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7 Ambitious Shakespeare Adaptations

7 Ambitious Shakespeare Adaptations

On December 4, the latest adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” will hit theaters, starring Michael Fassbender in the title role and directed by Justin Kurzel. Kurzel’s “Macbeth” stays true to its source material, but in all other ways it is a modern and distinctly stylish adaptation. The fact that it’s being described as a fresh adaptation of the play is high praise, considering how hard it is to stand out in a seemingly endless sea of Shakespeare adaptations on screen, from the highly classical 2008 “King Lear,” a filmed version of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of the play, to Baz Lurhmann’s stylized and modernized “Romeo + Juliet.” 

Some directors have taken a looser approach in their adaptations, transposing the story outlines and characters from Shakespeare’s plays into a variety of different settings and historical contexts. Some are more faithful to their source material than others, and some are ultimately unrecognizable without a critical eye.

Here are seven of the loosest (and most ambitious) Shakespeare adaptations to ever hit the screen.

READ MORE: Watch: Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard Redefine ‘Macbeth’ in Stunning Trailer

“Ran” (1985)

Based On: “King Lear”

Akira Kurosawa’s “Ran” is an epic film if there ever was one, a retelling of Shakespeare’s play on a massive scale from the mind of one of the greatest directors of all time. When it was made, “Ran” was the most expensive Japanese film ever produced with a budget of $12 million. Over a running time of more than two and a half hours, the film relocates the story of “King Lear” to the Sengoku period in Japan, an era that lasted from the mid 1400’s to the early 1600’s. The rough English translation of the title (“Chaos”) succinctly defines the story elements of the film, which, like the story, centers on a warlord who abdicates the throne and gives the kingdom to his three sons. The film is known for its striking imagery, its Academy Award-winning costumes and its brilliant use of color.

Throne of Blood” (1957)

Based On: “Macbeth”

Almost thirty years before “Ran,” Kurosawa adapted another Shakespeare play, “Macbeth,” and set it in Feudal Japan. Kurosawa tackled the story of Shakespeare’s play more or less directly while stylistically drawing from an even older theatrical form: The Japanese musical drama called Noh. The form emphasizes bare, minimalist sets and tight control over the performers’ movements, especially their facial gestures. The protagonist in this director’s adaptation is a Samurai warrior who meets a spirit in the forest on the way home from battle, who tells him the familiar prophecy that sets the story in motion. 

My Own Private Idaho” (1991)

Based On: “Henry IV”

As far as adaptations go, “My Own Private Idaho” is a loose one, lifting characters and scenes from “Henry IV” to tell the story of two young hustlers looking for a better life. Legend goes that writer-director Gus Van Sant was already working on the story when he saw Orson Welles’ “Chimes at Midnight,” itself a loose adaptation that re-imagines the relationship between Falstaff and Prince Hal. Keanu Reeves’s character Scott Favor was written as an embodiment of Prince Hal, son of Henry IV, and the film lifts lines of dialogue from the play translated into the speech of these streetwise teenagers.

“Forbidden Planet” (1956)

Based On: “The Tempest”

This 1950 sci-fi classic tells the story of a starship sent to discover what happened to the scientists that preceded them on an expedition to a far away planet 20 years before. They arrive on the planet to discover that the scientist Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) is living in luxury with his daughter (Anne Francis) having taken control of the technology left on the planet by its previous inhabitant. The film’s basic plot outline has analogues to Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” substituting Shakespeare’s lonely island for a faraway planet, ships for spaceships, and magic for science. The film might be most remembered for the Robby the Robot character, a homemade robot butler that was one of the first robots on film with an actual personality, and was technologically groundbreaking in its use of special effects and electronically created music in the score.

“O” (2001)

Based On: “Othello” 

“Othello” is one of Shakespeare’s plays that still contains plenty of lessons for a modern audience with its themes of racism, jealousy and revenge. “Othello” tells the story of a Moorish general in the Venetian army named Othello, his wife Desmonda, his lieutenant Cassio and his ensign Iago. The play is a twisting narrative that involves Iago betraying his best friend out of jealousy, ultimately becoming a devil on his shoulder who convinces Othello to be suspicious of everyone but him. “O” transplants these four core characters into an American high school with Mekhi Phifer taking the Othello role and playing the titular O, the star of the basketball team who faces the challenge of being a black student in a mostly white high school. Desmonda becomes his girlfriend Desi (Julia Stiles), Cassio becomes Michael Cassio (Andrew Keegan), and Iago becomes Hugo (Josh Hartnett). When Hugo’s father passes over him to give O the MVP award at an important basketball game, he sets out to get revenge on his friend by accusing O of raping Desi, the dean’s daughter.

“10 Things I Hate About You” (1999)

Based On: “The Taming of the Shrew”

Julia Stiles appears on this list a second time in “10 Things I Hate About You,” a modernization of “The Taming of the Shrew” set in high school. The film stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Cameron, who adores the most popular girl in school but whose dreams are dashed when he finds out Bianca isn’t allowed to date anyone until her sister Kat (Stiles) does. His solution is to try to convince bad boy Patrick (Heath Ledger) to date the “tempestuous” Kat. Patrick and Kat mirror the play’s Petruchio and Katherina, and Petruchio’s “taming” of the obstinate and headstrong Katherina who eventually becomes his bride, while Bianca deals with a constant stream of suitors. The movie is a “taming” of Shakespeare, dumbing down the play for an audience looking for a typical teen rom-com, but it’s become a classic in that genre and helped jumpstart the careers of Stiles and Ledger.

The Lion King” (1994)

Based On: “Hamlet”

“The Lion King” most be the single most beloved Disney film (among millennials at least) and a key contributor to the “Disney Renaissance” of the nineties, a decade of films which started with “The Little Mermaid” and ended with “Tarzan.” In this film, the lion cub Simba flees the kingdom he is to inherit when his evil uncle Scar murders the king and convinces Simba he is responsible. Simba spends his formative years with a lazy warthog and meerkat before the ghost of his father calls him to return to his kingdom. The plot outline draws from the story of “Hamlet,” in which a young prince is called by the ghost of his father to take his rightful kingdom back from his uncle. The story ends much more happily in the Disney adaptation than it does in Shakespeare’s play, with a much lower body count, but the parallels are undeniable. There is also, presumably, much more singing. 

READ MORE: 12 Great Movies About Forbidden Romance

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