The Bard is the mainstay of English literature all over the globe. Children in England often have a heart-sinking moment when being told that they will be studying one of his plays. Later on in life they might learn to appreciate some of his players, characters or sonnets away from the glare of their teachers. Hollywood though, sees a rich source of literature to plunder and finding new ways to tell old stories. Here is a list of surprising movies based on the works of Shakespeare.
1. The Lion King / Hamlet
Surprisingly, this coming of age drama is based on part on Hamlet though there are notable differences. In the film, King Musafa is killed by his brother Scar who then ostracises Simba. The young cub meets two comical characters of Timon and Pumba (who represent Rosencrantz and Guildenstern). After seeing the ghost of his father, Simba rises up to become Lion King against the uncle that betrayed his father. In Hamlet, the titular character is being pushed by the ghost of his father to take revenge on Hamlet’s uncle.
2. West Side Story / Romeo & Juliet
One of the most famous adaptations and one that many people are still unaware of is this tale of a warring gangland where two people on opposite sides meet and fall in love. Their forbidden love, just like the original tale, brings disaster to their respective communities. There is a lot of music and dancing that most certainly did not appear in The Bard’s original tale, nor was there any gangland shootings. In the final act, the star-crossed lovers do not both die, the male character is shot but the female lead is unable to take her own life.
3. O / Othello
Othello has been adapted time and time again in its original form or adapted to different scenarios because the story itself is timeless. In this instance, the chief character Odin is a basketball player who is befriended by a fellow player by the name of Hugo. Hugo is addicted to steroids, is jealous of Odin and attempts to derail his career. The tragic end is recreated as Odin is overcome with jealousy in believing that his girlfriend is having an affair. He kills her and then himself.
4. She’s The Man / Twelfth Night
This Amanda Bynes comedy sees the lead actress disguising herself as a boy in order to win her way into a prestigious school’s football (soccer) team. She does this because the school she attends cuts the female school team and the coach of the male team will not allow her to play with the boys. She moves school in order to carry out her plan. In the Shakespeare play, the main character disguises herself also as a boy to enter into the inner circle of a local duke.
5. 10 Things I Hate About You / The Taming of the Shrew
In both cases, a father wants to find good partners for his two daughters (in the modern version, he wants them to date good boys, in the original, he is seeking good husbands). In both cases, one of the girls is anti-social, though in ways relevant to the time periods in both sources ‘ and it is difficult to find a man who will put up with her intense personality. At the end, the ‘shrew’ (or the extrovert in the modern version) is able to find a man with whom her personality complements.
6. Warm Bodies / Romeo & Juliet
An amusing take on the well-known love story is set in a world in the middle of a zombie apocalypse. Love across the divide doesn’t come any greater than a human and a zombie, but that is precisely what happens when the male lead ‘ Rrrrr (because he cannot remember his name and can barely speak) falls in love with Julie after killing her boyfriend and eating his brain. He abducts her and protects her from his fellow undead until he starts to feel a stirring of returning humanity. Of course, as a zombie, humans are out to kill him.
7. Forbidden Planet / The Tempest
Practically identical in that two people ‘ father and daughter – are stranded somewhere; (in one instance a planet, in the other an island) people who are visited by a group of curious new arrivals (in the first instance astronauts, in the other a sailing ship). The main plot point is a warning against technology in the film ‘ in each case the protagonists were concerned about an exterior threat while ignoring the internal struggles ‘ both are Jungian in outlook.
8. Scotland, PA / Macbeth
Not a well-known film but it is clearly a modern retelling of Macbeth, being set in a place called Scotland (not the country) in Pennsylvania, USA. Joe McBeth flips burgers for a living and his wife wants him to do better, pushing him to succeed at all costs. When he is passed over for the role of manager at the restaurant, he comes up with a plan to turn around the fortunes of the burger joint and make himself a lot of money in the process. This ambition doesn’t come without its gruesome murders, much like the source material it is based on.
9. A Thousand Acres / King Lear
Based on a book of the same name, both are remarkably similar to the classic Shakespearean work. The more recent version is set on a large ranch in Idaho where the present owner promises joint ownership to his three daughters. The youngest disagrees and is promptly removed from the agreement. It brings up struggles that sometimes exist within families. King Lear’s plot is identical to this, an estate split between two of three daughters after one objects to the contract.
10. Chimes at Midnight / Multiple
This Orson Welles film is not based on one play, but five! It seamlessly blends both parts of Henry IV, Henry V, The Merry Wives of Windsor and Richard II. Welles plays the chief character of Falstaff ‘ who appears in all of those plays ‘ working a medieval tale of betrayal and duty into one neat little package. It features many of the pivotal scenes from the plays, especially the highly important Battle of Shrewsbury.
There will never be a time when film directors will stop attempting to adapt The Bard’s timeless classic stories for the big screen. It is a testament to his style that we can continue to extract ideas and themes from much of his work. Long may it be so!
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