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Top 5 Re-Interpretations Of Shakespeare On Film
There are some folks out there who probably cry "sacrilege" when a story from one of Shakespeare's plays is reworked to create something new. However those people should keep in mind that the great playwright stole most of his stories from existing material. With that knowledge there's no shame in kicking back and enjoying a Shakespearian tale told in a new and different way. Here's a list of some of the best films to take use the works of the greatest playwright in the English language as a leaping off point. While I do feel these are the top five I should point out that this list is in no particular order.
The Lion King (1994) In the African wild young lion cub Simba (voiced by Jonathan Taylor Thomas) is the prince of his pride. His father is the powerful and respected Mufasa (James Earl Jones) who commands Pride Rock with authority and understanding. However Mufasa's jealous brother Scar (Jeremy Irons) lusts for the throne to the point that he orchestrates Mufasa's death and sees that Simba is run out of the Kingdom. Out on his own Simba encounters the carefree duo of meerkat Timon (Nathan Lane) and warthog Pumba (Ernie Sabella.) They raise the cub in their worry free philosophy until as an adult Simba (now voiced by Matthew Broderick) is pulled back to Pride rock by fate and friends to face his uncle and reclaim what is rightfully his.
Anybody who enjoyed this film as a kid may have found themselves learning Hamlet in high school and thinking "you know all this seems kind of familiar." Well there's a reason for that. The Lion King took it's inspiration from two main sources: the Japanese animated film Kimba The White Lion (though Disney continues to dismiss the similarities) and Shakespeare's legendary story of the Danish prince whose father was murdered by his uncle. While not every character has a Shakespearean counterpart Simba himself does share in Hamlet's uncertainty about taking action. Hamlet is lost in questions of morals and action while Simba has been taken into the carefree lifestyle of "Hakuna Matata, " and in both cases it makes them hesitant to take action. They also both get experience a ghostly encounter with their deceased father. The Lion King certainly ends much happier than Hamlet but the influence of that great tragedy is still evident.
West Side Story (1961) On New York City's West Side in 1957 two rival gangs are getting ready for a show down. The tensions between the native Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks are on the rise and on the verge of spilling over into all out violence. However in the background of this conflict, Tony (Richard Beymer) of the Jets has fallen madly in love with Maria (Natalie Wood, ) whose brother is the leader of the Sharks. The pair do what they can to keep their love alive in the growing tension that surrounds them. The fate of their love becomes irrevocably intertwined with the hatred between their friends and families in this classic romantic musical, adapted from the Broadway play of the same title.
Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet served as the story basis for this multiple Academy Award winning musical. The timelessness of the story in which love crosses the boundaries of hatred is evident as there's actually very little changed about the plot line. Sure it's now in New York and there's singing but the film matches the original play almost point for point and character for character. Using gang and racial rivalry in place of family grudges helped bring the conflict to a whole new generation. Tony and Maria's love is just as powerful as that of Romeo and Juliet and accordingly it ends just as tragically. Being a top notch musical with great singing and dancing is really just the icing on the cake here.
10 Things I Hate About You (1999) There's nothing that's comedic in quite the same way as high school romantic drama. Young Cameron (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) has a problem: he's madly in love with Bianca (Larisa Oleynik.) This might not seem like such an issue but Bianca's father (Larry Miller) has a rule in place that says that Bianca can't go on dates until her older sister Kat (Julia Stiles) starts Dating. Unfortunately Kat is an extremely independent and hard headed girl who's scared off any potential suitors, not that she even has any interest in Dating in the first place. Cameron is able to manipulate the wealthy and arrogant Joey (Andrew Keegan, ) who also has his eye on Bianca, into paying the school rebel into trying to woo Kat. That rebel is the somewhat mysterious and rather feared Patrick (Heath Ledger) who begins to pursue Kat for the money but soon finds that genuine feelings may be developing.
