Best Shakespearean Film Adaptations

Filmmakers have been interpreting Shakespeare’s plays since the silent era, and they haven’t stopped since. The newest cinematic adaptation of Shakespeare, Joss Whedon’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” is getting a wide release this year. By the sound of the reviews, it sounds like it joins the ranks of the better Shakespeare adaptations. What follows will be a rundown of some of the best films based on Shakespeare, starring actors from Laurence Olivier to Orson Welles and Kenneth Branagh, who also directed the adaptations in which they starred. I’ve occasionally put two adaptations of one particular play together to show a contrast in adaptation. These films show the fascinating evolution of Shakespeare adaptation, how these films have changed from traditional productions to films which have transported Shakespeare’s language and characters to the modern day.

“Coriolanus” (2011)
Actor Ralph Fiennes makes his directorial debut with this adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s less famous plays. He also plays the title character, Caius Martius Coriolanus, the Roman general banished by his own people. The film uproots the play, placing it in a modern context, and Fiennes channels films like Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” in its depiction of war ravished city streets and buildings.

Fiennes makes a confident debut behind the camera and like many actors-turned directors he puts an emphasis on letting the performances from his actors breathe without being suffocated under visual style. He himself gives a commanding performance. Gerard Butler, as the Coriolanus’s rival Tullus Aufidius, with whom Coriolanus allies himself after being banished, also gives a surprisingly solid performance. Brian Cox is subtly affecting and fully rounded performance as Menenius Agrippa, a Roman senator and friend to Coriolanus. Vanessa Redgrave gained Oscar buzz for her portrayal as Coriolanus’s mother Volumnia, whom has a fiery military passion which rivals that of her son. Redgrave may give the best performance in the film, capturing Volumnia’s almost terrifying command over her son. The versatile Jessica Chastain also does strong work as Coriolanus’ wife Virgilia.

The film blends modern dress with the Shakespearean language very well.  I feel the play’s less iconic status among Shakespeare’s work makes it easier to accept the present day setting. Moreover, seeing these events in a modern context make its political themes and story even more relevant and fascinating to see unfold.

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“Chimes at Midnight” (1965)
Orson Welles’ film is an impressively lean amalgam of “Henry IV” Parts One and Two, with lines from “Henry V,” “Richard II” and “The Merry Wives of Winsor.”  The film puts a focus on the fat, boastful, and eventually tragic knight Sir John Falstaff, also played by Welles, who is a companion to Prince Hal, the future King Henry V. Welles, owning one of the greatest voices in cinema, is perfect as Falstaff, jovial and witty, but with a wisdom and sense of melancholy that accompanies his older age. While Welles is known for his big, some may say hammy, acting, his reaction to being rejected by Hal after he becomes king is one of Welles’ finest moments of acting, subtle and heartbreaking.

The battle sequence at Shrewsbury is one of the most amazingly staged battle scenes ever put on film, and still incredibly exciting almost fifty years later. Moreover, Welles’ camera angles and Edmond Richard’s cinematography throughout are thrilling to behold.

Unfortunately, due to legal disputes over the rights, “Chimes at Midnight” is not easily available on DVD/Blu ray, except through imported DVDs. It is on Youtube, where I watched it. Ideally, one day it can get a proper DVD/Blu ray release. Paging the Criterion Collection.

“Hamlet” (1948, 1996)
Laurence Olivier’s second cinematic adaptation of a Shakespeare play, after “Henry V” (1944), is the only Shakespearean adaptation to win the Best Picture Oscar at the Academy Awards. Olivier also won his one and only Oscar for playing Hamlet. The film is one of the most condensed and efficient adaptations of “Hamlet” on screen. Even at two and a half hours, the film glides through the action of the play. Oliver is eloquent as Hamlet, understanding that despite Hamlet’s sense of theatricality, he is also an inward character. Olivier uses voiceovers for a number of Hamlet’s soliloquies, creating a sense of psychological realism.

Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet is probably my favourite Shakespearean adaptation on screen. Branagh presents us the full uncut version of Shakespeare’s play. At over four hours, one would imagine this film would become a bore but Branagh’s cinematic sensibilities in adapting Shakespeare make this an exciting experience. Branagh departs from the gothic Denmark we associate with the play and presents the kingdom of Denmark as lavish and gorgeous. The set design of the film is amazing and Branagh shows it off in glorious 70MM (this is the last film to be shot in this format). This format harkens back to the days of the legendary epics such as David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962). The film does feel like an old fashioned epic in many ways, the type of film we rarely get nowadays. Branagh plays a Hamlet less subdued than Olivier but it’s nevertheless an effective performance. There’ an amazing roster of actors supporting Branagh as well: Julie Christie came out of retirement to play Hamlet’s mother Gertrude. Derek Jacobi is Hamlet’s uncle and step father, Claudius, Kate Winslet is Ophelia, and Brian Blessed plays the ghost of Hamlet’s father. There are also some surprising cameos from Jack Lemmon, Billy Crystal and Robin Williams. The film is ambitious and as rewarding as Shakespearean adaptations get.    

“Henry V” (1944, 1989)
Made during WWII, Laurence Olivier’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s history play, in which Olivier also plays the ambitious King Henry who, believes he has a legal right to its thrown, invades France. Olivier’s motivation for making the film was to support the British troops. The film, the first Shakespearean adaptation shot Technicolor, is a bright and colorful adaptation, suiting the positivity Olivier wanted to exude towards the troops. The beginning of the film is ingenious: Olivier stages the opening scene as if it’s a production of the play during Shakespeare’s time in the Globe theatre. We even see what’s going on backstage and witness Olivier getting ready to go on stage, coughing before he goes out. Olivier gives yet another masterful portrayal, playing Henry as strong but vulnerable underneath the surface

Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 film is essentially the “gritty reboot” of Olivier’s film, more morally grey and visually gloomier. Branagh’s first foray in to filming Shakespeare, it led the way for his Hamlet as well as Much Ado About Nothing (1993). The film is a visceral, dynamic and emotionally resonant adaptation, with Branagh in a star making performance that’s gripping and emotionally raw.

“Julius Caesar” (1953)
Marlon Brando, who had achieved fame for his portrayal of Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” on stage and on film, was a surprising choice for the role of Marc Antony in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s film. Brando defies expectations and handles the Shakespearean dialogue marvellously, giving what may be the best performance in the film; and when the cast includes actors such as James Mason and John Gielgud, that’s no small feat.

“Macbeth” (1971)
Roman Polanski’s film of Shakespeare’s tragedy is one of the creepiest and unsettling adaptations of Shakespeare I’ve ever seen. Only a director like Polanski, the man behind the horror classics “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Repulsion,” could tap in to the frightening atmosphere of Shakespeare’s play, making what is essentially a psychological horror film. One thing I love about this film is the grit and griminess of its look, which is due to its location shooting in Wales and Gil Taylor’s cinematography. We feel like we’re back in 13th century Scotland, while simultaneously aware of being in a heightened reality. The Scotland in this film is a land of beauty but also of terror.

While the film sometimes relies too much on voiceover, it makes sense given that this play is about desires and fears which cannot be spoken. Jon Finch, who would go on to star in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Frenzy,” makes a compelling Macbeth, convincing as both a battle-hardened soldier and a man driven to treason and murder. Francesca Annis also gives a chilling performance as Lady Macbeth. She does the famous sleepwalk scene in the nude (Tuesday Weld was apparently Polanski’s first choice for the role but didn’t want to do the scene nude), which can be taken as gratuitous but does add a certain vulnerability and to the character, as well as externalizing her psychological nakedness.

Polanski gives us an interesting interpretation of the character Ross (John Stride). In the play Ross is an insignificant figure but in the film he is a scheming opportunist who becomes Macbeth’s henchman. He is the third murderer in the scene where Banquo (Martin Shaw) is killed and Polanski makes it clear that he leaves the door open at Macduff’s (Terence Bayler) home for the assassins to kill Macduff’s family. Polanski also provides a much more cynical ending, where Malcolm’s brother, Donalbain, seeks out the witches that spoke to Macbeth and Banquo, presumably to overthrow his brother from the throne. The ending suggests the circularity of violence, “blood will have blood.”

