How Shakespeare Continues To Inspire Filmmakers Across The World!

By Sayantan Mondal. Posted on July 22, 2015

Literature and films have a special relationship. Countless movies have been adapted from literary works and some of the greatest cinematic spectacles are the result of a collaboration between literature and cinema. It is actually great to see how directors come forward to adapt a book, giving it a shape guided by their own visions.

One writer whose work gets adapted the most is the English literary giant William Shakespeare. His dramas have now been adapted more than one thousand times for the silver screen with the trailer of its recent adaptation of Macbeth starring Michael Fassbender-Marion Cotillard making waves across social media.

Language has not been a barrier for these adaptations and directors have often given the adapted plays their own distinct trademark, while keeping in mind the spirit of the original. Some have been faithful, while others have had a more contemporary and often times an anachronistic approach to Shakespeare's work. But each one of them have provided a new look at the bard's body of work.

Let us see how Shakespeare has inspired directors and is now a genre in its own right. This post look at how his works are extremely fluid and have managed to sync itself with contemporary topics.

Fascination With War

The theme of war has always found a place in Shakespeare's plays, be it in tragedy or comedy. So it is not surprising that many directors have taken this up in their own adaptations. Two movies worth mentioning, straight out of Shakespeare's canon focusing on war, have to be Coriolanus directed by and starring Ralph Fiennes and Patrick Stewart's straight for TV adaptation of Macbeth. While Coriolanus was forged around the war that annihilated Yugoslavia and brought Europe to a standstill, Macbeth had much to do with Stalin and his power-hungry image post the death of Stalin. It also focused on how he removed Trotsky and merged it in this story.

Both movies modernized the entire premise, creating a relation between two different historical timelines. You could see in Macbeth, the dark images of Second World War, while Coriolanus nimbly allowed the screen to fit itself with images and memories of the war from Yugoslavia with random references to ethnic cleansing.

Race And Racism

Even the contemporary problems of race and racism found a place in Shakespeare's work. Directors found it easy to adapt them, keeping the problems of racial tension in mind. Be it first world or even the third world, Shakespeare's work actually gave them voice, though we should remember that Shakespeare himself has been accused of anti-semitism for his works like Merchant of Venice.

O based on Othello turned out to be controversial because of its unintentional link with the Columbine massacre. Hence the film took a hibernation of two years, and finally it released to commercial and critical acclaim. O, a basketball player and the hero of his high school finds himself drawn towards the white Desi (based on Desdemona), bringing in the racial problems in play with his frenemy Hugo trying to sabotage his every possible move.

The entire template of Othello is skilfully transferred to a high-school premise with a seriousness that took the audience by surprise because, most high-school themed movies made in Hollywood tend to focus on sex and comedy without trying to address some serious issues, the way O did.

Another important adaptation of Othello turned out to be Vishal Bharadwaj's Omkara. This film too focused on caste politics in the heartland of Uttar Pradesh and a local strongman named Omkara. His romance with the upper-caste Dolly, brings about his downfall, orchestrated by his deputy Langda Tyagi, (based on Iago) who is upset at the treatment meted out to him. The UP heartland, politics and gangsters, all mingle like lost friends in this acidic adaptation of Othello.

Shakespeare In Space

It is somewhat strange to connect Shakespeare's work to science fiction. But even this has been done. Forbidden Planet, based on Shakespeare's The Tempest, is unanimously voted by one and all as the best adaptation of this Shakespearean play. The science fiction premise bolsters it with some fine performances by the likes of Leslie Nielsen, Anne Francis and Walter Pidgeon and of course the ominous presence of Robbie, the robot, influenced by Ariel from the play.

Some might consider The Tempest to be a fantasy but this adaptation shakes that foundation with early signs of artificial intelligence (the evil self of Dr. Edward Morbius played by Pidgeon) as well as robotics, a mad scientist, and his lovely daughter, fusing all the necessary elements to become a blockbuster. Besides the regular Shakespearean tropes used in this movie, we also get to see how the space can become a giant metaphor of 'the great frontier' that has to be colonized.

Revenge Is A Dish Best Served In Shakespeare

Talking of another Shakespearean trope, revenge, we have to speak of The Bad Sleep Well and Haider, both adaptations of Hamlet.

The Bad Sleep Well is known for transferring Hamlet to post-war Japan, with a young executive, played by the Kurosawa favourite Toshiro Mifune out to extract revenge for his father's death. He infiltrates the murderer's corporation, marries his daughter and slowly plots his downfall (for Bollywood lovers, The Bad Sleep Well is one of the influences of Baazigar).

Haider on the other hand totally changes the basic premise of Hamlet and takes it to the blood soaked landscape of Kashmir with the backdrop of militancy. Both movies are extremely particular when it comes to Hamlet, changing the entire template of the original play yet retaining the original temperament that we more or less associate with the play.

From Post-War Japan to Kashmir, Hamlet travels all across the world. There's another adaptation of Hamlet, starring Ethan Hawke, where Hamlet plays the son of a rich businessman and this time it is the Big Apple, where he struggles for revenge against his uncle.

Lock, Stock And The Shakesperean Gangster

One of the biggest influences of Shakespearean ideology in movies is often the classic Shakespearean tragic character. Gangster movies have made good use of this trope, as can be seen in these two very different gangster movies, Men Of Respect and Maqbool.

Men of Respect is reminiscent of the Coppola/Scorsese form of movies mixed with Macbeth, with rivalries that exist in the American mafia. While Maqbool challenges the regular Bollywood narrative by placing Shakespearean characters in the gangsters psyche.

Maqbool was not something Bollywood had witnessed till then. Not since Parinda or Satya had something like this been done on the Indian screens. 

Going by the above mentioned adaptations, it is evident that Shakespearean tales are timeless and have an ability to fit seamlessly into cinemas of any language and socio-political scenario. It is therefore not surprising that Shakespeare continues to inspire filmmakers even in this day and age.

Also check this out:

Join The Jamuura Brigade & Make Your Film

Online Workshop On 'Secrets Of Screenwriting' With Kamlesh Pandey, At 6 PM, On 8th August


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