It’s April 23rd. Just another day in the Spring, right? It’s also the day that William Shakespeare died 398 years ago. Although there aren’t any records of his actual birth date, April 23rd is also traditionally recognized as the day he was born. That would make him 450 today, so happy birthday (and death day? Is that a thing?) to good ol’ Billy S! To commemorate the bard, I decided to compile a list of movies (+ 1.5 musicals) that are either based on one of his plays or are a direct adaptation. Strangely enough, I haven’t come across too many novels inspired by his plays that I’ve really enjoyed (Got any recs? I’ll take them!), but there have been plenty of films. I’m not sure if it’s a coincidence or not, but many of the films on this list came out during the 90s and early 2000s…
She’s The Man
Amanda Bynes might be cray cray right now, but she had a pretty good streak of hilariously enjoyable movies. In my opinion, She’s the Man is definitely the funniest one, and it’s also a film I can watch repeatedly. It’s a little ridiculous of a movie, but the story of Twelfth Night was incorporated SO well into the high school setting. I also highly appreciated the little nods to the play like the rival schools being named Illyria and Cornwall or the fact that Duke Orsino’s name was still Duke Orsino.
10 Things I Hate About You
I still have hearts in my eyes over this film. Not only did it star a multitude of 90s legends in their young adult selves (Andrew Keegan, Joesph-Gordon Levitt, Larisa Oleynik a.k.a. Alex Mack (!!), Julia Stiles), but it was the first movie I saw starring Heath Ledger. Will I ever forget that scene when he sings and dances on the bleachers? Nope. In case you feel like being simultaneously happy and sad, here you go. Anyway, this film is based on The Taming of the Shrew. Yes, the film’s ending might have deviated from the play’s ending, but this is a teen flick, after all.
West Side Story
Toniiiiiiight, tonight! I’ll see my love tonight! That’s not a line exactly straight out of Romeo and Juliet, but it pretty much could be. Originally a musical, then eventually adapted into a movie, West Side Story is based on one of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies. Rival gangs and star-crossed love. Dance-offs in the street. In keeping with the supposed 90s/2000′s theme of this post, does anyone remember the song Every Other Time by LFO? Totally inspired by Romeo and Juliet AND West Side Story.
The Lion King
Confession time: I’ve never read Hamlet. I’ve written essays on it, but I actually have yet to read the play in its entity. I have, however, seen The Lion King dozens of times! Yup. Don’t let the Disney animation, nor the fact that all of the characters are animals fool you, The Lion King is based on Hamlet. Just a little less EVERYONE DIES and a little more Hakuna Matata.
The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride
Wait a minute… The Lion King 2? Yeah, that’s right. Although many Disney sequels suffer from not being able to come close to living up to their predecessors, The Lion King 2 is actually a pretty decent film. It’s based on Romeo and Juliet… but then again, I think pretty much anything involving forbidden romances is, isn’t it?
Get Over It
Shane West may have made everyone swoon and cry in A Walk to Remember, but around the same time, he starred in another film loosely based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This film features a bunch of high school students who are involved in their school’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream while also enduring their own romantic dramarama themselves. Much like Shakespeare featured a play within his play, this is a play within a movie. Very Inception-y. Not only is this movie freaking hilarious, but it also has a soundtrack, and the lyrics are pretty much the best everrr. Exhibit A: the intro song to the play.
Shakespeare in Love
This isn’t so much a film inspired by one of his plays, but it is inspired by his life and has some elements of Romeo and Juliet in it. In the film, Shakespeare struggles with writer’s block, but then when he embarks on a romance, he finds inspiration to write Romeo and Juliet. This film also features Ben Affleck in Elizabethan attire and um, yeah, LOL.
bare: a pop opera
Technically this isn’t a film, but I wanted to include it on here anyway because I adore this musical so much. It’s another one of those stories based on Romeo and Juliet, but this one digs a little deeper than just two people caught up in a whirlwind, forbidden romance. It also touches on drug abuse, homosexuality, and religion. bare tells the story Jason, the popular and charming kid, and Peter, his nerdy best friend. Unbeknownst to their classmates and family, Jason and Peter are actually dating, which is a big freaking deal because they go to a Catholic boarding school. Much of the play revolves around their school production of Romeo and Juliet in which passages from the play are directly taken and turned into songs that are actually super catchy. In a word, bare is haunting. It isn’t currently touring anywhere and I think the recording of the entire musical is also currently unavailable to purchase anywhere. I also believe it went through a complete lyrics/plot change when it was adapted into an Off-Broadway production a couple of years ago which makes me sad because some of those original lyrics were golden. Sigh. Such a shame because it was so good.
