard. And we can’t help but think that Shakespeare’s comedy and Leslie Nielsen is a match made in heaven.
Romeo Must Die (2000)
Based On: “Romeo & Juliet”
The Twist: Focusing on race instead of family loyalty, and exchanging words and daggers for guns and martial arts, “Romeo & Juliet” is adapted into a modern setting yet again.
If our list has shown anything, it’s that screenwriters don’t make the mistake of actually making their story’s source material blatantly obvious in the title. So with Romeo Must Die, there’s a good chance many martial arts fans would simply have seen the title and thought nothing of it.
In the film, the title is explained as mocking Jet Li’s ‘Romeo-like’ pursuit of a rival gang leader’s daughter (Aaliyah). After all, Shakespeare would roll over in his grave if his play was adapted into an action movie called ‘Romeo Must Die,’ right? We’ll never know, but this film actually does take several cues from the classic play, albeit with an Oakland, CA flavor.
Deliver Us From Eva (2003)
Based On: “The Taming of the Shrew”
The Twist: Proving that Shakespeare’s comedy about the trappings of affection never gets old, stars LL Cool J and Gabrielle Union offer yet another modern re-telling, this time with the titular ‘shrew’ a health inspector who loves to stick her nose in her sisters’ love lives.
We doubt William Shakespeare ever dreamed of forming a story around a leading man as suave or irresistible as LL Cool J, but the rapper-turned actor fits the role of the man hired to romance the notoriously frigid Eva. Like previous adaptations, the con turns to genuine love, and the action spins wildly out of control.
Although Deliver Us From Eva may not be received with the same accolades as Shakespeare’s greats, its no less of a faithful adaptation (but certainly not the last for the play in question).
Based On: “King Lear”
The Twist: The aging king dividing his estate among his daughters is re-imagined as a Japanese warlord handing his empire off to his three sons.
Seen as one of the greatest tragedies of the English language, it’s no surprise that when Japanese director Akira Kurosawa made his very last epic film (the most expensive Japanese film ever made at the time) he used the chance to tell a story infused with both Japanese legend and Shakespeare’s “King Lear.”
The chaos and infighting that emerge from the father’s decisions is placed on a much grander scale in Ran, but Kurosawa’s adaptation of “King Lear”s core themes are visible to any theater fan. And a fitting tribute to one of the greatest and most influential directors Asia ever produced.
Based On: “Othello”
The Twist: The story of deceit, manipulation, jealousy and murder is moved from Venice to a high school, with the main cast of players simply students, as opposed to soldiers.
The naming of characters certainly shows just how closely the film O stays to the source material, with every character possessing an anglicized version of their respective role. Casting a young Mekhi Phifer as the titular Othello (‘Odin’), his budding romance is sabotaged by the cunning deceit of Hugo (Josh Hartnett), based on ‘Iago,’ one of the most inexplicably evil villains tragedy’s ever seen.
The film revolves mainly around Hugo’s plotting, updating most of his schemes for modern audiences – including the disastrous final act. But the racial themes of the original play are also heightened, with the Moorish general re-imagined as the only black student in the entire school, and the star basketball player.
10 Things I Hate About You (1999)
Based On: “The Taming of the Shrew”
The Twist: The young Bianca is looking for a date to the prom, but will only be allowed to attend if her older, colder, more ‘shrewish’ sister Kat finds a date as well. The solution? Hire a suitor.
The idea behind 10 Things I Hate About You is fairly straightforward: fill a high school romantic comedy with as many beautiful people as possible, and teenagers might actually sit through a Shakespearean play. The plan worked, but its close quite faithful adaptation of “The Taming of the Shrew” could be largely responsible for the fact that the movie was actually enjoyable (with the talents of Heath Ledger and Joseph Gordon-Levitt helping as well).
At this point, we’re forced to make a terrible realization: for all his accolades and admiration, William Shakespeare was essentially helping to create the genre of teen/high school angst comedy.
Ranging from subtle adaptations to complete homages, these movies represent just a sliver of the films that owe credit to Shakespeare’s plays. There are dozens of other adaptations to choose from, and around the world, the next few years will see plenty more.
Which entries on our list surprised you? Are there any particular adaptations you’re most fond of? Be sure to name them in the comments.
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