Ah, Willie the Shake. The man, the myth, the legend. The greatest writer that high school students fear reading, and thus go flocking to watch the films made from his plays.
William Shakespeare wrote 37 plays, which have been made into hundreds of movies for film and TV. Still, there’s always a fear that people will avoid seeing the show for fear of not understanding the language, thus depriving themselves of hearing terms like “the beast with two backs.” In order to lure in those wouldn’t-be Shakespeare fans, attempts have long been made to change the plays, whether by putting them in modern settings or adjusting the speech. One had to be careful of how they gilded the lily, though. There’s a story, possibly apocryphal, that when The Taming of the Shrew was made into a movie in 1929, it featured the credit, “Written by William Shakespeare, with additional dialogue by Sam Taylor.”
Then there are the movies that adapted Shakespeare’s plays by just having them be the movie’s influence. Characters may be similar, and an actual line or two of the Bard’s words might pop up unexpectedly, but these aren’t the plays proper. They are a great way of adding a spoonful of sugar to the medicine, making it so pleasing to audiences that they may resent the notion that they just watched Shakespeare.
What follows is a top ten list of Shakespeare movies that you may need to be told are Shakespeare movies. So you won’t see Romeo and Juliet and represented by Dicaprio & Danes, nor will you see Romeo and Juliet being written by Shakespeare in love. Here’s what you will see, if you look in alphabetical order…
Akira Kurosawa’s Ran & Throne of Blood. Okay, I cheated here by including two by the same director, but I’m not splitting these hairs. Ran is Akira Kurosawa’s take on King Lear, only with a Japanese warlord dividing his kingdom among three sons, rather than a king dividing among three daughters. 28 years earlier, in Throne of Blood, Macbeth is seen as a warlord played by Toshiro Mifune, who flips out when he sees the trees advancing on him and is soon turned into a pincushion by archers’ arrows in an unforgettable sequence. (Here’s how they did it.)
Forbidden Planet. Back when Leslie Nielsen had dark hair and people took him seriously, he appeared in 1956’s Forbidden Planet, a story of strangers coming to a strange land where a wise man and his beautiful daughter live, and eventually bringing destruction to that land. If it sounds like The Tempest, well, it is. Only with Robbie the Robot and a monster from the Id.
L.A. Story. I’ll be honest – I would never have picked up on Steve Martin’s valentine to the city of Los Angeles as being inspired at least in part by A Midsummer Night’s Dream if it hadn’t been pointed out to me. Now that I realize that we see two mixed-up couples changing partners, just like the play… I’m still not sure I see it. But hey! Others have said it’s so, so it’s so. I also found a batch of poorly written blog entries from May 2015 by various writers (high schoolers, I suspect) comparing the two with insights like “Both of the stories have similarities, and both of them have differences…. LA Story is more of a today type of movie. It was nowhere near as confusing as A Midsummer Nights Dream probably just because the difference in language.”
The Lion King. The stink of Disney (and I mean that in the best way possible) is so thick over The Lion King that one would be hard pressed at first to spot any semblance to Hamlet. But there it is – the king is killed by the power hungry uncle, the prince son is driven away, but when his ghost dad shows up, he goes back to fight his wicked uncle. Disney being Disney, there’s a happy ending and the young couple lives.
Men of Respect. I actually saw this in a Shakespeare on Film class in college. It’s Macbeth by way of The Sopranos (or maybe on the way to The Sopranos, which hadn’t been invented yet). It’s quite accurate, right down to Lady Macduff and her smart-aleck kid getting killed by Macbeth’s people – only in the movie, they get it in a blown-up car. The biggest laugh in the movie isn’t intentional – John Turturro as the Macbeth-based character has been warned that a man born of woman will be his doom. He goes up against four bad guys, kills them all, takes a moment to look over their corpses, and spits, “Born of woman! All ah yah!” Maybe not the best movie, but an entertaining side dish.
My Own Private Idaho. Gus Van Sant’s indie starring River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves has a few scenes inspired by Henrys IV and V, with Keanu doing some memorably stilted line-reading when he’s in Shakespearean mode as opposed to your basic street hustler. For the full Shakespeare, you’d be better off with Kenneth Branaugh’s Henry V, but this is a lot dreamier and stands as its own film.
Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. Tim Roth and Gary Oldman are the bit players in Hamlet who get their own moment in the spotlight here, but don’t really have much idea what to do with it. They’re a bit lost, and so are we, so that when Hamlet shows up periodically to bring them into his own play, it’s a fun bit of relief. Highlight: Playing questions.
Strange Brew. Another Hamlet-inspired movie, with SCTV’s McKenzie brothers (Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas as Bob and Doug, respectively) taking on the Rosencrantz & Guildenstern roles. Turns out Thomas majored in English lit, and thought it’d be funny to class up a film about those hosers by adding a little Shakespeare to the mix. That’s why the brewery is named Elsinore, after Hamlet’s royal castle.
10 Things I Hate About You. Shakespeare can translate well to teen flicks – who knew? She’s the Man and Just One of the Guys are both Twelfth Night updates that have gotten praise, for example. 10 Things, though, has seen its star rise significantly since its release in 1999, partly due to the subsequent careers of Heath Ledger (rest in peace, goddammit), Julia Stiles, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and partly due to its being so smartly adapted from The Taming of the Shrew. If you’ve not yet seen it, it’s a true charmer.
West Side Story. This one’s kind of obligatory. Confession time: I’ve not seen the whole thing. I started it a couple times and found that I just could not buy Romeo and Juliet dancing around actual New York City locations. Which is funny, because I would have no trouble accepting all the dancing and finger-snapping and such on a stage, with scenery meant to evoke a city. Having said that, I can’t deny how much it’s become part of America’s fabric, rather remarkable when you remember its English origins, and its songs are going to be around forever. But I do wonder what it would have been like if Elvis Presley had agreed to take the lead role like he was asked…