The 5 Most Successful Blockbusters Based on Shakespeare

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The Highest-Grossing Shakespeare Movies

Romeo + Juliet
20th Century Fox

William Shakespeare’s life is traditionally celebrated on April 23 because the famed writer died on that day in 1616. Though the Bard of Avon has been dead for four hundred years, his incomparable body of work still influences all manner of entertainment, including movies. Some movies based on Shakespeare’s plays have gone on to be significant box office hits – even if audiences didn’t even realize that what they were watching was based on Shakespeare.

Unsurprisingly, many of the highest-grossing Shakespeare movies are based on Romeo and Juliet, the Bard’s play most familiar to general audiences. The tragedy’s universal plot of star-crossed lovers is easy for filmmakers to adapt into different films. The following five movies (plus an honorable mention) are the highest-grossing films based on Shakespeare’s work at the worldwide box office.

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Honorable Mention: 'Shakespeare in Love' (1998) - $289.3 million

Shakespeare in Love
Miramax

Though not a direct adaptation of a William Shakespeare play, the 1998 romantic comedy Shakespeare in Love tells a fictionalized story about how the struggling playwright William Shakespeare was inspired by his romantic pursuits to write Romeo and Juliet. In addition to Romeo and Juliet, the film is filled with references to many of Shakespeare's other famous works. Shakespeare in Love was a major box office success and won seven Oscars at the 71st Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

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'Romeo Must Die' (2000) - $91 million

Romeo Must Die
Warner Bros.

The 2000 action film Romeo Must Die, starring Jet Li and the late pop star Aaliyah, added a racial element to the feuding families of Romeo and Juliet by casting the Montague family as members of a Chinese American gang and the Capulet family as members of a rival African American gang. The actual film uses very little of Shakespeare's plot, and is obviously far more violent than Romeo and Juliet. Still, the title gives away the influence of Shakespeare even if the Bard didn't receive on-screen credit for the story.

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'Warm Bodies' (2013) - $116.9 million

Warm Bodies
Summit Entertainment

Although most viewers probably didn't notice it at first, the 2013 zombie comedy Warm Bodies was based on Romeo and Juliet. The film is about a young male zombie (Nicholas Hoult) who falls in love with one of humanity's surviving young females (Teresa Palmer), though the girl's father rejects their developing relationship. The lead zombie is named "R" (Romeo), his best friend is named "M" (Mercutio), and R's love interest is named Julie to make all of the connections to Shakespeare's tragedy a little more obvious.

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'Romeo + Juliet' (1996) - $147.5 million

20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Director Baz Luhrmann's 1996 adaptation of Romeo and Juliet is the most successful "straight" adaptation of Shakespeare at the all-time box office. While the film departs from the original text by setting the story in then-modern day, it's the most successful movie to use Shakespeare's actual text.

Starring a young Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes as the titular characters, the film became a classic of 1990s stylistic cinema. 20 years after its release it remains popular with audiences and for many middle school teachers it is still the go-to version to show in their classrooms.

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'Gnomeo & Juliet' (2011) - $194 million

Gnomeo & Juliet
Touchstone Pictures

As if the title didn't already give it away, Gnomeo & Juliet is an animated movie that is based on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. James McAvoy (who previously played Romeo on stage and also appeared in an Indian adaptation of the play, Bollywood Queen) and Emily Blunt (who previously played Juliet on stage) provided the voices of Gnomeo and Juliet, who are members of the the families of feuding garden gnomes.

Shakespeare even "appears" in this adaptation as a statue in a park voiced by acclaimed Shakespearean actor Patrick Stewart. Unsurprisingly, this version of the story has a much happier ending and was a box office success. In fact, a sequel, titled Gnomeo & Juliet: Sherlock Gnomes, will be released in 2018. Based on the title, it's likely it won't have as much to do with Shakespeare as the original film did.

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'The Lion King' (1994) - $987.5 million

The Lion King
Walt Disney Pictures

While the ending of The Lion King is a whole lot happier than that of Hamlet, it's easy to see the parallels between arguably Shakespeare's greatest tragedy and the 1994 Disney animated classic. Both tell the story of a jealous brother of a king orchestrating the murder of his brother to seize the throne from the rightful ruler, the young prince, and the young prince's reluctance to take action. The creative team has remarked many times in features about The Lion King that Hamlet was a major influence on the screenplay.

Because The Lion King is one of the most successful movies of all time, The Lion King is by far the biggest box office hit that was influenced by a Shakespeare play. 

To think -- one of William Shakespeare's most enduring influences became a pride of cartoon lions!