Romeo and Juliet (1968)
Random story time: When I was in grade eight, I became obsessed with the idea of putting on a school production of Romeo and Juliet. I’m not entirely sure why, but for whatever reasons–probably because my school wasn’t too keen on ~the arts~ and such–it never happened. I consoled myself in repeatedly borrowing the 1968 film version of Romeo and Juliet from the library. I’m pretty sure I didn’t understand half the dialogue, (and let’s admit it, Shakespeare is definitely muuuch better when you understand the jokes and the puns), but my sisters and I enjoyed the movie for it’s dramatics, I guess. To this day, we still quote random Mercutio and Friar Laurence lines.
Baz Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet
This is a film I find that people either love or hate. I’m on the love side because even though I wasn’t a huge fan of Claire Danes as Juliet, the rest of the film is so well done. I know, I know, Baz Luhrman’s films can be weird, but it worked for me. The only downside to this adaptation is that I’m a fan of LOST and I can’t ever unsee the Mercutio drag queen dancing scene. Michael, what would
WAAAAAAALT Walt say?
Much Ado About Nothing (2012)
Although admittedly, there are little nit-picky details I could make about this film, all in all I did enjoy it. Much, if not all, of that can be credited to the cast. The chemistry between Benedict (Alexis Denisof) and Beatrice (Amy Acker) was great, and the rest of the supporting cast (a.k.a. Joss Whedon’s friends) were also a treat to watch.
Much Ado About Nothing (1993)
There’s also the older, non-modern version of the film. First of all, check out this cast: You’ve got Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson. That seems pretty typical for a Shakespeare film, right? But then you’ve also got Michael Keaton, Denzel Washington, Kate Beckinsale, and Keanu Reeves. Whereas Joss Whedon’s version seem to heavily rely on physical tom-foolery, this adaptation isn’t just funny, but fun. It’s sweet and smile-inducing.
The Tempest (2010)
The BIG DEAL about this film is that the main character, King Prospero, is a woman in this version, and played by Helen Mirren. I’ve only seen select scenes, but I include this on the list because it’s one of the most visually stunning adaptations of a Shakespeare play.
I remember being scared of this film because it seemed almost like a horror movie. It did star one of my faves, Josh Harnett, but well… if you know the story of Othello, you know that it hits the fan. While She’s the Man mixes soccer, romance, and comedy, O combines basketball, tragedy, and obsession. And I guess Julia Stiles must have a thing for Shakespeare because along with this film, 10 Things I Hate About You, and Hamlet (2000, not included in this list), that’s a fair amount!
Richard III (1995)
Imagine Game of Thrones, but in a pre-WWII European setting. That’s basically this rendition of Richard III. Sir Ian McKellan plays the titular role, and other cast members include Maggie Smith, Annette Bening, and a super young ROBERT DOWNEY JR. I’ll be honest, Shakespeare’s history plays can be a liiitle tedious to get through just because there are so many names that sound all-too-similar and it’s difficult to keep up with who is fighting for which country and who is the heir to which title. This version of Richard III was somehow more accessible, and being set in a more modern time (more modern than the 15th century, anyway) created a deeper sense of urgency.
Judging from this list, there are seriously no limits to how you can spin a Shakespeare play. You can change the time and setting. You can make them sing everything. You can change a character’s race or gender. Heck, you can even change the entire dang species of a character and the stories still stick. Just as Shakespeare borrowed materials from traditional ballads and myths or was inspired by historic events, filmmakers (as well as novelists, graphic artists, etc) are continually able to draw inspiration from his works and create enjoyable entertainment or thought-provoking tales for audiences today. So with that said, HAPPY BIRTHDAY, SHAKESPEARE, and keep the adaptations coming~