5 films inspired by Romeo and Juliet, from zombie flicks to martial arts movies

This list celebrates Shakespeare’s birth month of April, and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s coming film ‘In the Heights’

Fictional origins story 'Shakespeare in Love' and zombie comedy 'Warm Bodies' were both inspired by the enduring tale of the star cross'd lovers, Romeo and Juliet. The Weinstein Company, Summit Entertainment
Fictional origins story 'Shakespeare in Love' and zombie comedy 'Warm Bodies' were both inspired by the enduring tale of the star cross'd lovers, Romeo and Juliet. The Weinstein Company, Summit Entertainment

If you think about it, Romeo and Juliet was the original Young Adult literature. Featuring teenage drama, parents who don’t understand, wayward best friends and love against the odds, the play, which was penned between 1591 and 1596, has inspired some of the greatest art, literature and films of all time.

One of the most famous paeans to the tale is West Side Story. The tale of the warring Sharks and Jets, which scooped 11 Oscars in 1962, has been given a modern makeover by award-winning Hamilton creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda.

In the Heights puts young love’s dream to the test against a backdrop of a struggling Big Apple block known as Washington Heights. And the battling Montagues and Capulets have been cleverly reimagined as big business and globalisation, seeking to gentrify vibrant, immigrant neighbourhoods.

With April as the month of Shakespeare’s birth – the exact day remains unknown – if your appetite has been whetted for stories of love against the odds, check out these five films, inspired by the Bard’s enduring tale.

‘In the Heights’

The musical, which Lin-Manuel Miranda started to write when he was just 18, has been a successful stage show for years – winning four Tony Awards – and is one of the most hotly anticipated movies of 2021.

Set over the course of three days in the largely Dominican neighbourhood of Washington Heights in New York, the story follows Benny and Nina as they fall in love despite socio-economic differences as well as stubborn parents and siblings who are determined for their relationship to fail.

‘Warm Bodies’

Zombies might not be the first things that spring to mind when you think of Romeo and Juliet, but this 2013 film starring Nicholas Hoult has a forbidden love story at its heart… well, if it had a heart, because, you know, zombies.

While war rages between humans and zombies rather than Montagues and Capulets, a zombie named R (Hoult) rescues Julie (Teresa Palmer) from being eaten by a gang of the undead and falls in love with her. Naturally, her father Grigio (John Malkovich) won’t accept her unconventional relationship, while in true Mercutio style, R’s bestie, M (Rob Corddry), is on hand to provide loyalty and comedy moments.

William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet

Obviously the clue is right there in the title, and Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film starring Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio as the star-cross’d lovers remains one of cinema’s seminal takes on the love story.

Set in Verona Beach, California, the Montague and Capulet families are warring titans of industry, while the guns the families’ rival offspring wield are knowingly embossed with the words “Sword 9mm” and Mercutio’s gold “Dagger 9mm”.

The film made DiCaprio a household name – not to mention face – while the lauded soundtrack featured the lo-fi likes of The Cardigans and The Wannadies.

‘Romeo Must Die’

The late great R’n’B star Aaliyah’s film debut has remained a fan and critics' favourite since its release in 2000. Actor and martial arts star Jet Li plays the Romeo-esque Han Sing, while Aaliyah is his Juliet, Trish O’Day. This time cultures as well as families clash, as the pair’s love runs afoul of Chinese and American mobsters.

Chinese former policeman, Sing, the son of a powerful Triad boss goes to the US to avenge his brother’s death, but falls in love with O’Day, the daughter of an American mobster and his father’s bitter rival.

With the action transplanted to Oakland, California, the final fight between Sing and Kai (Russell Wong) is one for the cinematic martial arts history books.

‘Shakespeare in Love’

Essentially an origins story of the tragic tale, 1998’s Shakespeare in Love won seven of the 13 Oscars it was nominated for. This included a Best Actress gong for Gwyneth Paltrow, and a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for Judi Dench, despite her only being onscreen for eight minutes in total.

In an Inception-worthy meta move, Paltrow plays wealthy merchant’s daughter Viola De Lesseps, playing a man, playing Juliet at a time when women were not allowed to appear on stage. Joseph Fiennes plays the Bard, who takes on the role of Romeo for his stage production.

Cameos from Ben Affleck as Mercutio and Rupert Everett as Christopher “Kit” Marlowe (the playwright conspiracy theorists credit with being behind some of Shakespeare’s plays) do much with Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard's famously witty script.

Updated: April 18, 2021 11:13 AM

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