7 movies that are cleverly disguised Shakespeare adaptations

The Bard himself might not recognize his work in these very loose adaptations of his plays

Joss Whedon's upcoming adaptation of William Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, which hits theaters in June, has critics and fans drooling thanks to its nerd-bait cast and slick trailer. Of course, Whedon's take on the play is just the latest in a long line of Shakespearean movie adaptations that modernize a play's setting but keep Shakespeare's original script. But beyond Joss, there is another, subtler sub-genre of Shakespeare adaptations: Films that lift key elements of the Bard's original plays while taking so many liberties with the original plots, characters, and settings that the end result is barely recognizable. Here, seven films that you may not know were based on Shakespeare — along with that one moment from each that might have left the Bard himself scratching his head:

1. West Side Story (1961)

Based on: Romeo and Juliet

One of the earliest and most famous versions of this phenomenon, West Side Story moves Romeo and Juliet to Manhattan's Upper West Side in the '50s, using belted-out solos and bright dance numbers instead of soliloquies. In place of the original play's Capulet-Montague family feud, West Side Story offers the Sharks and the Jets — two rival gangs spawned from the era's ethnic conflicts and strange obsession with juvenile delinquents — to separate the star-crossed lovers. 

Definitely not in the original: The tightly choreographed "Prologue" that introduces us to the Jets, the Sharks, and their snapping:

2. Ran (1985)

Based on: King Lear

Akira Kurosawa's late masterpiece retells King Lear's story in Japan's warlord era, and replaces the play's three daughters with three sons. At the beginning of the film, the old warlord divides his kingdom among his sons, only to see two of them turn against him (though the third sticks by his side). Ran sticks to the thematic issues of King Lear and mimics the addiction to pride and power that ultimately led to Lear's downfall. Both versions also have equally bloody endings — spoiler alert! — with all three kids, as well as dad, killed after a climactic battle sequence.

Definitely not in the original: Shakespeare probably couldn't have imagined production values like these:

3. My Own Private Idaho (1991)

Based on: Henry IV and Henry V

Gus Van Sant's 1991 film loosely borrows from Henry IV and Henry V, with Keanu Reeves playing the Prince Hal role. This time, instead of boozing and avoiding his princely responsibilities, Reeves' character works as a hustler while waiting to inherit his father's fortune when he turns 21. A good chunk of the dialogue is paraphrased from Shakespeare, with a Falstaffian character thrown in for good measure — though the dream-like sequences and somewhat arbitrary vignettes stray wildly from the original text. Reeves' monologues are certainly no St. Crispin's Day speech.

Definitely not in the original: Keanu Reeves

4. The Lion King (1994)

Based on: Hamlet

There is some debate over whether The Lion King's resemblance to Hamlet was intentional, but it's hard to ignore the parallels. The scheming uncle who murders the young prince's father (Claudius/Scar), the appearance of the dead king as a ghost (King Hamlet/Mufasa), the prince's strange friends who serve as comic relief (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern/Timon and Pumba). Where the two versions differ the most — apart from the singing animals, of course — is the ending. In Hamlet, pretty much everyone dies. In The Lion King, Simba has a happy ending and retakes the throne with the help of Nala. Though Scar still dies, it's at the hand of his former hyena minions, and not Simba himself.

Definitely not in the original: Hakuna Matata

5. 10 Things I Hate About You (1999)

Based on: The Taming of the Shrew

The 1999 adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew stars Heath Ledger as a bad boy who is paid to woo Julia Stiles, the "shrew," so that her father will allow her younger sister to date. The film uses many of the same names, like Kat for (Katherina) and her younger sister Bianca, and manages to sneak in a few Shakespearean quotes: "I burn, I pine, I perish," says Joseph Gordon Levitt's Cameron, who is in love with Bianca. Of course, the movie also throws in all the usual teen rom-com staples: A high-school dance, awkward poetry, and a date at a paintball arena (as well as the slightly less customary erotica-writing guidance counselor).

Definitely not in the original: Heath Ledger's bleacher serenade of Julia Stiles to "Can't Take My Eyes off You"

6. O (2001)

Based on: Othello 

Just two years after 10 Things I Hate About You, Julia Stiles landed another teen version of a Shakespeare character — this time a knock-off of Othello's Desdemona named "Desi" in 2001's O. O stars Mekhi Phifer as Odin, a basketball star manipulated by steroid-addicted "Hugo" (not Iago) — until his jealousy gets the better of him and, echoing Shakespeare's original text, he murders Desi and kills himself. 

Definitely not in the original: Melodramatic dunking

7. She's The Man (2006)

Based on: Twelfth Night 

This Amanda Bynes-Channing Tatum flick draws its plot from Twelfth Night, with Illyria High School substituting for the land of Illyria. Bynes' Viola disguises herself as her brother so she can play soccer — a minor deviation from the original, where she dresses as a eunuch and lands a job with the local duke. She's The Man borrows many of the names and romantic shenanigans from the original text, and adds a gratuitous shout-out to Shakespeare by slipping in the play's most famous quote, spoken by Channing Tatum's "Duke": "Be not afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them."

Definitely not in the original: A goofy musical montage of Viola preparing to disguise herself as a man


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