William Shakespeare is the most celebrated playwright of all time, widely regarded as the greatest writer to ever work in the English language. He’s also one of the most studied and performed, with plays including Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth having long since seeped into the popular consciousness.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that the Bard’s plays have inspired many movie adaptations. While some are obvious (1996’s Romeo + Juliet, for one), other films are more loosely tied to the Collected Works. Here are 20 films you might not have known were inspired by the works of Shakespeare.
20. She’s the Man
She’s the Man is a 2006 adaptation of Twelfth Night. Starring Amanda Bynes and Channing Tatum, the film sees Viola Hastings (Bynes) masquerade as her twin brother (Tatum) in order to play on the school’s soccer team; meanwhile, her brother tries to make it as a musician in London. The film is remarkably loyal to Shakespeare’s play, right down to the names of the lead characters.
As a nod to the play, the school in She’s the Man is called Illyria, after the island of Illyria upon which the play’s Viola is stranded. Unfortunately for Bynes, she’s suggested that she regrets this role more than most. Speaking to the Independent in 2018, the actress revealed that she “didn’t like how I looked when I was a boy,” describing filming as “a super strange and out-of-body experience.”
19. West Side Story
West Side Story is the 1961 film adaptation of the stage musical of the same name. With literally snappy choreography and sharp direction, the film made waves in the film industry at the time of its release and has gone on to become an all-time classic; its 2021 remake was similarly well received.
If you think the plot of West Side Story is a little familiar, this might be because it’s based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The iconic final scene in Romeo and Juliet is not recreated in the film, which ends with Maria being murdered instead of the ill-fated lovers committing suicide.
18. 10 Things I Hate About You
10 Things I Hate About You is one of the most iconic films of the 90s, a tough feat in an era of timeless movies that included the likes of Clueless and Pulp Fiction. Starring the legendary Heath Ledger (in a role that cemented his controversial ‘pretty boy’ reputation) and Julia Stiles, the film is a modernisation of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew.
This is a film that wears its Shakespearean origins on its sleeve, and even derives its title – if indirectly – from the legendary playwright. At the end of the film, Stiles’ Kat is tasked with writing a poem in the style of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 141. “In faith, I do not love thee with mine eyes, / For they in thee a thousand errors note,” reads Shakespeare’s poem, while Kat’s poem is called 10 Things I Hate About You.
17. The Lion King
For multiple generations, The Lion King has become a nostalgic classic, and for good reason. It’s based on Hamlet, which tells the story of a bloody monarchical succession in the rotten state of Denmark. The prince, Hamlet, then sees his father in a vision, in which the departed monarch insists he exact revenge.
The uncle soon becomes suspicious, and sends the sons away with two friends. Sound familiar? The key difference between the two is that in Hamlet, everyone dies. Meanwhile, in The Lion King, only the dastardly Scar ends up dying. Oh, and Mufasa of course.
16. Get Over It
Get Over It tells the story of a high school student who desperately tries to win back his ex-girlfriend by taking part in the school play. As you might imagine, his idea doesn’t exactly go to plan. The film is based on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and whilst it might not be an exact retread, the inclusion of the play in rock-opera form (A Midsummer Night’s Rockin’ Eve) should give you a big hint.
Of course, something that wasn’t included in the original Shakespeare was a scene that takes place in a sex dungeon, where a character is whipped by a dominatrix. The Bard missed a trick there.
15. A Thousand Acres
A Thousand Acres is based on the 1991 novel of the same name, which itself was based on Shakespeare’s King Lear; the key difference is that the setting in the film is far more domestic than a king’s court.
Unfortunately for the film, it was poorly received by critics, who slammed its characters as simplistic caricatures. Roger Ebert described A Thousand Acres as “an ungainly, undigested assembly of ‘women’s issues,’ milling about within a half-baked retread of King Lear.” Jane Smiley’s 1991 novel, however, won the Pulitzer prize, showing that adapting a film isn’t as easy as it looks.
O is based on Othello, a play considered one of Shakespeare’s darkest works. The film features a vast array of music styles, from rap to opera, and is set in a high school (sensing a theme here, anyone?). It’s largely reminiscent of the play, with its dark themes acting as a fitting tribute to the original, in which the eponymous Othello strangles his lover to death.
This film is peak 90s (did we mention the rap and the opera?) even though it ultimately released in 2001. It was originally scheduled for an October 1999 release but was shelved at the last minute. While it’s never been confirmed why this happened, one theory is that it was delayed in the wake of the Columbine High School massacre.
