A lot of people tend to think Shakespeare isn’t for them; it’s too old, too intellectual, or too boring. But after reading Still Star-Crossed a few weeks ago and thinking about how a Shakespeare play spawned a sequel novel that spawned a Shondaland-produced T.V. series (albeit a short-lived one), I cannot accept that. After all, Shakespeare wrote for the masses—if he were writing today I think you’d be as likely to find him behind a primetime soap as a critically-acclaimed film.
Shakespeare’s plays feature star-crossed lovers, mistaken identity, power grabs, and murder, among many other plot staples still in use today in all forms of entertainment. Maybe the language is a little more flowery than what we’re used to nowadays, but the stories themselves are pretty universal—even first-time Shakespeare viewers might be surprised to find how familiar they already are with certain plots.
To prove this point, and to provide options for those wanting to dip their toe in the Shakespeare pool, I have compiled a list of Shakespeare adaptations in all formats (books, T.V., and film) to check out.
Romeo & Juliet
Still Star-Crossed – I reviewed this book in more detail a few weeks ago, but to quickly sum up, it is a sequel to Romeo & Juliet following Rosalind and Benvolio, the tragic couple’s cousins, as they navigate the aftermath of their romance and try to end the feud between the Capulets and Montagues once and for all. The television series follows the same general plot as the book, but it tries to weave in even more intrigue on top of all that.
Warm Bodies – The book (by Isaac Marion) goes a little bit deeper than the movie, but both versions move the classic story to a modern, zombie-apocalypse setting. Romeo becomes R, a zombie just drifting through his undead life, until he impulsively saves a human girl, Julie, instead of eating her. As he keeps her hidden from the other zombies out in the world, R starts to remember what it feels like to be human as Julie realizes not all zombies are monsters—and not all monsters are zombies. It’s not an exact adaptation of Romeo & Juliet, but it does have a lot of nods to the play.
Gnomeo & Juliet – This animated movie can introduce kids to Shakespeare’s famous tragedy, as well as some classic Elton John songs, but it’s also clever enough for adults to enjoy with them.
West Side Story – The movie-musical (based on the stage musical) follows two star-crossed lovers, Tony and Maria, from the rival Jets and Sharks gangs in 1950s New York. Story-wise, it’s a pretty close adaptation, though with much more singing, dancing, and snapping than Shakespeare’s version.
The Lion King – I’m not joking. If you’ve seen The Lion King, you’re already fairly familiar with what is arguably Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy. Both feature a king secretly murdered by his brother who proceeds to take his throne, a prince who must discover the truth and reveal it, a ghost, and two clowns who accompany him on a road trip that temporarily delays him in facing his evil uncle. It’s not an exact adaptation (fortunately) but you can definitely see the parallels.
She’s the Man – Starring Amanda Bynes, this adaptation moves Twelfth Night to the modern boarding school of Illyria, where Viola (Bynes) is impersonating her twin brother, Sebastian, in order to play on the boys’ soccer team and prove her worth after being refused membership on her former school’s team. Her roommate, Duke (Channing Tatum in an early role) agrees to help ‘Sebastian’ train in return for help getting a date with the beautiful Olivia—only Olivia starts to fall for ‘Sebastian’ while Viola is falling for Duke.
Much Ado About Nothing
Much Ado About Nothing (Joss Whedon version) – Don’t let the black & white film choice scare you away from this battle of the sexes! Whedon keeps Shakespeare’s script, but updates the setting to modern Santa Monica & assembles a fun, top-notch cast (Amy Acker! Nathan Fillion! Clark Gregg!) for this comedy about…well, you know the title. Fun fact: the movie was actually filmed at Whedon’s home in only 12 days.
The Taming of the Shrew
Kiss Me Kate – This movie musical follows a divorced couple cast in a musical version of The Taming of the Shrew, and the drama off-stage mirrors much of the drama happening off. Add in a pair of gangsters looking to collect a debt on opening night and a case of mistaken identity, and you get a surprisingly fun time.
10 Things I Hate About You – Young Heath Ledger and Julia Stiles star in this ’90s update of Shakespeare’s comedy about a determinedly wild woman and the man who dares to woo her. In this take, Stiles plays Kat, a shrewish senior whose sophomore sister, Bianca, isn’t allowed to date unless she does too. When new student Cameron (Joseph-Gordon Levitt) falls for Bianca, he tricks the obnoxious Joey Donner into paying bad-boy Patrick (Ledger) into taking Kat out so he can have a chance with Bianca. Cue the teen angst.
O – Following on the success of 10 Things I Hate About You, this time one of Shakespeare’s tragedies gets transported to the modern American high school, featuring Julia Stiles as Desi, girlfriend of basketball star Odin “O” James (Mekhi Phifer), who is manipulated by jealous teammate Hugo (Josh Hartnett) into believing Desi is cheating on him. This one follows pretty closely to the original plot, so things only get worse from there.