20 Films You Didn’t Know Were Based On Shakespeare Plays
Shakespeare is the most celebrated playwright of all time, and is widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language. Considering this, it’s hardly surprising that his plays have inspired a plethora of film and TV adaptations.
Whilst some are pretty obvious (1996’s Romeo + Juliet, for example), some are more loosely tied to the Collected Works, and we’ve found some that might just surprise you. Here are 20 films you never knew 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. However, whilst in She’s the Man Viola and Sebastian are separated by societal pressure, in Twelfth Night the separation is caused by a shipwreck. Classic Willy Shakes.
As a nod to the play, the school in She’s the Man is called Illyria, the name of the island of Illyria upon which the play’s Viola is stranded.
One notable difference is that the film ends with a rather hilarious, typically Hollywood gender reveal, whereas Shakespeare decides, in true Elizabethan style, to end his play with a marriage proposal.
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.
But 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. So it’s not Tony/Romeo’s fault at all! We always knew the Bard got it wrong.
In 2018, it was announced that Steven Spielberg is working on a remake of West Side Story, said to be due for release in December 2020.
Set to star Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler in the central roles, we can’t wait to see a modern interpretation of the original Broadway musical.
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.
As is typical of many Shakespeare adaptations, the film is set in a high school. Although the movie is relatively loyal to the play, it updates the feminist struggles of Shakespeare’s day to include prom dates and unwanted teen pregnancies (which, back when the Bard was alive, were unfortunately the norm).
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 with good reason. But in addition to being a moving tale of tragedy, love and loss (and a bird voiced by Rowan Atkinson), the film is quite clear with its inspirations.
The Lion King is 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, trodden to death by a technologically groundbreaking stampede. Long live the king and all that.
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 retreading of the plau, the inclusion of the play in rock-opera form (A Midsummer Night’s Rockin’ Eve) should give you a big hint.
With a star-studded cast including Ben Foster, Kirsten Dunst and Mila Kunis, Get Over It’s plot was criticised by some as being “too predictable”, despite the fact that said plot was the brainchild of Shakespeare himself. Exhume him if you’ve got a problem.
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.
Discovered by his parents, he’s actually congratulated by them on his, ahem, particular tastes. Is it worse that his parents support him? Cringe.
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.
The film is a stark reminder that the problems of over 400 years ago are still prevalent today. These themes include patriarchy, gender roles, and the fine line between perception and reality.
The film’s writers decided to keep the initials of the characters in tribute to the Bard, with Goneril becoming Ginny, Regan becoming Rose and Cordelia becoming Caroline.
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 based in a high school (sensing a theme here, anyone?).
The film sees Julia Stiles and Andrew Keegan’s second appearance in Shakespeare adaptations – and, by this stage, they’re clearly dab hands at the whole modernisation lark.
The film is 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 producers worried the film’s themes of sex and violence at a high school would be insensitive 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.
As you’re probably aware, no zombies are featured in Romeo and Juliet (unless you count Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance in Romeo + Juliet, burn!), but the plot of Warm Bodies bears a stark resemblance to the Shakespeare play.
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.
It’s far from a perfect film, but Warm Bodies is notable for giving us a zombie story told from the zombie’s perspective. Writes Richard Roeper in the Chicago Sun Times, “A lot of zombie movies have heart – but usually the heart ends up on someone’s plate. Cheers to “Warm Bodies” for taking us in a different direction for a change.”
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. Actually, it’s more obvious than you might first think.
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. The play tells tales of forbidden love, loyalty and complicated relationships, not dissimilar to the film adaptation.
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, ensuing in much miscommunication, confusion and hilarity.
The play is similar in this regard, with Shakespeare using slapstick comedy and mistaken identity to create moments of humour and vicious satire.
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.
The film was distributed by Disney’s Touchstone Pictures, and interestingly contains a tongue-in-cheek reference to another film distributor: the company that Midler and Tomlin’s character haplessly take over is called Moramax, almost identical to Touchstone rival Miramax.
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. Starring Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas as their famous SCTV characters, Bob and Doug McKenzie, Strange Brew is predominantly a film about beer.
Yet 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.
Oh, and there’s a scene in which Rick Moranis consumes so much beer that he balloons to an enormous size. Is that scene in Hamlet? Well, we can dream, can’t we?
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,” My Own Private Idaho writer-director Gus Van Sant recounts in a 1993 profile by Graham Fuller. “I also knew this fat guy named Bob, who had always reminded me of Falstaff and who was crazy about hustler boys.”
Initially, the film was a literal restructuring of Henry IV, complete with Shakespearean language. This was positively received by a 20th Century Fox executive who had a passion for the Bard, but was eventually toned down for a wider audience.
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. Even better, its Japanese title literally translates as Spider Web Castle; frankly, Shakespeare missed a trick there.
Despite there being well over 30 silver screen versions of Macbeth, and despite the significant creative liberties taken with the text (indeed, perhaps because of those liberties), Throne of Blood is often considered one of the play’s best adaptations.
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.
At least, that’s what Gnomeo & Juliet seems to take as its central premise. Co-written and directed by Kelly Asbury, of Shrek 2 fame, the film is about as close as you can get to a faithful Shakespeare recreation while also being about garden gnomes.
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.
The film had a mixed reception from critics, but was a surprising success at the box office, grossing $194 million on a $36 million budget. This makes it the second-highest-grossing Shakespeare adaptation in history, if significantly behind frontrunner The Lion King ($968.5 million).
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.
Naturally, since the film is inspired by Macbeth, Battaglia’s rapid rise must come at the expense of his boss. 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.
Despite the strength of the source material and the seemingly fitting mafia theming, neither film performed particularly well at the box office or with critics.
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 original Lion King is, of course, based on Hamlet, but that doesn’t mean Disney was going to abandon the Bard just because they had a captive audience. Instead, they pressed on, with The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride based on Romeo and Juliet.
In Lion King II, Simba and Nala, the randy lions of the first film, have had a daughter, Kiara. But when Kiara disobeys her father’s instructions and journeys to the Outlands, she discovers a separate pride of lions, the Outsiders, who had once supported Scar. In particular, she begins to fall for Scar’s son, Kovu.
The leader of the Outsiders, Zira, recognises that she can use the attraction between Kovu and Kiara to take revenge on Simba. Interestingly, Zira is voiced by Suzanne Pleshette, otherwise best known for starring in Hitchcock’s The Birds. And, now, a direct-to-video Lion King sequel.
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.
However, it’s not as strange a combination as it might first seem. In fact, 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. It doesn’t take a genius to realise that this prospector is intended as 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.
This is a simpler but still-recognisable version of the noblemen’s power struggles in The Tempest. Naturally, Gregory Peck falls in love with Mike – and, like any good Western, they ultimately ride off into the sunset.
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. The conflict derives from Fred Graham (Howard Keel) and Lily Vanessi (Kathryn Grayson) being a once-married couple, forced by happenstance to perform the lead roles of The Taming of the Shrew in a musical bound for Broadway.
Over the course of the play and the film, 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.
Nonetheless, Bob Graham of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote, on its 2000 re-release, that “in Ran, the horrors of life are transformed by art into beauty. It is finally so moving that the only appropriate response is silence.”