William Shakespeare’s works of tragedy and comedy continue to endure through amateur and professional stage productions, but his acclaimed plays have found a home again and again on the big screen, as film studios and directors all take their chance at adapting the work of the Bard. Some of the best film adaptations of Shakespeare’s works are the ones that come out of left field, running with a story in a completely new direction. let’s take a look at some of the weirdest spins on Shakespeare’s works.
1. Romeo + Juliet
Australian director Baz Luhrmann sought to take Shakespeare’s most famous story, that of two forbidden teenage lovers, and supplant it into a modern world of gang violence and sun-soaked beaches. The acclaimed product of this endeavor is 1996’s Romeo + Juliet, which keeps the Bard’s distinctive dialogue even as garishly-dressed thugs and distinctly ’90s heartthrobs Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes gallivant around modern-day Miami.
2. 10 Things I Hate About You
Shakespeare is most well-known today for his tragedies, but he was prolific in writing comedies like The Taming of the Shrew, as well. Like Romeo + Juliet, this late-90s adaptation brought the source material into the modern day with plenty of questionable late-’90s fashions, though 10 Things I Hate About You takes itself far less seriously. The film revolves around a convoluted plot to get a bad boy to date an unmanageable rebel so the protagonist can date the rebel’s sister.
Acclaimed Japanese director Akira Kurosawa had tried adapting Shakespeare once before Ran, a King Lear adaptation often considered his final masterpiece, in the Macbeth-inspired Throne of Blood. Both films revolve around royal battles in feudal Japan, but Ran takes a few more liberties, as Kurosawa only became aware of the similarities between his film and Shakespeare’s play after he began writing the epic tale of his own king dividing his lands among his offspring. Perhaps most crucially, Kurosawa gives his king depth by suggesting he is now suffering for the violence he committed in his warrior past.
4. Chimes at Midnight
Most Shakespeare adaptations are easy to quantify, but not Orson Welles’s 1966 film Chimes of Midnight, which borrows text from at least five of the Bard’s plays in order to tell the story of his recurring character Sir John Falstaff (played by Welles) and his paternal relationship with Prince Hal, son of King Henry IV. Welles considered it his life’s ambition to play Falstaff, as he did two other times in his own stage shows, but his larger-than-life turn as the man he considered to be “Shakespeare’s greatest creation” met with a mixture of acclaim and critical derision.
5. The Lion King
One wouldn’t expect Hamlet, one of Shakespeare’s most brutal, unforgiving tragedies, to lend itself well to a children’s film, but Disney has a reputation for turning dark folk tales and literature into kid-friendly fare. Their version of Hamlet is set in the animal kingdom, where a young lion cub must regain his kingdom from the evil uncle Scar who murdered his father to gain control of the throne. Despite the film’s dark origins, it was a huge success, and today remains the highest grossing traditionally animated film of all-time.
6. My Own Private Idaho
Director Gus Van Sant took some of the action of Shakespeare’s plays Henry IV and Henry V into the modern day by focusing on the life-changing journeys of two street hustlers living in the Pacific Northwest, played by Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix. Their journeys take them to Idaho and then to Italy, as Van Sant finds poetry within the modern-day linguistics of his gay hustlers using his own dialogue occasionally intermingling with snippets of Shakespeare’s original text.
7. Hamlet (2000)
This film essentially does for Hamlet what Romeo + Juliet did for Romeo and Juliet. That is, it retains Shakespeare’s incongruous dialogue while moving the characters into a recognizably modern setting — this time the high-powered business world of New York City. Despite the old-fashioned language, the actors and the choices of the filmmakers make the new roles sing, as Ethan Hawke turns Hamlet into a pretentious hipster brat and Bill Murray, of all people, turns Polonius into a single father just doing the best he can.
8. Scotland, PA
It would be difficult to take Macbeth any further from its original setting in feudal Scotland than Scotland, PA does by setting the story in a suburban ’70s burger joint. The uber-distinct adaptation replaces the tragic, reckless ambition of the original with a wealth of offbeat indie-comedy concerning the swift ascent of a fry cook to owner of the restaurant and his attempts to evade detection from Christopher Walken’s vegetarian cop.
9. Caesar Must Die
Caesar Must Die melds documentary and stage play to create a strangely hypnotic hybrid, depicting the true-life adaptation of Shakespeare’s Roman tragedy Julius Caesar by a collection of Italian prisoners. The black-and-white film mostly depicts their striking, surprisingly compelling rehearsals of the play’s scenes, using the prison and the occasional violent interpersonal conflicts between inmates as a backdrop to give the old text an unlikely new life and richness.
10. Prospero’s Books
Director Peter Greenaway is uncompromising in the often perplexing originality of all his films, and his adaptation of The Tempest is no exception to the rule. In order to tell the story of Prospero and his daughter’s romance with the son of his enemy, Greenaway incorporates dozens of unconventional storytelling techniques, including non-linear sequencing, animation, mime, digital manipulation and extensive voiceover to fill in the voices of many characters.
Follow Jeff Rindskopf on Twitter @jrindskopf
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