Den of Geek wants to give a shout out today to one of the greatest writers of the Western world: William Shakespeare. The Bard of Avon would be the spritely age of 449 today. Of course, some of you are probably traumatized from being forced to read Shakespeare in high school. And trust us, we know how you feel. We were all tortured (except our own John Escudero, who apparently read them for fun before he was out of grade school. Yeah, he’s pretty weird…). But don’t let that horrible high school English teacher ruin the Bard for you. Shakespeare has influenced many films that continue to tell his stories in a more modern (or not so much) way. His writing has reached across cultures and people all over the world have found meaning in his writing. And the adaptations are truly limitless. So happy birthday Shakespeare! Here is a list of the best, most creative and most accessible Shakespearean film adaptations.
15. My Own Private Idaho (1991)
Based on: Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2, Henry VWhat happens when you mix some Shakespearean histories, hustlers and the Midwest? Well My Own Private Idaho (1991) is what you wind up with. Two male hustlers travel the country (and the world) to find themselves and to find meaning in their lives. This is one of the adaptations that just seems OBVIOUSLY Shakespearean. Keanu Reeve’s role as Scott is pretty much lifted straight from Henry IV, where Henry’s son leads a rebellious life until he can inherit his father’s fortune. For those who have seen the film, this should sound pretty familiar.
14. She’s the Man (2006)
Based on: Twelfth NightOk. Let us clarify. This is not a great movie. This isn’t even a GOOD movie. And that’s coming from Ethan, who isn’t known for his impeccable taste. But, as a Shakespeare adaptation, it is brilliant. The gender swapping, slapstick humor and little references to Twelfth Night do make it somewhat enjoyable. Although we are sure that Shakespeare didn’t bother with stupid montages and public displays of nudity…
13. The Tempest (2010)
Based on: The TempestThis is the first film directed by Julie Taymor to appear on our list. As a film, it is an art piece. And though she switches the gender of Prospero (to Prospera) many of the main elements of the film remain. Taymor does an excellent job of not just casually changing genders within the film. Within the film she actually deals with the consequences of these gender swaps. The magical elements of this Tempest are quite remarkable and it is one of the most visually stunning films on our list.
12. Deliver Us From Eva (2003)
Based on: The Taming of the ShrewShakespeare practically invented the romantic comedy, so it isn’t surprising that many of our modern, romantic comedies are based on his plays. And The Taming of the Shrew has probably generated the most romantic comedies. Deliver Us From Eva (2003) is an urban adaptation with the same premise. A “difficult” woman (Eva) becomes the subject of a bet. In this case, her sister’s boyfriends/husbands complain that Eva is making their lives miserable. So they hire Ray to get Eva out of their hair. And of course, that’s when Ray begins to fall in love. This adaptation remains very true to the spirit of Shakespeare while adding its own flare.
11. Chimes at Midnight (1966)
Based on: Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2, Richard II, Henry V, Merry Wives of WindsorThis may be one of the most “obscure” films on this list. And it is probably the one furthest from the source material. Orson Welles doesn’t just create a film based on Shakespeare. It is more like he completely destroys it and recreates it. All blended together. The story follows Sir John Falstaff through his appearances in Shakespeare’s histories. It is unavailable in the United States but the film in its entirety can be found on YouTube (at least until CISPA passes. Then you’re out of luck, probably).
10. Ran (1985)
Based on: King LearAs if the revenge and murder filled classic King Lear couldn’t get anymore badass, Kurosawa comes along and adds some Japanese flair. He removes King Lear from the UK’s imagination and places him in feudal Japan. He then decides to toss in some Japanese legends. What emerges is one of the best Shakespeare adaptations to emerge from Asia. There is some cultural tweaking here and there, but this is truly the story of King Lear.
9. Kiss Me Kate (1953)
Based on: The Taming of the ShrewThis Cole Porter classic is a little more meta than people give it credit for. Not only are the main characters acting in a production of The Taming of the Shrew, they are also living out its plot. And of course the title comes from a line within that Shakespearean classic. In the world of musical theater, this film and the musicals are a classic.
8. 10 Things I Hate About You (1999)
Based on: The Taming of the ShrewOh look. Another romantic comedy based on The Taming of the Shrew. But really, out of all the versions on the list, this one is probably the most popular and well made. And of course it follows the classic story. Girl is a hardass. Boy bets he can win her over. Boy falls in love. Boy gets in trouble. A great adaptation and classic teen drama. Plus, Heath Ledger before The Joker.
7. Hamlet (2000)
Based on: HamletThis is a dark and modern take on Shakespeare. Instead of Denmark we find ourselves in the Denmark Corporation. Instead of killing the King, Hamlet’s uncle has murdered the CEO. There is a great scene where Ophelia offs herself by drowning in the company fountain. While it isn’t the best made film on this list, it is certainly one of the more ingenious. The move from betrayal in a kingdom to corporate betrayal isn’t that far off.
6. Throne of Blood (1957)
Based on: MacbethAnother Shakespearean classic turned Kurosawa masterpiece. It is interesting how well Shakespeare’s tragedies translate into these Japanese feudal tales. It follows the story of Macbeth. Some people consider it the best adaptation of Macbeth ever made. And some liberties are taken, but that is to be expected when translating such a classic tale for another culture.
5. Romeo + Juliet (1996)
Based on: Romeo and JulietThis is a film that keeps the language of Shakespeare and uses it in a modern setting. And of course it made every teenager in the 1990s swoon. It also has one of the better soundtracks of any of these films. Is it sappy? Of course, it’s based on Romeo and Juliet. Some of the sappiest love stories of all time and one that has tugged at the heartstrings of angst ridden teens since Shakespeare’s days. It is an accessible adaptation almost everyone can understand.
4. A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1999)
Based on: A Midsummer Night’s Dream
One of the best films on the list based on one of The Bard’s best tales. This is an adaptation that is “more modern,” in the sense that it is set in a more modern era, but not the present day. It is funny, cute and holds very true to the original. They manage to capture some of the magic that is sometimes difficult to translate from stage to film.
3. Titus (1999)
Based on: Titus AndronicusWe always laugh when people imply that our media has gotten more violent over the years. All we need to do to shut down that argument is point to this forgotten work by Shakespeare. Titus Andronicus is the by far the most violent of Shakespeare’s plays (though the title for bloodiest is still held by Macbeth). Some of the violent acts included are rape, public executions and cannibalism. It’s a revenge tale gone horrifically wrong and Julie Taymor manages to honor the horror of the original play without turning it into a snuff film. We would have placed this at Number 1 but there are two better known classics that simply had to win out.
2. West Side Story (1961)
Based on: Romeo and JulietThis is a film that really shows how adaptable Shakespeare is. The Bard didn’t know anything about Puerto Rico gangs, or the difficulties of being an immigrant in America. And yet, here we have a musical that has lifted Shakespeare out of the past and makes it far more relevant to the 1960s. Sure, there are some silly (aka amazing) knife fights and Maria is about as Puerto Rican as the author, but there is something about this adaptation that continues to speak to us.Click here for the original trailer
1. The Lion King (1994)
Based on: Hamlet
This film is incredible on its own. But as a Shakespeare adaptation? It is breathtaking. And although the film adapts the tale to lessen its violence and to create a happy ending, it stays true to the themes of family betrayal, loss and finding one’s identity. Timon and Pumbaa are really just teaching Simba “and above all else, to thine own self be true.” We get to watch Simba retake his kingdom. I’m sure that Shakespeare himself would be proud.