Almost 400 years since his death, cinema continues to honour the bard with imaginative adaptations. Here are some of the most inspired adaptations.
Touted as the first Disney movie with an original storyline (that is, not based on folklore or fairytale), The Lion King is actually a re-telling of Hamlet. Though the action is transplanted from Denmark to Saharan Africa, and the central players decidedly more feline, a rudimentary knowledge of Shakespeare’s work reveals the striking parallels, from the murderous uncle to the prodigal son’s victorious return with support from humorous sidekicks. That aside, it is arguably one of the best Disney productions and an essential viewing in its own right.
Heath Ledger showed early promise, breaking hearts in this 1990s romantic comedy adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew. Charged with wooing the steely sister (Julia Stiles) of the popular girl for sweetly goofy Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ledger’s brooding character gets more than he bargained for. The last of a spate of late-1990s high-school-based Shakespearean rom-coms: She’s All That (The Taming of the Shrew), Never Been Kissed (As You Like It), 10 Things has stood the test of time thanks to strong performances from Ledger and Stiles and an injection of edgier comedy from the likes of David Krumholtz and Larry Miller.
Romeo and Juliet was translated to modern-day Florida by Baz Luhrmann (1996) and to New York ganglands in West Side Story (1961), but our pick for outside-the-box thinking is Jonathan Levine’s Warm Bodies. Here, Romeo is “R” (Nicholas Hoult), a zombie who forms an understandably taboo relationship with the still-living Julie (Teresa Palmer) to the horror of her family. Laced with undead humour and perfectly-timed to place a new spin on the zombie craze of 2013, it was an understated hit on release and, ironically, breathes new life into a classic.
The most expensive film in Japanese movie history at the time of production, Ran combines King Lear with the legend of the daimyo Motonari. Ran was legendary director Akira Kurosawa’s (Seven Samurai) final epic – his choice to portray the passing of power from old to new generations lends the movie a powerful poignancy. During his lifetime, Kurosawa was lauded as an insane perfectionist. For Ran, he custom built an entire castle before filming it being burnt to the ground; for another (eventually cut!) scene, he ordered an entire field to be painted gold. Master or lunatic, Kurosawa’s dedication to his craft definitely ensured his career ended on a high.
For a classic interpretation of Shakespeare’s comedy about different forms of love, choose Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 adaptation. Joss Whedon transplants the story to the present day and will pleasantly surprise any viewer solely familiar with his mastery of Marvel in recent years. It is an independent venture, reportedly filmed in only 12 days at Whedon’s home in lieu of a 20th anniversary holiday for he and his wife. Filmed in black and white, it is modern yet respectful, but keeps the tone light, letting the humour of the original plot shine through. Whedon fans will enjoy spotting familiar faces, particularly Nathan Fillion in his first Shakespearean role.
Another high-school Shakespearean adaptation, this modern interpretation of Othello centres around the rivalry between basketball coach’s son Hugo (Josh Hartnett) and black star player Odin (Mekhi Phifer), with Julia Stiles playing love interest Desi. Released two years after a flurry of Shakespearean romantic comedy adaptations, O sets itself apart by not sparing the tragedy. It would be foolish to overlook this as bubblegum teen fare as strong performances from three talented leads and a clever but faithful adaptation make for an intense production.
Ralph Fiennes chose one of Shakespeare’s last, and least-staged, plays for his directorial debut. A gritty tragedy transposed to a modern-day Rome it tells the story of Roman general Caius Martius who achieves military and political success but cannot win the love of the Roman people. Filmed in Serbia, the battle scenes exert a visceral impact. This is not an easy film to watch and not for the faint-hearted. Jessica Chastain, in a role that reportedly won her the lead in Zero Dark Thirty, impresses as the wife and metaphorical heart of Caius. Fiennes, as ever, is exquisite as the tortured leader.
The Tempest in outer space: modern audiences may be unfamiliar with Forbidden Planet, but will certainly have experienced its legacy. Groundbreaking for being one of the first science fiction films with an A-movie budget, some have said that it was the critical success of Forbidden Planet that paved the way for future science fiction cinema. Certainly Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry has cited it as a heavy influence, and the geek haven Forbidden Planet was named in its honour. Imaginative, wacky, and incorporating Jungian psychology, it is a wonder that this film was embraced by 1950s audiences… but a great thing it was.
Gus Van Sant’s tale of hustlers Mike (River Phoenix) and Scott (Keanu Reeves) transposes Henry IV to modern-day Portland and the focus to the protagonist’s companion. Here, Phoenix, famously heralded as the next James Dean until his untimely death, gives a raw performance that imbues the film with an emotional honesty sometimes missing in Van Sant’s later work. For another screen legend indulging in Henry IV among other works, film buffs may enjoy Orson Welles’ love poem to the bard, Chimes at Midnight (1965).
Although still set in Britain and focused on the contest for power between the House of Lancaster and House of York, in Richard Loncraine’s twisted vision of Richard III, the eponymous king leads a fascist regime in the 1930s. An eclectic yet impressive cast matches the best of British: Ian Mckellen, Maggie Smith, Jim Broadbent, Dominic West, with American talent: Robert Downey Jr., Annette Bening. It is an intriguing take on a classic, and all thanks to Mckellen, who devised the screenplay whilst touring with the stage production.