13. Warm Bodies
A zombie-ridden, paranormal comedy film might not typically be associated with a Shakespeare play, but it’s true: Warm Bodies is based on Isaac Marion’s novel of the same name which, in turn, was inspired by Romeo and Juliet. The film sees Nicholas Hoult star as R, a member of the undead, who falls in love with Julie. What complicates their relationship is that Julie is very much in the land of the living.
Unlike in Romeo and Juliet, this pair make it out alive, with R actually coming back to life, and the couple are left to live out love’s young dream amidst the Zombie Apocalypse. Shakespeare would be so proud, if only he could burst forth from his grave to see it.
12. Forbidden Planet
In another wacky reinterpretation of a hundreds-of-years old English play, it turns out that Forbidden Planet bears a strong resemblance to Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Commander John Adams (a young Leslie Nielsen) and his retinue land on the Forbidden Planet, where they find scientist Dr Morbius and a strange automaton. ‘Robby’ the Robot stands in for the fish-man Caliban, and is considered a groundbreaking character in his own right: Robby is one of the first movie robots to be more than a bland tin can.
The Tempest sees a group of shipwreck survivors wash up on an island dominated by the wizard Prospero. Playwright Bob Carlton was keenly aware of the similarities between the film and Shakespeare, and would in the 80s pen the jukebox musical Return to the Forbidden Planet, which made the connection explicit. How obvious, you might ask? Well, the main character of Return to the Forbidden Planet is called Captain Tempest.
11. Big Business
Starring Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin, Big Business is loosely based on Shakespeare’s farcical play The Comedy of Errors. Both stories revolve around the premise of mistaken identity, with the movie telling the story of two sets of identical twins who are mismatched at birth, resulting in one of each set of twins ending up together.
As in the Shakespeare play, this scenario results in much miscommunication, confusion and hilarity. Big Business was initially written for Barbra Streisand and Goldie Hawn, though it’s hard to criticise Midler and Tomlin at the peak of their powers.
10. Strange Brew
For a play that ends with a pile of dead bodies, Shakespeare’s Hamlet has certainly inspired a lot of comedies. The best-known of these is probably Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, which focuses on the two minor characters on the road to Elsinore Castle. But film adaptations aren’t always so direct. You might not have even realised it, but the cult comedy classic Strange Brew actually draws quite a lot from the Bard.
If we mention that the McKenzies are particularly obsessed with the brews of the Elsinore beer company, perhaps you’ll start to put the pieces together. What follows is a farcical tale of intrigue about a beer set to take over the world, and an internecine murder that the McKenzies accidentally uncover with a palmed floppy disk.
9. My Own Private Idaho
While many modern Shakespeare retellings focus on comedy or romance (by putting Shakespearean themes in incongruous situations), few take the Bard’s drama and repurpose it with modern stars. But that’s exactly what My Own Private Idaho does, and it becomes a heartfelt tribute to the friendship between River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves.
Where Mike (Phoenix) spends My Own Private Idaho searching for his mother, Scott’s (Reeves) story closely aligns with the plot of Henry IV and, to a lesser extent, Henry V. Idaho was in part inspired by Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight, a near-miss contender for this list, which combines several Shakespeare plays to tell a new story. “I thought that the Henry IV plays were really a street story. I also knew this fat guy named Bob, who had always reminded me of Falstaff…”
8. Throne of Blood
While Shakespeare may have been a Western – and particularly English – writer, that’s not to say his work hasn’t traversed the globe, nor that Western filmmakers have a monopoly on adapting his plays. That’s precisely what legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa demonstrated with Throne of Blood. Released in 1957, Throne of Blood takes the plot of Macbeth and moves it to feudal Japan.
Kurosawa had long been a fan of Macbeth, and initially intended to adapt it in the 40s. However, when he learned that Orson Welles was working on his own version (which released in 1948), the director delayed his project for several years. Throne of Blood won two prestigious Mainichi Film Awards (the Japanese equivalent of the Oscars), including one for the film’s lead actor, Toshirô Mifune.
7. Gnomeo & Juliet
In ancient Rome, citizens often placed small stone statues in their gardens as a tribute to the Greco-Roman fertility god Priapus. However, it wasn’t until the late 1700s that the garden gnome as we know it today came to be. Had Shakespeare been alive to see them, perhaps Romeo and Juliet would have turned out differently. James McAvoy’s Gnomeo, a blue gnome, is in love with Juliet, a red gnome, and the plot progresses as it always has, just with more horticultural implements and shattered ceramic. Frankly, it’s disappointing they didn’t go the whole hog and call her Gnuliet.
