An ode to the Bard: How Shakespeare’s iconic works resonate subtly in cinema today
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An ode to the Bard: How Shakespeare’s iconic works resonate subtly in cinema today

Can you think of world cinema without even a hint of Shakespeare? Think again!

brunch Updated: Apr 26, 2018 18:57 IST
Ananya Ghosh
Ananya Ghosh
Hindustan Times
Shakespeare,death anniversary,William Shakespeare
Joseph Fiennes as William Shakespeare in 1998 American romantic period drama, Shakespeare in Love

Shakespeare never goes out of style. And the most recent example, after Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Macbeth-quoting Birdman, is of course Marvel’s The Black Panther. Its villain, Eric Killmonger, is a quintessential Shakespearean tragic-hero whose intentions are initially good but his hamartia turns him into a ‘villain’. But that’s not the only reference.

So, on the occasion of the Bard’s death anniversary we pick six movies find resonances in his popular works

Based on:Hamlet

The Black Panther via The Lion King

In the Marvel movie one can find many echoes of the Disney classic. But in The Lion King, the story of a young prince whose father is murdered by his power-hungry uncle forcing him to live in exile only to come back later to reclaim his kingdom, is borrowed directly from Hamlet. The evil uncle Claudius becomes Scar, the father is King Hamlet who finds a parallel in Mufasa, and the young prince’s friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern become Timon and Pumba.

The landscape of the scene where T’challa meets his dad in the ancestral plane in Black Panther looks very similar to Rafiki’s Ancient Tree in Lion King

Lion King’s references are hard to miss in Black Panther. T’challa talking to his dad on the ancestral plane is a direct reference to Simba and Mufasa. Also, the scene where T’Challa and Killmonger are watching the sunset is reminiscent of the Lion King scene where you can almost hear Killmonger say: “Everything the light touches is your kingdom huh?”

The hero and the villain, Killmonger and T’challa are parallel characters whose fathers’ deaths land them in a Hamletish inner conflicts which plague them both as they keep going back to the memories of their dads. If T’challa is the Hamlet, Kaluuya’s character can be compared to that of Rosecrantz and Guildenstern.

In The Bad Sleep well, Kurosawa combines elements of Hamlet and American film noir

The Bad Sleep Well

Also based on Hamlet is Akira Kurosawa’s first independent production. Unlike Throne of Blood, which is a direct adaptation of Macbeth, this 1960 film is a more subtle nod to Shakespeare and shows the ruthless power struggle in the corporate world of Japan of the ’60s.

Based on:King Lear

Ran and A Thousand Acres

Ran’s story strongly resembles that of William Shakespeare’s King Lear

Set in Japan’s warlord era, Kurosawa’s last masterpiece Ran (1985) is an achingly delicate yet overwhelmingly violent adaptation of the Shakespeare tragedy that also seamlessly infuses the Japanese legend of a local feudal lord.

On the other hand A Thousand Acres (1997) is Jocelyn Moorhouse’s adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name by Jane Smiley, which in turn is an adaptation of King Lear.

Based on:Henry IV and Henry V

Keanu Reeves‘s character in 1Gus Van Sant’s 1991 film was based on Henry V (Hal, Prince Harry in Henry IV Part I)

My Own Private Idaho via Chimes at midnight

Considered a landmark film in New Queer Cinema movement, the story of two “street hustlers and their misadventures, is based on John Rechy’s 1963 novel City of Night. But Gus Van Sant’s protagonist Scott Favor (Keanu Reeves) is a reminiscent of Henry V (Hal, Prince Harry in Henry IV Part I), the character of Bob Pigeon (William Richert), who plays the mentor to the two hustlers, is based on Shakespeare’s recurring character Sir John Falstaff. The writer-director was apparently inspired by Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight, which is a pastiche of Sir Falstaff.

Based on:The Tempest

Forbidden Planet and Pocahontas

Forbidden Planet: It is difficult to connect this 1956 film set in outer space to anything Shakespearian. Although the film, released during the Cold War is a commentary on the looming threat of a war between the two heavily-armed superpowers, America and the Soviet Union, at the heart of this sci-fi is a story of a father and daughter stranded on a remote planet who gets a visit from a group of astronauts.


Pocahontas: Although Pocahontas was a real character and probably the most famous Native American woman known to us today, the Disney film shows a fictionalised account of her historical encounter with Englishman John Smith and their romance, which is very similar to Miranda and Ferdinand’s story in The Tempest. It is possible however that Shakespeare took inspiration from the real story the shipwreck of Pocahontas’s husband, John Rolfe for The Tempest!

Based on:Romeo and Juliet

West Side Story and Shakespeare in Love

Undoubtedly this story of star struck lovers is most susceptible to movie adaptations. West Side Story (1961) was one of the early popular adaptations of the play. Set in the Upper West Side of the ’50s, the film trades the quintessential Shakespearean soliloquies with musical numbers in a bit to make it more approachable.

Shakespeare in Love is a fictional account of Shakespeare’s life and we catch the bard in the process of writing his most popular and adapted play, Romeo and Juliet

In recent times, while Andrzej Bartkowiak’s out-and-out action film Romeo Must Die and Baz Luhrmann’s edgy and experimental Romeo + Juliet does impressive jobs out of it, in Shakespeare in Love (1998) we catch the bard in the process of writing the play and how it intersperses with his own love story imagined by the playwright of the movie, Tom Stoppard.

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From HT Brunch, April 23, 2018

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First Published: Apr 23, 2018 15:36 IST