The works of playwright William Shakespeare are widely considered to be a cornerstone if English literature. His timeless collection of tragedies and comedies are remembered for their colourful prose and eccentric plots which have proved to be hugely successful when translated to the big screen. With numerous films to choose from, our writers have picked out their favourite Shakespearean adaptations ranging from Samurai epics to High School romance.
Ran, dir. Akira Kurosawa (1985)
Akira Kurosawa was labelled the “pictorial Shakespeare” by Steven Spielberg, a worthy title for a legendary director who has made two Shakespeare adaptations: Throne of Blood (Macbeth) and the staggering Ran. The latter is the director’s opus, adapting King Lear into a samurai epic. Instead of Lear’s three daughters, Ran uses three sons for the King’s heirs who turn to war against each other. The result is a mesmerising film that is brimming with eye-popping colours and imagery (even though Kurosawa was partially blind when making it) and one of the all-time great battle scenes. Using the image rather than the written word, Kurosawa both compliments and elevates Shakespeare’s work, as well as the entire cinematic medium. It is not a direct adaptation, but it was never intended to be one at all originally. Ran is all the better for this, carving its own weighty themes from the story and creating an experience that lodges in the brain long after seeing it. Going deeper and more pessimistic than the Bard ever did, Kurosawa made a worthy piece of art.
Romeo + Juliet, dir. Baz Luhrmann (1996)
As an English student – one that actually likes Shakespeare – I’m always wary of adaptations, especially those which portray the absolute classics in completely new settings. Of all the ones I’ve seen, Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, definitely comes out on top (It’s not just because of Leonardo DiCaprio, I promise)
Besides the rich colouring, beautiful costumes and amazing soundtrack, my favourite thing about this modernisation is the seamless incorporation of 16th– century language into contemporary Verona Beach in America. It gives the play an obvious rejuvenating revival, but without losing the beauty and depth of the original verse. Although we’ll obviously never know, the unique angles and snappy shots in the cinematography by Donald M. McAlpine fit the frantic and desperate nature of the original plot in ways which Shakespeare himself would approve of.
She’s the Man, dir. Andy Fickman (2006)
As a sucker for a romantic comedy, one of my all-time favourite films is She’s the Man, starring Amanda Bynes and Channing Tatum. A spin on the Shakespearean classic Twelfth Night, it follows Viola Hastings (Bynes) as she impersonates her brother, Sebastian, at his school in order to play for the football team after the girls’ school cut their programme. Along the way she meets Duke (Tatum), who she falls in love with and Olivia who has fallen in love with who she thinks is Sebastian but is actually Viola. The characters’ names are all taken from the original tale with the plot following a similar but modernised story. It is a brilliant take on how this archetypal love story may be relevant in today’s world. Perhaps not worthy of much critical acclaim, but this is a feel good, classic rom-com, perfect for a lockdown evening to cheer you up and get lost in.
10 Things I Hate About You, dir. Gil Junger (1999)
Based on Shakespeare’s earliest play, The Taming of the Shrew, Gil Junger’s 10 Things I Hate About You is a classic 90s flick and cult hit. It garnered a huge following because of its young leads with fresh-faced Julia Stiles and Heath Ledger, witty dialogue akin to its original source material, and peak 90s fashion (wedged sandals are an interesting look).
Sure, it’s not an overly accurate adaptation, but that might be a good thing. The original text is arguably pretty sexist, and although this adaptation definitely isn’t on the feminist side, at least we get Larisa Oleynik punching a self-obsessed sexist which is a bonus. 10 Things I Hate About You definitely shifts the Shakespeare’s comedy to make it more appealing to a modern day audience, but what is great about this adaptation is how it isn’t afraid to keep the wit, raunchiness and sex of the original text in it. Shakespeare is renowned for being ridiculously bawdy with regular sex jokes and innuendos, and the high school setting of 10 Things I Hate About You fits perfectly with the bard’s tone. Likewise, the soundtrack featuring covers of Cheap Trick and Nick Lowe is great and definitely slaps hard.
The Lion King, dir. Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff (1994)
Hamlet is one of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies, and excluding the modern-day adaptations, there is one which everyone knows and loves. The 1994 animated classic The Lion King introduces and retells Hamlet as a children’s tale. Mufasa’s ghostly vision to get Simba to “Remember who you are” heavily invokes Hamlet’s father calling for revenge among other elements.
Of course, being a Disney production, it’s not entirely a retelling of the tragedy. Key themes of revenge are dialled down for a more child-friendly environment, and small plot points like Hamlet’s murderous uncle marrying the widowed Queen and Ophelia’s suicide are removed. In its place are hilarious beats like Timone during the luau – which I honestly think are a worthwhile trade.
The Lion King is one of the most beloved Disney animated films, and still one of my favourites from my childhood. Hamlet is one of Shakespeare’s best plays… surely that cannot be a coincidence.
Warm Bodies, dir. Jonathan Levine (2013)
What can be better than a zom rom-com (zombie romantic comedy), that incorporates the brilliant storytelling of Shakespeare? Jonathan Levine’s Warm Bodies, based on Isaac Marion’s original novel of the same name, uses the template of Shakespeare’s classic illustrious tragedy Romeo and Juliet to form a paranormal love story that draws you into its sweet narrative. The film is an exciting spin on the existing zombie genre, offering an interesting and heartbreaking insight into an unusual bond that is formed between a zombie, known as R (Nicholas Holt), and the human Julie (Teresa Palmer) who he grows to love. Whilst the Shakespearean influence is not too obvious, although the main characters are called R(omeo) and Julie(t), you’re captivated by the social issues that the two face as they battle between love and reality. Warm Bodies redefines the zombie film, adding a heartfelt element that showcases the true importance of love in storytelling that likens to the work of Shakespeare himself.