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5 Unusual Shakespeare Movies to Check Out

Shakespeare can be entertaining, once out of English class. Many film adaptations of the Bard’s work prove this.

Chandros Portrait of William Shakespeare.
Credit: John Taylor

Shakespeare is not and should not be limited to English classes. And his movie adaptations don’t need to be old and stuffy. The Bard can cover a lot of ground.

Is Shakespeare the greatest writer who ever lived? No. That’s an impossibly objective statement. Is Shakespeare still a good writer? Yes. And the adaptations of his movies? Greatly welcomed.

With thousands of adaptations based on or inspired by the works of Shakespeare, where does one start? His many plays have been preserved, altered, interpreted, rearranged, exploited, scrutinized, and much more for all types of stories. Whether it’s a period piece, a modern tale, or something completely different and surreal, there’s something for everyone.

These coming recommendations are films where you can dip your toes in, but still be something different. If you’re looking for faithful recreations of the Bard’s text, this isn’t the list for you. These are for the ones who like different locations, different texts, and maybe even different stories.

Anyone but You (2023)

Beatrice (Sydney Sweeney) and Ben (Glen Powell) embrace each other on a dock in Australia.
Beatrice (Sydney Sweeney) and Ben (Glen Powell) embrace each other on a dock in Australia. Credit: Sony Pictures Releasing

The most recent film of the bunch, Anyone but You makes a return to the long dormant genre of the rom com. It is also an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.

Though it may not use the Bard’s text outside of a few references, the stories are the same. The framing of a wedding sees two people who can’t stand each other grow and fall in love. It’s a simple, charming story you’ve likely seen before, especially if you like rom coms.

Anyone but You makes for some great fluff and is hard to not enjoy. Is it complex and stupid at times? Yeah, but who wants their rom com to get philosophical? If you’re looking for an easy film to watch for a third-or-so date, I’d recommend this.

Richard III (1995)

A battle rages on lead by King Richard III (Ian McKellen).
A battle rages on lead by King Richard III (Ian McKellen). Credit: Guild Film Distribution

Before his iconic roles as Gandalf and Magneto, Ian McKellen was primarily known for his outstanding stage work. One of his plays was a reworking of Richard III, which was reworked into the filmed version.

This version sees the 1480s English King become the 1930s English fascist dictator—both tyrants. Though this version has only about half the play’s text, it still makes for some very clever spins and direction.

My favorite example of reworking is the iconic “Now is the winter of our discontent” soliloquy. In the speech, it goes from formally praising the royal dynasty to Richard pissing in the bathroom, while speaking ill of the same dynasty—metaphorically pissing on the king.

If not for the star-studded cast—including Maggie Smith and a young Robert Downey Jr.—watch it for Ian McKellen. His performance is deliciously evil. I would best describe it as “gleefully sinning,” and its a role that deserves not to be forgotten.

10 Things I Hate About You (1999)

Kat (Julia Stiles) and Bianca (Larisa Oleynik) sit together, being berated by their father (Larry Miller) - not shown.
Kat (Julia Stiles) and Bianca (Larisa Oleynik) sit together, being berated by their father (Larry Miller) – not shown. Credit: Buena Vista Pictures Distribution

Ah… nothing like the late ’90s. A strange time in American history, after winning the Cold War but before Bush, that seemed so bliss yet extreme. I’d say those last two words best describe 10 Things I Hate About You, one of the best high school dramas of the decade.

Surprisingly enough, this is an adaptation of Taming of the Shrew, one of the Bard’s most problematic plays. It still retains the story structure—a crazed high schooler is hired to win over the disdainful young beauty. Only, it addresses the misogynist elements by outright ignoring them.

As a result, what’s left is the comedy Shakespeare intended, repackaged for a more modern audience. Of course, that’s the same as Baz Lurman’s Romeo + Juliet, except this isn’t bombastic and more realistic. Either one is fine, but 10 Things I Hate About You might be the more easy and better watch for you.

Ran (1985)

A battle halts before a burning castle, watching Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai) descends the steps.
A battle halts before a burning castle, watching Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai) descends the steps. Credit: Toho

Loosely adapted from King Lear, Ran is considered to be director Akira Kurosawa’s last masterpiece. While I’m not sure about the word “last,” the word “masterpiece” is greatly deserved.

This is not Kurosawa’s first attempt at adapting Shakespeare, with the other two being Throne of Blood and The Bad Sleep Well. However, Ran is perhaps the most famous of the three for its striking visuals and for good reason. The bold color choice and painterly framing make for some of the best images in cinema to stick with any viewer.

Though set in medieval Japan and not pre-Christian Britain, the story is still very much King Lear. I would go so far as to say that this is objectively the best film on this list. If not for the acting, the plot, or the stellar battle scenes, then watch it for the imagery.

West Side Story (1961)

Tony (Richard Beymer) and Maria (Natalie Wood) with each other at the balcony.
Tony (Richard Beymer) and Maria (Natalie Wood) with each other at the balcony. Credit: United Artists

And now, what is probably the most popular Shakespeare story for the stage… West Side Story. Based off of Romeo & Juliet, this famous musical takes the story from Renaissance Italy to Cold War Manhattan and makes the story of clashing families to race.

Another great transformation of the Bard’s work and a stellar work of musical theatre. With a score by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by legendary Stephen Sondheim, what’s not to love? And with great credit to the vocalists—especially to ghost dubber Marni Nixon—it’s a treat.

Furthermore, it’s a story that’s still relevant, if not proven by Steven Spielberg’s adaptation in 2021. If you prefer that one, as it further addresses the politics and racial tensions of its time, that’s fine. Either one is great, but for me it’s hard to beat the classics.

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