Films You Probably Didn’t Know Were Based on Shakespeare

Corey Hogan

Great stories are passed down, retold and endlessly given new life from generation to generation, and perhaps none have been so influential throughout history than the masterworks of 16th century poet and playwright William Shakespeare. Eternally considered the greatest writer in the English language, he entertained the world centuries before the invention of film and television, creating acclaimed theatre pieces that remain studied and performed to this day.

Shakespeare’s stories form the basis and inspiration of so much of the media we continue to consume. Though there are hundreds of straight adaptations of his plays, there are a great number of directors and screenwriters who have been inspired to give his old-timey stories their own unique and creative twist, and they’ve proven that the tales of the bard can live in just about any era and situation. Here’s a few films you may not have known were based on or inspired by Shakespeare.

10 Things I Hate About You (1999)

07 July - Shakespeare 10 Things I Hate About You
Gil Junger’s much-loved 90’s teen romance that launched the careers of Heath Ledger, Julia Stiles and Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a modern take on Shakespeare’s second play, The Taming of the Shrew. Transposing the aristocrats of the Middle Ages to a modern American high school, the “shrew” in question is Stiles’ Kat, the antisocial eldest Stratford daughter with little interest in dating. Her younger (and much less prudish) sister Bianca is forbidden by their overprotective father from seeing boys until Kat does, much to the detriment of Cameron (Gordon-Levitt), who has his eye on Bianca. He hires a suitor, Patrick (Ledger), to woo Kat, which of course goes awry when he actually falls in love with her. Save for the traditional marriage of the original switched out for contemporary dating, it’s a largely faithful adaptation. Ironically, for all his praise and historic recognition, Shakespeare was basically paving the way for the genre of teen angst comedy and coming-of-age.

My Own Private Idaho (1991)

07 July - Shakespeare My Own Private Idaho
Gus Van Sant’s follow-up to his breakout hit Drugstore Cowboy combines multiple source texts – including several of Shakespeare’s – to create a timeless odyssey of youth, class, sexuality and family ties in contemporary America. We meet street hustlers Mike (River Phoenix) and Scott (Keanu Reeves), who have sex with men for money but wouldn’t consider themselves gay. Taking cues from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Parts 1 & 2, Van Sant makes Scott’s arc mirror that of Prince Hal’s journey towards kingship – associating with lowlifes until he comes of age to inherit his father’s wealth (as opposed to the crown). Finally, Van Sant’s own original short screenplays form the narcoleptic Mike, who longs to find his estranged mother and a sense of purpose. Paraphrasing Shakespearian dialogue, it’s a masterclass in acting and a haunting experience.

Ran (1985)

07 July - Shakespeare Ran
Hailed by Steven Spielberg as the “pictorial Shakespeare of our time”, the legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa is no stranger to putting his own spin on the bard’s stories; both Throne of Blood and The Bad Sleep Well transposed Macbeth and Hamlet respectively. His final epic to be considered a masterpiece, Ran, adapts King Lear; the tragedy of an aging monarch dividing his estate between his daughters based on their flattery of him. Ran reimagines this as a Japanese warlord handing off his empire to his three sons, and noticeably parallels the events of Shakespeare’s with a distinctly different gender-specific dynamic that has been the subject of extensive discussion. Most glaring is the replacement of the test King Lear imposes upon his daughters, in using their linguistics to profess their love to him; in Ran, it’s the physical challenge of breaking a bundle of arrows, to prove the boys’ strength and worthiness to Lord Hidetora. It’s hard to know whether modern critics would side with Kurosawa or Shakespeare on this.

The Lion King (1994)

07 July - Shakespeare Lion King

Hakuna Matata? Yes, even a beloved Disney animated classic has its roots in Shakespeare, putting a colourful spin on Hamlet – albiet with much less violence, more musical numbers and a much happier ending. While Shakespeare didn’t quite invent the “evil uncle” trope, and Denmark is altered to the animal kingdom of the African savanna, the parallels are pretty clear. A proud king (Mufasa) is murdered by his brother (Scar), who covers this up and assumes his position ruling the land. After some time away from the kingdom, the prince and rightful heir (Simba) returns to bring truth and restore it to glory. Even the smaller details of the play are recreated – Mufasa appearing to Simba as a ghost as Hamlet’s father did, and the befriending of a pair of fast-talking stooges (Timon and Pumbaa, standing in for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern). Thankfully, Disney scrapped Shakespeare’s ending in favour of a far more uplifting one; it’s unlikely the film would remain a childhood treasure had it contained Nala drowning and Simba accidentally murdering Zazu, then committing suicide.

Images courtesy of:
Buena Vista International Australia & Walt Disney Studios Home

Entertainment Newvision Film Distributors Pty Ltd & Roadshow Entertainment
Universal Pictures Video
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures 

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