Adaptations of Shakespeare for Students of All Levels

Recently I had the opportunity to deliver a seminar aimed at preparing primary and middle school students for the rigors (and rewards) of reading Shakespeare's plays. Among other things, we discussed recent adaptations of Shakespeare's plays as opportunities for introducing students to the plots, characters, and conflicts that operate in Shakespearean drama. Students who see these film, television, and stage adaptations of Shakespeare are able to appreciate the action and content of the narrative more easily. I have been careful to select adaptations suitable for children of all ages, whether primary school or secondary school. As such, some of the adaptations I recommend avoid Shakespeare's complex language completely, focusing instead on the story operating within the play. Others count as faithful adaptations of Shakespeare's comedies and tragedies that manage to make the plays come alive on screen without sacrificing much of the beauty of Shakespeare's language. Please have a look and select a title suitable to your primary, middle, or high school student!

1. The Lion King ( 1994)

The Lion KIng loosely but unmistakably adapts Hamlet: a king is killed by his treacherous brother, and the prince struggles with self-doubt before taking vengeance. The animated film is great for young children and families, appropriate for audiences who have never read Hamlet.

Grade Level: 1+

Plot Accuracy: 2/5

Language Accuracy: 0/5

2. Shakespeare: The Animated Tales (1992-1994)

Originally broadcast on the BBC, Shakespeare: The Animated Tales consists of twelve short, animated adaptations of Shakespeare's plays produced in consultation with Professor Stanley Wells, the editor of both Oxford and Penguin editions of Shakespeare. The series includes many of Shakespeare's most widely studied plays, including Macbeth, Hamlet, and Romeo and Juliet.

Grade Level: 4+

Plot Accuracy: 4/5

Language Accuracy: 4/5

3. West Side Story (1957)

The classic broadway musical, which adapts the plot of Romeo and Juliet, and the 1961 film version represent excellent opportunities for families to introduce younger students to one of Shakespeare's most widely studied plays. I recommend taking the family to see a live production.

Grade Level: 6+ (3+ with families)

Plot Accuracy: 3/5

Language Accuracy: 0/5

4. She's the Man (2006)

Perfect for adolescents who will encounter Shakespeare in school, She's the Man features a light, romantic plot and sense of humor that will captivate teenagers. While the play is a surprisingly good movie, it departs very, very significantly Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. Still it provides a great opportunity for introducing teens to some of conventions of Shakespearean comedy, from disguise to crossdressing to mistaken identity.

Grade Level: 7+

Plot Accuracy: 2/5

Language Accuracy: 0/5

5. Ten Things I Hate About You (1999)

Ten Things counts as a quintessential 1990s teen comedy and an interesting adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew. While the film departs very significantly from its Shakespearean source material, it serves nonetheless as an enticing introduction to the play and an example of the lasting relevance of Shakespeare's characters and themes.

Grade Level: 7+

Plot Accuracy: 3/5

Language Accuracy: 0/5

6. Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

The film by Kenneth Branagh, a respected Shakespearean actor, counts as the first true adaptation on our list. Although the film version cuts and edits much of its source text, it faithfully adapts the play in a way that captivates modern audiences. The film is great for teenagers preparing to read Much Ado about Nothing or any Shakespearean comedy.

Grade Level: 8+

Plot Accuracy: 5/5

Language Accuracy: 5/5

7. Romeo + Juliet (1996)

Romeo+Juliet both adapts and modernizes Shakespeare's tragedy. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Romeo, the film stays reasonably close to its source text yet imagines the play's action in an ultra-stylized modern world. The film is great for teenagers preparing to read Romeo and Juliet.

Grade Level: 8+

Plot Accuracy: 4/5

Language Accuracy: 4/5

8. Hamlet (1990)

Here is yet another serious adaptation of Shakespeare's tragedy. While some will balk at the idea of Mel Gibson playing Hamlet, the film does a good job of making the play accessible to a wide audience without needlessly departing from its source material. To be sure, it's not the best film adaptation of Hamlet, but it is perhaps the most accessible. The film is great for students preparing to read Hamlet or any Shakespearean tragedy.

Grade Level: 9+

Plot Accuracy: 5/5

Language Accuracy: 5/5

9. Othello (1995)

Othello starring Laurence Fishburne and Kenneth Branagh counts as a true adaptation of Shakespeare's tragedy of love, suspicion, jealousy, and betrayal. Branagh's portrayal of Iago, perhaps Shakespeare's most malicious villain, is especially memorable and alone makes the film worth watching.

Grade Level: 9+

Plot Accuracy: 5/5

Language Accuracy: 5/5

10. Macbeth (2015)

The 2015 film is one of the most recent adaptations of Shakespearean tragedy to count as both a faithful depiction of its source material and a worthwhile film in its own right. While the film is ideal for students preparing to study Macbeth, it is in some ways as dark and ambiguous as the play, making it perhaps the least accessible adaptation on this list.

Grade Level: 11+

Plot Accuracy: 5/5

Language Accuracy: 5/5

Note: Of course, there is no substitute for reading Shakespeare or seeing the plays on stage. As we discuss in my online course on Macbeth, however, all of Shakespeare's plays are adaptations in the sense that there exists no absolutely authoritative original text: Shakespeare's plays were edited and published after his death. So when I award an adaptation a score of 5/5, I mean it does not just borrow from Shakespeare but instead stages it, as it were, for the modern viewer. If you have any questions, please feel free to email me at Edward@thedragonprep.com.

#Shakespeare #primaryschool #middleschool #reading

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