Oct 01

8 Films You Never Knew Were Shakespeare Adaptations

Tag: blinkboxblinkbox @ 9:50 am

Cult and blockbuster favourite Joss Whedon has directed a new version of the classic comedy Much Ado About Nothing. While retaining the bulk of Shakespeare’s text, he has relocated the action from mid-millennium Sicily to modern day Los Angeles. In fact, almost the entire movie was filmed in Whedon’s own house!

This idea of transplanting Shakespeare to a modern time period is no new thing. Baz Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet with Leonardo DiCaprio is perhaps the most notable instance of this (“The gun is named DAGGER! So smart!”). Sometimes they’ll do this to save money on expensive costumes, but at other times, they’ll use this device to show us how relevant the Bard’s themes still are in modern times.

I know: yawn, right?

However, there are other well-known movies you might not know are based on the works of William Shakespeare. Some might be period pieces, others might be fluffy romantic comedies, but these following films all started life at the end of quill.

1. Forbidden Planet (1956)
Of the hundreds of dopey science-fiction films made in the 50s, there must be a reason why this one has survived the test of time. Perhaps it’s due to Robby, the likable robot servant of Dr Morpheus, whose image has since become a design classic. Or maybe it’s down to the award winning special effects or ground-breaking use of an electronic score?

For whatever reason this film has survived, it still remains an interesting take on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which saw its own group of travelers stranded on a strange land ruled over by a seemingly benevolent wizard. If you haven’t seen it, Forbidden Planet is worth watching for a lead performance from a young, good-looking Leslie Nielsen. You know: from a time before he degraded himself with those Scary Movie sequels.

2. 10 Things I Hate About You (1999)
Young Cameron (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is the new kid at Padua High School who has a super-crush on rich and popular Bianca Stratford. The only catch is that her father won’t let her date until her older sister, the dry and cynical Kat (Julia Stiles) gets herself a boyfriend. Enter Heath Ledger’s Patrick Verona, a hunky Aussie bad boy who Cameron pays to woo Kat. Even with all the non-too-subtle references to Shakespeare and The Taming of the Shrew, this is one teen comedy that manages to balance humour with true pathos and a solid romance.

3. Ran (1985)
According to sources close to Akira Kurosawa, the Japanese master had not even considered this film’s connection to King Lear until he was deep into the writing process. Despite his protests, the parallels are uncanny: a feudal lord leaves his vast kingdom to his toady offspring. He witnesses the demise of his realm as he’s sent wandering into the wilderness accompanied only by his fool.

At the time, this was the most expensive Japanese film of all time and to look at it on screen, you can see that not a penny of it was wasted. This grand film succeeds on both an epic scale and as kabuki-inflected story about a great man’s decline.


4. Throne of Blood (1957)
Decades before he directed Ran, Kurosawa created what is possibly the most cinematic version of Macbeth on the big screen. It stars his regular collaborator Toshirô Mifune as General Washizu, a Samurai commander who receives a premonition from a spirit, telling him that he will one day be master of the North Castle. Apart from the dialogue and the feudal Japanese setting, this is a remarkably faithful adaptation that comes with one of the coolest death scenes in cinema history (see picture above).

5. She’s the Man (2006)
Amanda Bynes and Channing Tatum star in another one of Big Will’s stories that has been relocated to an American high school. Bynes plays Viola, a talented young soccer/football player who poses as her own brother so she can play on the boys’ team!  Things get complicated when she starts crushing on the star player (Tatum), who also happens to be her roommate!

Bynes is goofily charming in this modern take on Twelfth Night, although her performance is now tinged with irony seeing how her life has come to resemble the closing acts of King Lear.

6. My Own Private Idaho (1991)
In Gus Van Sant’s 1991 indie drama, Keanu Reeves is the privileged son of Portland’s mayor. Though he technically should want for nothing, he hustles as a low-rent gigolo, waiting for the day he turns 21 and inherits his family fortune. As Van Sant has said publicly, this premise was loosely based on Prince Hal from Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, who wasted his time in taverns, carousing with low-lives. These low lives were much like River Phoenix’s character of Scott: a gay hustler on a journey to reconnect with his mother.

Of all these ‘adaptations’, this is perhaps the most tenuously linked to the Bard; but as a piece of independent film-making, My Own Private Idaho is a fantastic piece of work that any film fan should seek out.

7. The Lion King (1994)
If you haven’t figured out that The Lion King is a thinly-veiled retelling of Hamlet, then welcome to the party: Simba is the morose Prince of Denmark to Nala’s Ophelia, while Timon and Pumbaa are obviously Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in this happy-ending version of the Bard’s most feted tragedy.

Wisely, Disney didn’t include a plot line where Uncle Scar shacks up with Simba’s mother in an obviously political ploy. That would’ve been an awkward one to explain to the kids…

8. West Side Story (1961)
“When you’re a Jet you’re a Jet all the way, from your first cigarette to your last dying day!”

Replace ‘Jet’ with ‘Montague’ and you’ve got yourself the most enduring Shakespeare homage of all time. Set in 1950s New York, where ethnic tensions were rife, this revision pitted a group of street toughs against the Puerto Rican immigrants of the Upper West Side: a struggle underscored with showstopping songs by composer Leonard Bernstein and lyricist Stephen Sondheim.

Shakespeare might be one of the English language’s greatest masters; but I doubt he could’ve written a song like “Tonight.” Even if he was given an infinite number of monkeys with an infinite number of typewriters/lutes.

Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing is now available at blinkbox

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