If the similarities weren’t obvious enough, the film even sees Gnomeo clamber atop a statue of Shakespeare (did we mention that it’s set in Stratford-upon-Avon?) who, in Patrick Stewart’s mellifluous voice, announces that Gnomeo’s story is remarkably similar to the one he himself penned circa 1595.
6. Men of Respect
Mafia dons have often been compared to kings. Practically worshipped by their underlings, brutal, and lounging in luxury, dons are feudal rulers living in the modern age. So it’s only natural that Hollywood would take the ultimate tale of feudal intrigue, Macbeth, and add a mafioso flavour. The result? 1990’s Men of Respect, starring John Turturro as Mike Battaglia, a mafia hitman who wants nothing more than to work his way up the ranks of his criminal syndicate.
The film even reuses Macbeth’s twist, though it feels a little out of place: Battaglia believes he’s invincible, and cannot be killed “by any man of woman born.” What a twist of fate, then, that his killer was born by caesarian section. In fact, Men of Respect was not the first to reconfigure Macbeth as a mafia story: that honour belongs to the more prosaically titled Joe MacBeth, a British-American production that released in 1955.
5. Just One of the Guys
Twelfth Night is one of the world’s most recognisable gender-bending comedies. In fact, it’s safe to say the play has inspired decades upon decades of sight-gags of men in dresses and mistaken gender identities. We’re a little tired of them by now. Just One of the Guys fits snugly into this mold, but brings enough mid-80s pizazz to the table, as well as enough of a feminist perspective, that all is forgiven. Directed by Lisa Gottlieb and starring Joyce Hyser, Just One of the Guys is the story of Terri Griffiths, a young journalist who believes she’s been rebuffed from an internship because of her gender.
Since it’s the rational thing to do (or maybe because this is a teen comedy from the 80s), Griffiths decides to disguise herself as a boy, join a different school, and reapply for the internship the next summer under her new identity. Along the way she falls for a nerd and gets into all manner of gender binary scrapes, much like in Shakespeare’s original!
4. The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride
Even if it was a direct-to-video affair designed to do little more than fill up our parents’ houses with chunky VHSes, it’s worth discussing the fact that the Lion King sequel also adapted one of Shakespeare’s famous works – The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride is based on Romeo and Juliet.
Unlike the original play, however, the film skips on the tragic double suicide that made Romeo and Juliet a cultural icon. Instead, they live happily ever after. It’s for kids!
3. Yellow Sky
The Western genre is typified by its vast, arid landscapes; after all, the mythical Wild West stretched from the snowy mountaintops of Washington to the expanse of Mexico. So it’s surprising that, of all the plays Yellow Sky might have sought to adapt, they picked one pitched squarely in the ocean: The Tempest.
What makes Yellow Sky such a success is its ability to take the core themes of The Tempest and reconstitute them in the tropes of the Western. Starring Gregory Peck, Yellow Sky sees a band of outlaws happen upon a ghost town (the titular Yellow Sky), home to a fierce woman called Mike and her prospector grandfather, a parallel of the wizard Prospero. When the prospector promises to share his gold with the outlaws in exchange for his granddaughter’s safety, the gang begins to turn against itself, with some believing they should take the entire hoard of gold by force.
2. Kiss Me Kate
The Hollywood understanding of Shakespeare goes something like this: star-crossed lovers who are meant to be together and/or doomed to be apart? Romeo and Juliet. A man seduces a woman he previously thought ugly or unwilling? The Taming of the Shrew. Kiss Me Kate falls into the latter, less wholesome category. However, Kiss Me Kate does have the boon of featuring Shakespeare’s real play, albeit in musical form.
Over the course of the play and the film, leads Fred and Lily rediscover their feelings for one another and end up together. The unfortunate point is that Fred assaults her partway through the film due to her rudeness, as depicted prominently in the film’s poster. In fact, spanking has become something of a visual shorthand for adaptations of The Taming of the Shrew, featuring also in the poster for McClintock! and in several stage productions. But there are no mentions of it in the play itself.
After Kurosawa’s success with Throne of Blood, it took nearly 30 years for the director to return to the Shakespearean well. Thankfully, his epic, King Lear-inspired period drama Ran was worth the wait. Released in 1985, Kurosawa conceived of the story after learning about the feudal lord Mōri Motonari and his three loyal sons. Kurosawa decided to imagine the sons as more antagonistic and explore the pursuant drama.
It was only after coming up with the story that Kurosawa became familiar with King Lear, though its depiction of three daughters at war with their father greatly informed what would become Ran. It took more than five years for Kurosawa to secure the financing for Ran which, at the time, was the most expensive Japanese film ever made. It had an initial budget of $11 million, though it only managed to earn $12 million domestically and $2 million after a belated US release.