The plays of William Shakespeare have proven to be versatile and timeless, a universally-loved link to our literary history. Even though the Bard has been dead for almost 400 years, his legacy lives on in his own work, and in the innumerable interpretations, adaptations and creative reworkings of his ageless dramatic sagas. What is it about Shakespeare that has allowed his work to survive through the centuries? It’s, perhaps, because his works have a uniquely universal quality. The stories can be adapted in nearly any time period and placed into any context, and the words and the plot will still ring true. Whether the words are in verse or prose, delivered in a traditional theatre and Elizabethan context or in an American highs school through colloquial slang, Shakespeare remains relatable and relevant.
The proof is in the proverbial pudding: Shakespeare’s plots have frequently been brought to the silver screen, exploding the box office on several occasions throughout the last century.
Over 30 of Shakespeare’s plays have survived the test of time, and movie directors are still expressing their creativity and taking risks with the Bard’s work. Shakespeare has remained an inspiration, a creative source and a linguistic legacy in our modern art forms and media. As long as moviegoers still have their bums in those seats, it’s certain the creative nods to the Brit with the Beard will be around for years to come.
It’s almost impossible to identify every major Hollywood achievement inspired by the Bard. Shakespeare’s work pervades so much modern literature, music and culture that we could trace countless works back to his tales. But we’ve narrowed it down to the 5 Shakespeare plays that were most explicitly adapted in Hollywood which proved the most dramatically profitable. As always, we’ve adjusted the lifetime domestic gross for every movie to reflect 2013 rates.
5. A Midsummer Night’s Dream: $41.5 million
In 1999, a star-studded cast with notables such as Michelle Pfieffer (Titania), Rupert Everett (Oberon), Calista Flockhart (Helena), Christian Bale (Demetrius), Kevin Kline (Bottom), and Stanely Tucci (Puck), sets this classic slapstick fantasy comedy in a fictional town of Monte Athena (instead of Athens, Greece), adapted to the early 20th century. Because of the well-known cast and a very accessible piece of work (who didn’t read A Midsummer Night’s Dream in school?), moviegoers flooded to the box office to see their favorite actors tackle the Bard and have a magical experience with a touch of sexy with fairies, donkeys, and classic lovers’ angst. This film has made a total lifetime gross of $25,468,400.
Another money-making adpatation of this classic, and a favourite of early noughties’ teens everywhere, ‘Get Over It’ starring Kirsten Dunst opened at number 7 in America on its release in 2001. Inspired by A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the film sets the tale in a modern American high school. This one’s total gross domestic takings, up to now – and adjusted for inflation – have been over $16 million.
4. Twelfth Night: $42 million
The 2006 movie ‘She’s The Man’ was a teen hit that brought classic English literature to the masses. Shakespeare’s words were nowhere to be found in this adaptation, but the timeless plot remains more or less intact. Inspired by and adapted from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, this film is another star-studded gem with Amanda Bynes as Viola/Sebastian, and Channing Tatum as Duke Orsinio. The story’s set at a the appropriately-named Illyria high school, where Viola takes her brother’s place so he can run away with his band. This wasn’t a hit with the critics but it was a box office hit. In a stark contrast, 1996’s literal film adaptation of Twelfth Night with Helena Bonham Carter was received well by critics but it was a financial flop, grossing a lifetime total of just over $1 million.
3. The Taming of the Shrew: $60 million
A modernization of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, ’10 Things I Hate About You’ was the breakout success for stars Julia Stiles and Heath Ledger, with then-child star Joseph Gordon-Levitt topping the bill. The original Shakespeare play is surprisingly one of his less well-known, but that didn’t stop director Gil Junger from making the bold attempt at a reworking. The film was received very positively and became a smash hit and a bit of a cult classic, once again showing that even though you may not hear Shakespeare’s words his knack for stories and plot endure.
2. Hamlet: $649 million
Hamlet is possibly the most cinematically-adapted Shakespeare film of the last century. It’s ultimately the success of the world famous Disney classic, ’94’s the Lion King, that puts Hamlet at the top of this list though – it’s taken a total lifetime domestic gross of $600,726,200 and believe it or not, this hit Disney animation is self-confessedly based around the story of Hamlet. Surprised? Think about it: Uncle kills King and takes over the throne, Prince runs away and meets two comic-relief characters, Prince falls in love with girl, Prince returns to take back the throne. It’s Hamlet! The blood bath from Shakespeare’s original work was excluded for being un-family-friendly, but the characters and the storyline are directly derived from Shakespeare’s tale of the Prince of Denmark.
An adaptation of the play in 1996 by Columbia Pictures was directed by – and starred – the theatre-trained Kenneth Branagh and several other stars including Kate Winslet, Billy Crystal, Gerard Depardieu, Charlton Heston, Robin Williams, and more. Branagh set to create an epic Hamlet with the full text and no cuts, making the movie over 4 hours long. It’s claimed about $8 million in domestic gross earning so far. Miraxmax also took on the dramatic piece in 2000, with Ethan Hawke in the starring role, and this adaptation, raking in $2.4 million to date. The 990 adaptation, with Mel Gibson in the title role, was the biggest box office success with a literal adaptation – its domestic gross stands at about $39.5 million. It worried scholars, due to dramatic changes in the text, but was still well-received by the audience.
1. Romeo and Juliet: $984 million
Unsurprisingly, this classic tale of love lost tops our list of the most profitable Shakespeare plays to be adapted to the silver screen. While almost countless love stories have been inspired by the tale of these star-crossed lovers, we have Shakespeare to thank for some enormous Hollywood successes in particular. The success of Romeo and Juliet adaptations began with the West Side Story in 1961 – this movie has had a lifetime gross so far of $450 million, adjusted for inflation of course. It’s a film adaptation based on the original Broadway musical, which was inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Instead of the Capulets versus the Montagues, it is the white American gang and the Puerto Rican immigrants. Instead of Romeo and Juliet, we have Maria and Tony. West Side Story deviates from Romeo and Juliet in the end, but you’ll have to watch it to find out! The next big hit, often hailed as the exemplar Shakespeare adaptation, was Baz Luhrman’s 1996 Romeo + Juliet – a movie totaling $534 million in gross domestic takings at last count. Certainly one of the most iconic Shakespeare adaptations of all time, it takes the story out of Verona, Italy and moved it to Verona Beach. It moves the scene to the 90’s, with guns instead of swords. Starring Claire Danes as Juliet, and Leonardo DiCaprio as Romeo, the movie was a sure thing at the box office. Include that with the familiarity of the story, and you have the makings of a hit film. Shakespeare lovers, DiCaprio lovers, and movie lovers fell for this classic rendering of a timeless masterpiece.
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