In Coriolanus, out in theaters tomorrow, director and star Ralph Fiennes brings to the screen one of Shakespeare’s least-adapted plays, the tragedy of a celebrated Roman general (Fiennes) who [400-YEAR-OLD SPOILERS] allies himself with his former arch-nemesis (Gerard Butler) to take revenge on the city after he is exiled for being the world’s worst politician.
Replete as it is with guns, tanks and army fatigues, Fiennes’ directorial debut is a decidedly modern take on a story that was originally set in pre-Imperial Rome. Still, even with all its modern accoutrements, Coriolanus is actually fairly traditional adaptation of the Bard’s work… at least compared to some of the more off-the-wall approaches that other directors have taken in years past. In honor of the decades-long fruitful relationship between Shakespeare and Hollywood, MovieMaker takes a look back at some of the most—ahem—unconventional Shakespeare adaptations in film history. Starting with…
The Tempest, in Space
Forbidden Planet (1956)
directed by Fred M. Wilcox
When Leslie Nielsen passed away in November 2010, he left behind comedy classics like Airplane! and The Naked Gun for future generations to enjoy. But one thing he never was is lend his acting talent to a movie based on the work of the Bard. Or did he? Before Nielsen was causing audiences to split their sides laughing with his zany sense of humor and deadpan delivery, he appeared in The Forbidden Planet, a sci-fi epic loosely based on The Tempest. The movie, in which Nielsen plays a space commander sent to Altair IV to investigate a missing colony, can seem hokey to modern audiences who grew up with Star Wars and have since moved on to Avatar-style special effects, but for a sci-fi movie to have such high production values and such a large budget (building the mechanical butler Robby the Robot cost $100,000) was almost unheard of in the 1950s.
Romeo and Juliet, With Jazz Hands
West Side Story (1961)
directed by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise
Before there were rival families of garden gnomes in last year’s Gnomeo and Juliet, there were the Sharks and the Jets (and even before that, the Capulets and the Montagues). West Side Story mixes so many seemingly disparate elements (racial tension, elaborate song-and-dance numbers, jaunty finger-snapping, the song “I Feel Pretty,” gang warfare, etc.) that it’s surprising that the film works so well. It was nominated in eleven categories at the 1962 Oscars; the only one it didn’t win was for Best Adapted Screenplay… which must have been a bit of a downer for screenwriter Ernest Lehman, who was nominated for four other screenplays before his death in 2005, but never took home an Oscar.
Henry IV, Starring Falstaff
Chimes at Midnight (1965)
directed by Orson Welles
Orson Welles always had a bit of trouble getting the films he wanted to make made the way he wanted. Welles’ last film, The Other Side of the Wind, was never completed, though there are rumors that the legal issues that have plagued the project since its filming wrapped in 1972 might finally be put the rest, allowing the footage to be restored and edited so that audiences might some day, eventually, be able to see the movie. And then there’s the drama surrounding Welles’ attempted version of Don Quixote. Even The Magnificent Ambersons, which was released in theaters, was done so without Welles’ original ending, which was discarded by the studio and replaced with a “Don’t worry, everything turns out OK!” final scene. But Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight, in which Welles stars as Sir John Falstaff, is a complete and finished film from the legendary director—just not one that’s been properly restored, or released on DVD outside of Spain and Brazil, for that matter.
King Lear, Japanese Feudal-Style
directed by Akira Kurosawa
Kurosawa’s adaptation of King Lear shows that the issues explored by Shakespeare are universal, not exclusive to elderly monarchs running around Britain. Some of the themes addressed in King Lear—pride, family loyalty—are ones that Kurosawa addresses in his story of a powerful man who divides his kingdom amongst his offspring. In making Ran, though, Kurosawa made his version of King Lear a cruel warlord whose past is filled with all sorts of bloodthirsty incidents, thus using the basic template of King Lear to create a film about chaos and warfare.
Hamlet, with Lions
The Lion King (1994)
directed by Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff
The 1900 Clément Maurice version of Hamlet (Le duel d’Hamlet) gave us Sarah Bernhardt-as-Hamlet. Since then we’ve had Laurence Olivier-as-Hamlet, Richard Burton-as-Hamlet, Kenneth Branagh-as-Hamlet, Ethan Hawke-as-Hamlet and Mel Gibson-as-Hamlet. But, up until 1994, we never had Jonathan Taylor Thomas-as-Hamlet. What was up with that? Thankfully, Disney’s The Lion King fixed this glaring omission and gave us Matthew Broderick-as-Hamlet to boot! The Lion King is loosely based on the tale of the indecisive prince who really wants to avenge his father… but he’ll get around to it tomorrow, there are monologues that need delivering! Needless to say, the classic Disney film doesn’t have quite the body count of Hamlet, and while there’s no equivalent to the “Alas, poor Yorick!” scene, there are elephant skulls in abundance.
The Taming of the Shrew, in High School
10 Things I Hate About You (1999)
directed by Gil Junger
In the 1980s John Hughes made a name for himself directing high school comedies that managed to capture the frustration and drama of being a teen. Films like Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club are considered classic teen movies, and in recent years a slew of films have tried to examine teenage angst (and teenage ridiculousness) with the same level of success. Some of these high school-set teen movies have been good (Mean Girls). Some have been bad (Ice Princess). Some have been based off of classic works of British literature (Good—Clueless; Bad—She’s the Man). 10 Things I Hate About You draws from Shakespeare’s comedy The Taming of the Shrew, the basic plot of which—Younger sister can’t get married until older sister does. But older sister doesn’t want to get married! Oh no!—seems tailor-made for a high school comedy (if you replace “marriage” with “dating”). The play’s titular “taming” of the shrewish Katherina, however, wasn’t featured in this adaptation. Good thing, too. Heath Ledger using cruel reverse psychology on Julia Stiles might not have gone over so well with modern audiences.
Macbeth, in a Fast Food Restaurant
Scotland, Pa. (2001)
directed by Billy Morrissette
This adaptation of The Scottish Play stars James LeGros as Joe “Mac” McBeth, a man driven by his wife Pat McBeth (Maura Tierney) to kill his boss Norm Duncan (James Rebhorn). Nothing too strange yet. But Duncan isn’t murdered so Mac can be King of Scotland. Instead, the battleground is a fast food restaurant in rural Pennsylvania. The three witches are now a trio of hippies, Banquo is a fry cook (“Anthony ‘Banko’ Banconi”), and Pat hallucinates not blood on her hands but french fry grease. (Duncan gets killed during an unfortunate “accident” with a deep fat fryer. Ouch.) Oh, and MacDuff (“Lieutenant McDuff”) is played by none other than Christopher Walken, quite possibly the coolest actor ever to appear in a Shakespeare adaptation… sorry, Kenneth Branagh.