While most audiences are more familiar with Shakespeare's tragedies high school romantic comedy took its characters and plot from his comedy The Taming of the Shrew. In fact the film is very upfront about it's classical influences with several overt references to Shakespeare (one of Kat's friend has a minor obsession with the playwright.) While there is some broad humor most of what works are the performances from the young leads. This film helped launch a number of careers (Stiles and Ledger in particular) and deservedly so as they all give nuanced and witty performances. Even put into late 90's teen speak the comedy of the situation that Shakespeare created shines through from the beginning to the end. Gordon-Levitt is very endearing and easy to root for, Stiles manages to be tempestuous yet still very fun to watch and Ledger pretty much walks away with the movie on his charm. For some young audiences at the time it came out this film almost served as an introduction to Shakespeare and proof that underneath the flowery language it's all classic stuff.
Ran (1985) In the violent times of feudal Japan the great lord Hidetora Ichimonji (Tatsuya Nakadai) has grown old. Knowing that he is nearing the end of the his life the once powerful ruler divides his kingdom amongst his sons. His eldest Taro (Akira Terao) is given the full power that Hidetora once had. The old lord plans to grant castles to his two younger sons Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu) and Saburo (Daisuke Ryu.) However when youngest son Saburo tries to point out the folly of this plan it only serves to anger his father and the most loyal son is banished. It isn't long before the stubborn Hidetora faces the error of his ways as his beloved elder children put him out of their homes and the kingdom is thrown into chaos and bloodshed.
Director Akira Kurosawa is the undisputed master of samurai cinema, and this film only serves to cement that status. Borrowing much of his plot from Shakespeare's tragic King Lear the legendary filmmaker created a true epic of feudal power struggles. Kurosawa was not afraid to make changes to the characters to better suit his vision. For example Lear's three daughters are replaced by Hidetora's three sons, and Hidetora himself has a far more violent history and is perhaps more deserving of his fate than the foolish Lear. Kurosawa makes amazing use of his locations, creating an epic landscape and many stunning images. Quite often the characters appear physically small compared to the land or other objects such as the massive castle doors. The shots are framed with careful precision and help make this one of the renowned director's best work.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1990) Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (played by Tim Roth and Gary Oldman, though it's never made clear which is which) have been summoned to the castle of the royal family of Denmark. The king has requested that they speak with their friend from youth, the prince Hamlet, and try to determine what has him behaving so irrationally. The misfit pair barely are able to understand what's going on around them, much less accomplish their task. What's more they are constantly running into a brash and flamboyant troupe of actors (with the leader played by Richard Dreyfuss) who seem to have a much better grasp on things but won't do anything to actually help the hapless duo.
This entry is unique on the list because it doesn't actually take a Shakespeare plot and put it in a different setting like the others do. Instead it actually takes place smack in the middle of the events of the Bard's most famous play, just telling those events from a completely different perspective. The events do actually cross over with the events in Hamlet and when they do Shakespeare's own words are used. Then the other characters depart and the audiences are left once again with the hapless duo who can't figure out what's going on or where they fit into it all. Since it interlaces so heavily with the play this is the one instance on the list where knowledge of Shakespeare's work is required to fully appreciate it. Based on the Tom Stoppard play of the same name this film is both a literary and a philosophical comedy. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern often find themselves pondering big questions up to and including the meaning of life and the significance of death. It may be a little heady for some but for others it's brilliantly smart comedy.
Honorable Mention: My Own Private Idaho (1991) - This quirky film by Gus Van Sant starred a young Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix as hustlers and was loosely based on Shakespeare's Henry the IV Part 1, Henry the IV Part 2 and Henry the V. The influences are most evident when the character of Bob (William Richert) who speaks in a mock Shakespearan dialect. Ultimately though the film is a little too meandering and quirky for it's own good.
Forbidden Planet (1956) - Shakespeare's The Tempest served as the loose outline on which this science fiction classic is based. Rather than taking place on a remote island the story is instead on a distant planet, the mystic Prospero becomes Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) and the monstrous Caliban is replaced by Robby the Robot. While a great example of how the Bard's stories can be molded into other genres the film has aged poorly (as have most sci-fi films from the same era) and come across now as more campy than it was meant to be.By Nathaniel Wayne - Online movie critic and writer on movie related topics since 2007. Grew up watching movies instead of tv and has been lucky enough to work on a few. Self admitted geek, late 20s, married parent of one. Sti...
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