6 of the most surprising Shakespeare adaptations

Joss Whedon’s ultra-modern take on Much Ado About Nothing hits UK cinemas this week – and it’s just the latest example of Hollywood making use of Shakespearean storylines.

Whether it’s explicit adaptation or borrowed plot twists, the Bard’s considerable oeuvre has proven to be a fertile ground for generations of screenwriters.

From Disney classics to high school comedies, here are six of the unlikeliest Shakespeare-influenced movies in Hollywood history.

shakespeare adaptations
[“Alas poor Yorick” – Simba gets an education in The Lion King]

The Lion King (1994)

On the face of it, this colourful, much-loved family favourite is about as far-removed from the Bard as you can get. It’s an animated coming-of-age story centred on adventurous young lion Simba; complete with fart jokes, an Elton John soundtrack, and a hyena voiced by Whoopi Goldberg.

But actually…

Anybody who’s read Hamlet will notice some remarkable similarities between the hallowed tragedy and this Disney blockbuster. From the murderous uncle to the tragic father who appears as a ghost – and even the pair of eccentric friends who act as comic relief – it’s hard to dispute the link.

In fact, if The Lion King had been bold enough to take a further leaf out of Shakey’s book and opt for a Reservoir Dogs-style slaughter at the climax, the resemblance would be uncanny.

Forbidden Planet (1956)

This seminal 1950’s sci-fi movie boasts robots, monsters and a pre-spoof Leslie Nielsen in dashing hero mode. Surely a Hollywood space adventure about a crew journeying to a distant planet can’t have much in common with Shakespeare’s handiwork?

But actually…

The film draws heavily on The Tempest in terms of both plot and character. Mysterious scientist Dr Morbius is analogous to wizard Prospero; the planet of the title is effectively the island of the play – into which a group of outsiders collide in each case; and both contain a random, drunken cook to confuse matters even further.

10 Things I Hate About You (1999)

In this genuinely brilliant teen rom-com, Heath Ledger delivers a charismatic performance as a slick loner paid to woo Julia Stiles’ moody outcast – so that her younger sister will be allowed to date. There’s surreal silliness, paintballing mayhem, and a memorable scene where Ledger serenades his quarry with a full-throttle rendition of ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’.

But actually…

It’s a direct modernisation of The Taming Of The Shrew, with Stiles being the ‘Shrew’ of the title. Certain lines of dialogue are actually lifted directly from the play, key character names are retained and the overriding story is virtually identical.

My Own Private Idaho (1991)

Gus Van Sant’s cult drama stars Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix as a pair of young male prostitutes who embark on an eventful road trip together. There’s graphic sex scenes, plenty of excess, and surreal dream sequences – while the leading pair look effortlessly cool for the cameras.

But actually…

The film is partly based on three of Shakespeare’s plays: Henry IV, Part 1; Henry IV, Part 2; and Henry V. Reeves effectively steps into the shows of Prince Hal – only here he’s working as a hustler, rather than taking the Prince Harry approach to royal duties. Famous comic character Falstaff also gets a modern incarnation in the form of street gang leader Bob Pigeon.

Get Over It (2001)

It’s another high school rom-com, this time starring the ever-likeable Kirsten Dunst alongside a surprisingly clean-cut Ben Foster – who can’t handle the fact that his girlfriend broke up with him. Cue plenty of high jinx – complete with Martin Short as a wacky teacher, Zoe Saldana in an early role, and a supporting turn from Sisqo; AKA the guy who had a hit with ‘Thong Song’.

But actually…

It’s based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream – a production of which forms the central crux of the film’s plot. If you were being pretentious, you could argue that Get Over It’s play-within-a-play structure is impressively post-modern. Not that the cheesy song and dance numbers are particularly faithful, of course…

She’s The Man (2006)

As set-ups go, this teen movie’s concept is dafter than most. Barred from playing soccer for her own school, a talented girl passes herself off as her twin brother so she can join an all-male rival side. Complications predictably ensue, with Channing Tatum’s handsome hunk and Vinnie Jones’s ballistic coach on board for an unashamedly low-brow ride.

But actually…

Shakespeare was pretty fond of cross-dressing, you know – and She’s The Man is actually a surprisingly faithful adaptation of Twelfth Night. Most of the romantic shenanigans are directly lifted from the original story, where Viola’s male-masquerading goal is the Blackadder-esque desire to land a job, rather than kick a ball around.

Have we missed any other unlikely Shakespeare adaptations off our list?

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