This film’s graphic violence and nihilistic tone is said to have been inspired by the murder of Polanski’s wife Sharon Tate by Charles Manson and his followers, years earlier. And the scene where Macduff’s house is ransacked was reportedly based on Polanski’s memories of SS soldiers barging in to his home when he was a child. The fact that Polanski brought such traumatic personal experience in to the making of the film is what I feel makes it such a disturbing and powerful film.

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“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (1935)
Max Reinhardt brought his famous stage production of Shakespeare’s comedy to the screen in 1935, co-directed by Reinhardt and William Dieterle, and the result is a film that perfectly captures the charm and magic of Shakespeare’s play. The film has an all star cast.  Olivia de Havilland, only 18 and gorgeous, is a vision as Hermia. Dick Powell is said to be miscast as Hermia’s lover, Lysander, but he’s an interesting choice that works for the tone of this film. In a surprising casting choice, James Cagney, known for his gangster role in “The Public Enemy,” is Bottom. Cagney’s performance in this film reveals his versatility as an actor. He wonderfully invokes Bottom’s overzealous but lovable enthusiasm. A young Mickey Rooney, as the mischievous fairy Puck, is unfortunately pretty annoying, which is a shame since he seems pretty in to the role. The special effects that create the fairy dance when we’re first introduced to the forest world, still look marvelous today and the film overall has good sense of pace, energetic and funny.

 “Othello” (1966) – Laurence Olivier plays Othello, the moor of Venice, in this film, which is a recreation of the National Theatre of Great Britain’s stage production. Olivier’s performance is troubling for our modern sensibilities since Oliver is essentially playing Othello in black face. But if one is able to look past the out datedness of a white actor playing Othello, Olivier’s performance is transcendent, going beyond simply being great and reaching a painful sublimity. Some may decry the performance as “hammy” or “over the top” but it’s rare when an actor can completely transform himself for a role and go so emotionally large with a performance.

As I mentioned earlier, this is a recreation of the stage production in which Olivier performed the role. The film, as Olivier notes in a vintage behind the scenes featurette found on the DVD, is an experiment in bringing the experience of live theatre to film. The sets and the staging of scenes do give one the feeling of watching a play- but thankfully the film never feels too stagy. While it’s not the most cinematic Shakespeare adaptation, thanks to Oliver and the other cast members which include Frank Finlay as the scheming Iago and a shockingly young Maggie Smith as Desdemona, the film has a fiery passion that makes it a compelling film.

“Ran” (1985)
Arguably the definitive “King Lear” on screen, despite not using a word of Shakespeare’s text, director Akira Kurosawa creates an emotionally painful but cinematically invigorating adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies. Tatsuya Nakadai plays Lord Hidetora Ichimonjei who, like Lear, banishes his honest son while his two other sons conspire against him. The centerpiece of his film, a siege on the castle in which Hidetora is hiding from his sons, is a masterpiece of filmmaking unto itself and rest of the film, actually storyboarded as paintings by Kurosawa years before the film was even made, is masterful cinema throughout.

“Richard III” (1955, 1995)
These two adaptations show a unique contrast in regards to adaptation. Laurence Olivier’s 1995 film, in which he also plays the title role, is a classically staged production whereas Richard Loncrane’s 1995 film, starring Ian McKellen as Richard, updates the play to a fictional fascist 1930s England. Olivier knew how to make Shakespeare cinematic and accessible to a modern audience – he uses the close-ups to effectively draw the audience in to Richard’s Machiavellian scheming and really make us feel Richard is talking to us, even more so than in a theatre. His performance is magnificent. As with Othello, he completely transforms himself in to the character-evil yet charming and entertaining, a man both deformed in body and spirit.

The 1930s setting in Lonchrane’s film allows the concept of Kings and Queens to still make sense and the film is one of the best examples of how to effortlessly blend a modern setting with Shakespearean dialogue.  McKellen, an accomplished Shakespearean actor, is mightily entertaining and funny as Richard. Similar to Olivier’s film, the use of close-ups makes us feel a part of Richard’s scheming. Setting the film in the 1930s draws comparisons between Hitler and Richard, particularly when Richard is crowned king. Richard’s appearance also brings to mind Hitler. Thankfully these comparisons aren’t too on the nose. Side note: It’s funny to see to see Robert Downey Jr. make an appearance in this since both McKellen and Downey would go on to play characters from Marvel comics, with McKellen playing Magneto and Downey Tony Stark/Iron Man.

