Shakespeare, the wet version: Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio dive into the Bard's beloved tragedy as envisioned by Baz Luhrnann in his 1996 'Romeo+Juliet'.
When Shakespeare was born 450 years ago, the theatre stage was king and movie halls had 350 years to wait. But thanks to cinema, his plays have reached epic proportions.
Shakespeare has been a rich source of inspiration for filmmakers for over a century. According to the Guinness Book of Records, more than 400 movies and TV specials have been adapted from or inspired by Shakespeare’s plays, winning him the title of the author with the most screen productions – in any language – of all time!
Of his plays, Romeo and Juliet has been done the most – at least 40 direct adaptations of it and over 100 inspired-by versions from around the world, the earliest being a silent production filmed in 1908 by J Stuart Blackton, and the latest effort in 2013 by director Carlos Carlei.
Why so many Romeos? For one thing, Shakespeare movies often strike box office jackpot. Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 telling of the doomed lovers pulled in US$38.9mil (RM127mil) while Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 Romeo + Juliet re-telling grossed US$148mil worldwide. It goes to prove that despite the "anachronistic" language and references that may seem alien to the uninitiated, Shakespeare’s power continues to reverberate across time, space and culture.
Here are seven Shakespeare-inspired films you probably didn’t know had come from the Bard’s quill.
Romeo + Juliet (1996)
Baz Luhrmann's adaptation of Shakespeare’s most beloved romantic tragedy recasts Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet in a heavily stylised contemporary setting, complete with a drag queen and party drugs. The movie starred a young Leonardo DiCaprio (in his pre-Titanic breakout role) and Claire Danes as the titular lovers. While Luhrmann kept the original Shakespearean dialogue, he changed several plot details, particularly the ending. But even he couldn't stop the lovers from dying in each other's arms. Where art thou, Kleenex?
Gnomeo & Juliet (2011)
Unique among Romeo and Juliet adaptations, Gnomeo & Juliet tells the story of two gnomes from different gardens owned by elderly neighbours Mr Capulet and Mrs Montague. Like their humans, the gnomes despise each other and often get into gardening wars. Gnomeo (voiced by James McAvoy) and Juliet (Emily Blunt) first meet while trying to retrieve an orchid, initially fighting with each other before eventually falling in love. Unlike the play, Gnomeo and Juliet get married and live happily ever after. What, you want to see gnomes get snuffed in a kid's movie?
One of Shakespeare’s darkest plays, Macbeth explores the politics, power and corruption of one man's ambition to be the King of Scotland. But this 2006 film takes the usurper to modern day Melbourne, where Sam Worthington, Victoria Hill and Lachy Hulme deliver the lines in true blue Aussie accents. Director Geoffrey Wright takes viewers down under to the city's gangster underworld, colouring it with lots of violence and movie blood. Those expecting Lady Macbeth to exclaim "By a troth, a dingo's got my baby" will be disappointed.
The Lion King (1994)
The Lion King will forever be remembered for Elton John's moving and triumphant Circle of Life anthem, as well as the comic relief provided by Timon and Pumbaa. But was Disney's Simba based on Hamlet or Kimba the White Lion? Let's just go with Shakespeare. Hardcore Bard fans will definitely recognise its tale of a proud king (Mufasa) killed by his evil brother (Scar) while the rightful heir to the throne (Simba) is exiled, only to return later to reveal the truth about his dad's death. Disney won't admit as much, but it's pretty obvious this plot already happened. Hakuna matata!
Ran – meaning uprising or revolt in Japanese – was directed by Akira Kurosawa based on the Japanese legend of Mori Motonari and Shakespeare’s King Lear. The most expensive Japanese film at the time, it was set in 15th century Japan and focused on an aging warlord who abdicated in favour of his three sons. Like Lear, his decision proved disastrous for his kids and the old man ended up alone, descending into madness. While this adaptation expresses the conflicts on a larger scale, the main elements of Lear can clearly be seen.
10 Things I Hate About You (1999)
It's not just Shakespeare’s tragedies that make it to the movies. His comedies have had their share of close-ups. This Hollywood romantic comedy modernises The Taming of the Shrew, depicting the courtship of Petruchio and the headstrong Katherina. In order to make Kate an obedient bride, Petruchio subjects her to various psychological torments until she's ultimately wooed. In 10 Things I Hate About You, the rebellious Katarina (Julia Stiles) gets the girly makeover to introduce Shakespeare to the Clueless crowd.
Another movie that transposes Shakespeare to modern times, O riffs on Othello by taking the play's tragic story of love, jealousy and betrayal from Venice to an American high school. Othello is replaced by Odin (Mekhi Phifer), a basketball player and the only black student there. Meanwhile, Hugo (Josh Hartnett), the team coach's son (the coach is named Duke after Shakespeare's Duke of Venice), is livid with jealousy at Odin's success. Like Iago in the play, Hugo hatches a poisonous plan that spins out of control and leads to a violent end. Popcorn! Popcorn!