I used to tell my young students a story. There was a king who was killed by his evil and jealous brother so that he could take over the throne. The king’s son, the prince who should be the next king, is deceived by the uncle. Some student would inevitably interrupt me and call out “That’s The Lion King!” Well, yes, it is, but it’s also Hamlet. We would talk about it further. Nala is Ophelia, Timon and Pumbaa are like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and Rafiki is Horatio. Plus ghosts.
Of course, The Lion King is about lions and is both tragic and comedic – and almost everybody dies at the end of Hamlet.
William Shakespeare has been adapted in many ways for the screen. There are a lot of filmed versions of the plays. I think that if he had lived in our age, Will would have written for TV and the movies. He liked being popular, the money is good and I bet he could knock out series episodes easily. Since he’s not here, other writers have adapted his wonderful and copyright-free plots and characters frequently.
I saw the film Forbidden Planet when I was a kid. When I was in college, I realized it was Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Prospero becomes Dr. Morbius and Prospero’s daughter Miranda becomes Altaira. The shipwrecked sailors are replaced by astronauts arriving on the planet.
My teacher in high school made it clear that West Side Story was Romeo and Juliet updated to gangs in New York City but with music and dancing. Would William have been surprised by it? Probably not, but he may have been surprised to see Warm Bodies (2013) where his plot gets the zombie treatment and “Juliet” falls in love with the wrong (dead) boy. Spoiler: reversing Will’s plot, Romeo is brought back to life thanks to her love in this version. Tragedy becomes “comedy” (in the Shakespearean sense).
The 2001 Othello update simply called O replaces warriors and the beautiful Desdemona with prep school students and basketball.
It’s harder to identify The Tempest as a source for HBO’s The White Lotus but Shakespeare does have some influence on this satire of the hospitality industry.
The romantic comedy She’s the Man is based on Twelfth Night. Both follow the confusing love-story plot.
And the film 10 Things I Hate About You is loosely based on Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew and uses many of the play’s character names and a modern spin on the plot. Both center on two very different sisters. Will has the younger Bianca unable to marry until her strong-willed sister, Katherine “the shrew” is wed. In the 1999 film, Bianca can’t date until Kat does. I haven’t seen the film Deliver Us From Eva but I heard it is also based on the Shrew.
“Teen films” in particular seem to use Shakespeare quite a lot. It’s a bit of a stretch but 2004’s Mean Girls borrows some things from Julius Caesar and Macbeth including some of Bard’s language and themes. And it does have Gretchen’s Julius Caesar rant.
Of course, it’s not just Shakespeare that gets used for new screenplays. The teen favorite film Clueless is loosely based on Jane Austen’s Emma. I’m not sure Jane would immediately recognize Cher as Emma but the film’s plot parallels the novel’s but with modern twists.
One of my favorite recent takes on classics is the very imaginatively filmed Apple TV+’s Dickinson series which uses elements of Emily Dickinson’s life and lots of her poetry and wildly mixes period piece settings, characters, and costumes with modern music and references. It surprised me and I was quite taken with all 30 episodes.
One thought on “If Shakespeare Had the Chance to Write Screenplays”
Did you see that there is a new film ‘Rosaline’ a romantic comedy film based on the YA novel ‘When You Were Mine’ by Rebecca Serle, which in turn was inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet? I watched it on Hulu & it is also on Disney+ No spoliers. Maybe you’ll review it.