Shakespeare’s works have always been excellent fodder for Hollywood and the international film industry. He’s had more film versions made of his writings than any other author, and his film credits span more than a century. But not all of his works have been used in their original. In fact, many of the updated versions are very good introductions to his plays. Here are some movies that even the iambic pentameter-challenged might be tempted to watch.
A Midsummer’s Night Dream – this whimsical play is probably the most unusual of all those Shakespeare ever wrote, with its inclusion of myth, magic and fantasy, and therefore the hardest to adapt to a modern-day setting. Instead, this has shown up in many different films over the years as productions of the original play, but used as a backdrops for other stories. For instance, in Dead Poets Society this is the school’s play which serves as the point of conflict between one of the schoolboys and his father. Another film that includes a production of this play, but also incorporates some of its themes in the rest of the film is a 2001 movie called Get Over It. This is also the case with a musical from 2008 called Were the World Mine, where they even go so far as to include a love potion, but with a twist in that unlike Shakespeare’s potion, this one makes people fall in love with people of the same sex.
Hamlet – not everyone knows that the Bard’s story of something being wrong in the state of Denmark was actually the basis of the animated film, The Lion King. Just think about Simba being Hamlet himself, with Scar being Claudius and we can see that the revenge that Simba takes on Scar for murdering his father Mufasa is very similar to Hamlet’s taking revenge on his uncle Claudius for killing his brother, the old King Hamlet.
Henry IV part 1, Henry IV part 2 and Henry V – even more obscure are the connections between these plays and the movie My Own Private Idaho. Still, this iconic film starring the late River Phoenix alongside a then mostly unknown Keanu Reeves has many similar themes that originated in these three Shakespeare plays.
King Lear – most notably there were two well known films that used this play as their basis. The first was the 1985 Japanese film Ran directed by Akira Kurosawa who used this story of the aging king who wants to know which of his three daughters is loyal enough to give his kingdom to. Kurosawa placed his film in feudal Japan and changed the three daughters to sons. In 1991 writer Jane Smiley took this same story and updated it to a 20th century Iowa farm. This Pulitzer Prize winning novel was made into the (not quite as successful) movie A Thousand Acres in 1997.
Othello – this Shakespeare story is about the African prince Othello, who adores the Venetian woman Desdemona, and is driven into a jealous rage when Iago makes him believe that Desdemona and Cassio are secretly romantically involved. With classic themes of jealousy and betrayal, it is no surprise that there have been several updates to this story. For instance, one version has Othello as a Jazz bandleader and two others bring the story to modern-day India. Probably the best known update of this story was the 2001 film O starring Julia Stiles and Mekhi Phifer (“ER” and “Lie to Me”). This film has Othello cast as a young, black basketball star named Odin. Desdemona becomes Desi, his girlfriend at the same High School. Iago becomes Hugo who is on the same team with Odin, and his athletic jealousy drives him to convince Odin that Desi has been unfaithful to him with another teammate, Michael Cassio.
Taming of the Shrew – one wonders just how much fun it must have been to write this play, since it certainly is one of the best loved Shakespeare comedies. The basic story here is the plight of a man with two daughters; the younger one Bianca is as beautiful as she is sweet while the older one Katharina is stubborn, hateful and mean. Since their father won’t let the younger marry until the elder has a husband, someone must be found to tame that shrew. There have been many modernized versions of this story, not the least of which was Kiss Me Kate, the Cole Porter’s stage musical, which was later filmed. In this version, like with many adaptations of A Midsummer’s Nights Dream, we get a play within a play – or rather a musical within a musical with parallel themes. One of the better known modernizations of this play is the popular teen movie 10 Things I Hate About You starring Julia Stiles as the shrewish Kat and the late, great Heath Ledger as the man who tames her. This was such a successful movie that it even became a TV series by the same name.
Twelfth Night or What You Will – this story is one I consider to be more absurd than even ‘A Midsummer’s Nights Dream.’ Here we have the boy Sebastian and the girl Viola who are twins. When they are shipwrecked and Viola believes her brother to be dead, she dresses as a man and begins to work for a Duke. She proceeds to fall in love with him, even though the Duke loves another woman, Olivia. To complicate this, Olivia falls in love with Viola because she thinks she’s a man. When Sebastian shows up, looking exactly like his male dressed sister, all hell breaks loose. There have been many movies that use women dressed up as men and vice-versa, but the film that truly used this play as its basis was another teen movie, She’s the Man starring Amanda Bynes. Here Bynes is Viola who takes her wayward brother Sebastian’s place at a boy’s boarding school in order to play soccer. While not as successful as ’10 Things,’ it does show a great amount of creativity with Shakespeare’s idea.
Romeo and Juliet – this play is probably the best known and most loved of all of Shakespeare’s works. Almost everyone knows the story of the star-crossed lovers who are tragically forced apart because of their families’ feud. This story has also been adapted into more versions than any other of the Bard’s plays, with operas, musicals, novels, songs and even an improvised Twitter version. In film, this has had dozens of adaptations including a Bollywood version, a short musical based in the West Bank with battling Falafel shops, and most recently, the teen movie High School Musical. Yes, this is a version of this play where the feuding families are changed to feuding High School cliques, but thankfully everyone walks away alive. Not so lucky are Tony and Maria from Leonard Bernstein’s operatic musical telling of this tale, West Side Story. Here we get two rival New York gangs instead of fighting families, but with similar unhappy results, and how unfortunate is it that this is still relevant today.
In addition to these movies, some of Shakespeare’s works have received partial modernizations. For instance, in 1996 Baz Luhrmann directed Leonardo DiCaprio as Romeo and Claire Danes as Juliet in an original dialogue version of that play where the action has been moved to an American suburb. In 2000 Ethan Hawke did a similarly updated version of Hamlet where only the setting was changed from historic Denmark to 21st Century New York. Here the dead King of Denmark became the recently murdered CEO of Denmark Corp.
So you can see there are plenty of Shakespeare inspired films that could tempt even those who would normally balk at watching the Bard’s plays in the original. Of course, if these modern versions fill you with dread, there are more than enough films that don’t stray from William’s original settings and brilliant poetry. But that’s the subject of another article!