5 Films You May Not Know Are Based on Shakespeare

From unrequited love to the circle of life, we look at some of the films (and TV) adapted from and inspired by the works of William Shakespeare

Feature by Jennifer Chamberlain | 30 Mar 2016

This year marks 400 years since the death of William Shakespeare, who was born (and died) on 23 April, St George’s Day. Could he be more English if he tried? Well, he’s definitely gone but certainly not forgotten, and one thing’s for sure: his plays aren’t going anywhere.

Hollywood has produced more than 250 films based on Shakespeare plays, and it’s hardly surprising. With 16 comedies, 10 histories, 12 tragedies, 154 sonnet and 5 long poems in his canon, there’s plenty of source material to steal. Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet is just one of the most famous Hollywood takes on the bard’s plays, and many, many more have been reimagined as weird and wonderful films.

But what about the adaptations? Let’s take a look at some of the films you didn’t realise were Shakespeare plays...

West Side Story

OK, so considering West Side Story is probably the most famous Shakespeare adaptation of all time, you might have already got this one. Inspired by Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story is a 1961 film directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins. Like most movie musicals, it started life on the stage, and was a Broadway hit before moving to the big screen.

Apart from the love story between Tony and Maria, the most obvious nod to Romeo and Juliet's plot is the rival families. The Jets, a bunch of white Americans, battle it out against the Sharks, a gang of Puerto Rico immigrants, over control of territory on the west side of Manhattan and – you guessed it – the forbidden lovers are caught in the crossfire.

As Maria belts out a reprise of ‘Somewhere’ and Tony lies dying in her arms (sob), the words of Shakespeare’s original tragedy ring true: For never was a story so full of woe. Much like Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story is a timeless classic. And Natalie Wood as Maria is an absolute dream.

10 Things I Hate About You

With rule-breaking, unrequited love, lies and deceit at play, what better way to reinvent The Taming of the Shrew than as a teen movie? Starring Julia Stiles and Heath Ledger, 10 Things I Hate About You must be one of the greatest teen movies ever made. The action emigrates from Italy to the other side of the Atlantic, with the film set in an American high school in the 1990s (although the lead female roles share names with their Shakespearean counterparts, Kat and Bianca).

If you have been living under a rock since the turn of the century and have somehow managed to miss 10 Things...  the basic storyline goes like this: Guy falls in love with girl. Girl’s strict father will not allow girl to date guy. Guy thinks that if girl’s older, shrewder sister finds a guy, girl will be allowed to date him. And so the drama and deceit begins.

The story is so perfect for a teen movie, it’s almost as if Shakespeare knew when he wrote it that, a few centuries later, it’d become one of the genre's most loved movies.

She’s The Man

So Shakespeare was into gender-bending before it was even a thing. Shakespearean comedy turned mid-2000s rom-com, She’s The Man is based on the story of Twelfth Night. As we all know, Shakespeare loves a good love triangle, which makes this story perfect for yet another teen movie set in a high school.

In She’s The Man, the original plot of Twelfth Night is updated with a bit of a silly twist. Viola, played by Amanda Bynes, is asked to make excuses for her brother Sebastian who decides to skip school, but instead, poses as him in order to win a place on the football team. Sorry, 'soccer team'. Viola soon finds herself in a tricky position when she develops a crush on fellow teammate Duke, who is in turn in love with Olivia, a girl who, ironically enough, falls for ‘Sebastian’.

In this context, it’s all a bit ridiculous and it’s safe to say that the directors of She’s The Man didn’t pull off this story quite as well as Shakespeare. But every cloud has a silver lining, and She's The Man's saving grace comes in the form of Channing Tatum.

Forbidden Planet

A futuristic sci-fi film set in the 23rd century, based on literature written in 1610? Surely not! You probably can’t see it right away, but Forbidden Planet, one of the most famous films of its genre, is based on The Tempest.

A starship travelling through interstellar space is hardly reminiscent of the original setting of Prospero’s stormy island, but the themes of isolation as well as some of the characters and relationships in the 50's sci-fi survive from the Shakespeare play. Magic is replaced by technology in Forbidden Planet, and Ariel, Prospero’s faithful servant, is transformed into Robby the Robot. A strange parallel, but a parallel nonetheless.

The love story between Miranda and Ferdinand, in this case Altaira and John Adams, is obvious and the untameable force of Caliban comes in the form of The Monster. Is there no genre Shakespeare can’t influence? The possibilities are endless.

The Lion King

The Lion King is king when it comes to movies based on Shakespeare plays. Yes, that’s right, The Lion King. Turns out we have the bard to thank for Hakuna Matata because, when you think about it, the Disney musical is basically Hamlet, but with lions and Elton John.

Take Mufasa and Scar. The proud king is killed by his evil, jealous brother who wants to take control of the kingdom, but Simba, the son and rightful heir, returns to expose his evil uncle and bring the truth to light. The Lion King even includes the famous ghostly vision, and sidekicks Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are also present, transformed into a warthog and a meerkat. Simples.

Game of Thrones

Though technically not a film (it would be long), Game of Thrones is relevant here. As popular legend has it, George R.R Martin may have looked to old Shakey for inspiration when writing his fantasy novels, and echoes of famous Shakespearean characters, themes and plot lines can be deafening. A few examples: Ever wondered if Littlefinger is based on the villainous Iago from Othello? Falstaff (Henry IV, The Merry Wives of Windsor) pops up too, and Jon Snow pops his clogs in similar circumstances to Julius Caesar.

If we’re talking about Game of Thrones as a whole, it could be most likened to the epic King Lear. Sudden shifts in power, dynastic ambition and the chaos that ensues when order is turned on its head are huge themes in Shakespeare's works. If you took each of the histories and tragedies in turn, you’d have an essay's worth of parallels to draw with Game of Thrones.

Whether Martin meant to create a reimagined amalgamation of the bard’s canon is unknown (and probably unlikely), but given Shakespeare’s endurance as the greatest storyteller in history, it’s hardly surprising Game of Thrones has been so successful.

Why Shakespeare?

When it comes down to it, everything is based on Shakespeare. His plays and characters are so influential that they are basically archetypes that inspire all of modern literature, and in turn film and television. They are the true forms. Unless you believe the oldest conspiracy in the book, of course, that Shakespeare didn’t actually write the plays at all...

"Postmodern, edgy; hence the R+J." - Four adaptations of the Bard, explained in verse

• Talawa Theatre's artistic director Michael Buffong on their new King Lear