Five Movies Based on Shakespeare That You Didn’t Know Were Based on Shakespeare

Happy New Year! If you’re like me you made a few resolutions. Here’s a simple and fun one to complete. Screen the following films, all based on Shakespeare’s plays. These films are a great way to introduce students to the works of the Bard, but without the Elizabethan language (the Rap of its day). Even though the settings have changed, the films still retain the major characters and themes of Shakespeare’s works. The Bard himself would have approved as he too did the same, liberally lifting his plots from other writers. All are available on YouTube, DVD and Blu-ray. In alphabetical order.


  1. The Bad Sleep Well based on Hamlet. (1960, Dir. Akira Kurosawa, B/W, 151 min.). Set in post-war Japan, the dashing Toshiro Mifune plays Koishi Nishi, the Hamlet-like son who seeks vengeance against the business executives who murdered his father. The rotten state of Denmark is now the rotten state of Japanese crony capitalism. Mifune’s character Nishi has become an icon in Japanese manga, a symbol of the lone avenger who uncovers the truth. In the final scene, Nishi stands defiantly amid the rubble of a destroyed Japanese factory, his white trench coat billowing majestically behind him, his fierce eyes framed in horn-rimmed glasses. As a bonus for film buffs, check out Tony Zhou’s 3 minute video “The Geometry of a Scene” on how Kurosawa frames the dialogue in this film.
  1. Forbidden Planet based on The Tempest. (1956, Dir. Fred M. Wilcox, Color, 98 min.). Dr. Morbius is Prospero; his daughter Altaira is Miranda; Commander Adams is the shipwrecked Ferdinand and Robby the Robot is Ariel. The special effects and space uniforms greatly influenced many later science fiction films and TV shows, especially the TV series Lost in Space and Star Trek. Although a bit hokey, the film still develops the major theme of The Tempest, the ability (or inability) of humans to control technology and magic. Caliban is recast as the powerful, chaotic force of the Id, the psychological dark side that all humans harbor. As Dr. Morbius states “What man can remember his own dreams?” a riff on Shakespeare’s line “We are such stuff as dreams are made on and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”
  1. The Lion King based on Hamlet. (1994, Dir. Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff, Color, 89 min.). Hamlet gets two film versions, such is the power of the Prince of Denmark, one of the most modern of Shakespeare’s characters combining doubt, madness and vengeance. Little wonder that Hamlet does well recast as either a 1960s Japanese salaryman or a1990s cartoon lion. Simba is Hamlet; his uncle Scar is Claudius; his dad Mufasa is Hamlet’s ghostly father. As a Disney movie, the violence and existential angst is toned down for the kiddies. Gone are the Oedipal references and Ophelia’s suicide. Shakespeare, however, would have loved the recasting of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as the Borscht-belt comic characters of Pumbaa the warthog and Timon the meerkat.
  1. Throne of Blood based on Macbeth. (1957, Dir. Akira Kurosawa, B/W, 110 min.). Kurosawa’s film is a must-see for any high school student who will read Macbeth. Unfortunately, most teachers do not have the time to screen multiple films and will opt to show the more traditional cinematic adaptations of the play. Too bad. Read David Mermelstein’s 2015 article “Shakespeare, A World Away” on why Throne of Blood is “the finest rendering of any of Shakespeare’s play.” I agree. The great Noh actress Isuzu Yamada transforms Lady Macbeth into an eerie specter of insidious duplicity. Her chalk-white face and smudged eyebrows convey hysterical madness as well as any monologue. Film and Shakespeare buffs can also see Kurosawa’s epic Ran based on King Lear. This 1985 film runs 2 hours and 42 min so it didn’t make my top 5 list due to length but at least it’s in color.
  1. West Side Story based on Romeo and Juliet. (1961, Dir. Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise, Color, 152 min.). With music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and choreography by Jerome Robbins, this musical was considered highly innovative for its time. Transporting the play from 16th century Verona to 20th century New York City, the film recasts Romeo as Tony, Juliet as Maria and the Montagues and the Capulets as the Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks. For more insight into how West Side Story came into being, read Charles Duhigg’s account in his 2016 book Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business. Here is an interview with Duhigg where he discusses Jerome Robbins’ ability as an “innovation broker” with “incredibly wide ranging tastes. He would “read Romeo and Juliet and loved dime store novels. He knew ballet, but he would also go to these Jitterbug contests that they had all over New York.”  For  the best and most faithful cinematic adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, watch the 1968 Zeffirelli film. Avoid the 1996 Baz Luhrmann film Romeo+Juliet with Leonardo DiCaprio. Luhrmann’s frenetic editing along with the jarring use of Hawaiian shirts, sports cars and pistols render the film unwatchable.

1 Comment


about 5 years ago

Hello! Cool post, amazing!!!


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