10 Offbeat Movie Adaptations of Shakespeare Plays
From modernized settings to cartoons to musicals, producers keep thinking of fresh ways to shake up the works of William Shakespeare and make his immortal lines and characters accessible for the contemporary arena. Since the words “timeless” and “Shakespeare” are practically synonymous, the ongoing popularity of Shakespearean adaptations is hardly surprising. After all, Shakespeare himself was a master of adaptation, using writers including Ovid and Spenser to inspire his work. So really, directors do unto Shakespeare as he did unto past writers.
With Joss Whedon’s hotly anticipated version of ‘Much Ado About Nothing‘ hitting theaters on June 7, we decided to reminisce about some of our favorite adaptations of Will’s work. One thing’s for certain — we’re definitely not bored of the Bard.
This all-singing, all-dancing sensation, which is best known for much-loved numbers ‘America,’ ‘Tonight,’ and — not to forget — ‘Officer Krupke,’ is, of course, based on none other than Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ In this adaptation, the “two houses both alike in dignity” are the Jets and the Sharks. The Capulet ball where Romeo and Juliet meet is re-imagined as a dance at the gym where Tony and Maria lock eyes across the floor and the balcony is transformed into a fire escape. The ever-so-slight plot change bypasses the double-suicide ending, but the tragedy of the star-crossed lovers is still instantly recognizable.
Set in 1975, Billy Morrissette’s adaptation of ‘Macbeth’ takes place around Duncan’s Cafe, rather than Dunsinane Castle. Also, Andy Dick plays one of the witches, which makes sense. Oh! And the soundtrack is just Bad Company songs, because, uh, being around Macbeth is keeping bad company? We have no idea actually.
Despite debate over whether ‘The Lion King’ is actually based on Shakespeare’s tragedy or the 1950 Japanese anime ‘Kimba the White Lion’ (answer: it probably lifts from both), the resemblances between the two stories are striking. From the power-hungry uncle (Claudius = Scar) who plots to murder the young prince’s father (King Hamlet = Mufasa), to the duo who deliver comic relief (Timon and Pumbaa are the animal kingdom’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern), characters and conflicts overlap in the Disney and Shakespearean classics.
Of course, this isn’t exactly an identical adaptation: the stories conclude wildly differently to provide a Disney-friendly happy ending and we can’t exactly imagine Hamlet breaking into a stirring rendition of “Hakuna Matata” midway through wondering whether “to be or not to be.” However, themes of revenge, responsibility and the corrupting effects of power ring true in both works.
Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Romeo + Juliet’ balances and blends the classic and the contemporary. The original Shakespearean dialogue is retained but besides that the film is set a world away from the original play. Verona becomes present-day Venice Beach, and swords and rapiers ingeniously become brand names of guns. The familiar dialogue plays out against a colorful soundtrack, which includes Radiohead, The Cardigans and Des’ree. (Remember Des’ree??)
This movie really is a case of modernization giving meaning to, and even expanding the meaning of, the original. Aided by eye candy in the form of the young Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio, the beauty of the Elizabethan lines is inventively brought out and the tale of forbidden love resonates across the ages.
Starring Anthony Hopkins as Titus Andronicus and Jessica Lange as Tamora, this visually striking adaptation of ‘Titus Andronicus,’ directed by Julie Taymor, received mixed reviews but delighted fans of bloody takes on the Bard. Personally, we’re fans of any excuse to call Jessica Lange the Queen of the Goths.
This adaptation of ‘Richard III’ has Ian McKellan in the titular role (and behind the scenes as a co-screenwriter) and is set in an alternate-universe version of fascist England. The bracing film received critical accolades, as well as Oscars for art direction and costume design.
Kurosawa’s final epic, ‘Ran,’ was inspired both by legends of a Sengoku-era Japanese lord and Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear.’ The ruler wants to abdicate his position to his sons, rather than his daughters, but neither story has a happy ending. Much like ‘Lear’ was for Shakespeare, ‘Ran’ is considered one of Kurosawa’s masterpieces.
This big-screen vehicle for SCTV favorites Bob and Doug McKenzie (Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas) is set in Elsinore Brewery, a nod to Shakespeare’s Danish play. The script sneaks in numerous references to the Bard, making it pretty highbrow for a film about a couple of hard-drinking Hosers.
To cut an intricate plot very short, Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night’ tells of twins Viola and Sebastian who are separated in a shipwreck. Viola dresses as her brother to get a job in Illyria but starts to fall for her male boss. ‘She’s The Man’ is a rather loose adaptation of the tale.
Amanda Bynes plays football-crazy Viola Hastings who is devastated when the girls’ team at her school is cut. When her twin brother Sebastian decides to skip the first few days at Illyria High School, Viola seizes the opportunity and dresses as him to try out for the boys’ team. It may not be the most high-brow reading of the play, but the cross-dressing comedy that ensues as Viola falls for Sebastian’s roommate is undeniably entertaining. And the transformation of the creepy steward Malvolio, in the original script, into a tarantula is hilariously fitting. A good reminder of the time when we were all entertained by Amanda Bynes’ movies as opposed to her insane tweets.
Based on Shakespeare’s comedy ‘The Taming of the Shrew,’ this ’90s favorite follows the lives and loves of the Stratford sisters. From carefully planted direct quotes (notably a cute, young Joseph Gordon Levitt murmuring, “I burn, I pine, I perish”), to the English teacher rapping a sonnet, the film pays homage to Shakespeare the whole way through. Patrick’s rendition of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” may not be part of the original text, but the movie manages to capture the essence of the play, and Heath Ledger is definitely a welcome addition to the original. Also, we would like to point out that the two titles rhyme, although we can’t say whether or not this was intentional.