“Romeo and Juliet”/”Romeo + Juliet
(1968, 1996) – As with the two Richard III films, these adaptations of Romeo and Juliet provide an intriguing contrast between a classical  staging of the play and a more modern update. Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 film gained publicity when he cast two young unknowns, Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey as the two star crossed lovers who take their lives. This was the first film production of the play to cast actors who were close to the young lovers’ actual ages. Hussey was 16 at the time of filming and Whiting was 17. The choice to cast these two actors paid off wonderfully. Both Hussey and Whiting handle the Shakespearean language beautifully and convey the instantaneous love Romeo and Juliet share. They’re also supported by a fine supporting cast including John McEnery and Pat Heywood in scene stealing performances as Mercutio and Juliet’s Nurse, respectively.

Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film not updated the play to a modern setting, that of but injected it with a shot of adrenaline. The film is practically breathless, only taking a breath, suitably, when it’s focusing on the scenes between Romeo and Juliet. Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, noticeably not accustomed to the Shakespearean dialogue, nevertheless give earnest performances that gain our sympathies. Danes has probably never looked as beautiful and DiCaprio gives a performance that’s appropriately James Dean-esque. Luhrmann’s flamboyant and spastic visual style occasionally suffocates the material but the film is still a fascinating and energetic experiment in adaptation.

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Throne of Blood (1957)
Just as how Akira Kurosawa’s “Ran,” is possibly the greatest cinematic adaptation of “King Lear,” his film “Throne of Blood” is arguably the greatest cinematic adaptation of Macbeth. It’s also another pairing between Akira Kurosawa and the amazing Toshiro Mifune. Kurosawa and Mifune rank as one of the great actor/director collaborations in film, working together on films such as “Rashomon,” “Yojimbo,” its sequel “Sanjuro,” and “Seven Samurai.” In this film Mifune plays the Macbeth role of Takeoti Washizu, a general in feudal Japan, who on the way home from battle, along with general Miki (Akira Kubo), meet a spirit in the forest who tells their future, which leads to Washizu murdering his way to becoming Lord.

Like Polanski, Kurosawa perfectly invokes the spooky atmosphere of Shakespeare’s play. The scene where Washizu and Miki meet the forest spirit is one of the creepiest things I’ve ever seen in a movie. Mifune, as always, gives a titanic performance- and I have to admit, I love his demise in this film more than in the original play. Washizu’s own men turn against him and he is confronted with a barrage of arrows in virtuoso sequence that’s amongst the greatest sequences Kurosawa has ever filmed.

“Titus” (1999)
Julie Taymor’s film is one of the most completely cinematic and visually striking adaptations of Shakespeare I have seen. Taymor directed The Lion King on Broadway in 1997 and a production of Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus” years earlier in 1994. This eventually led to her making her film debut with another adaptation of “Titus Andronicus,” simply titled “Titus”.

Some literary critics, such as Harold Bloom, have dismissed Titus Andronicus, with Bloom stating it seemed to him a parody of fellow playwright Christopher Marlowe’s tragedies, with Shakespeare trying to exorcize any influence Marlow had over his own art artistic identity. Taymor, however, has said she feels that of all Shakespeare’s plays, Titus Andronicus” is the most relevant for a modern era. The film even begins in a modern day kitchen, with the young Lucius (Osheen Jones), Titus’s grandson playing with his toys violently. The kitchen is then bombed, with Lucius being carried out by a soldier through a door in to a Roman coliseum.  The events of the play are seen through his eyes. Lucius witnesses much violence conducted by his family and their enemies against each other. By the end of the film he is one of the only characters left alive, making him a beacon of hope for a more peaceful future. Taymor’s interpretation of the play, particularly regarding the role of Lucius, gives it a real humanity that can usually be lost amongst all the bloodshed.

Anthony Hopkins, who plays the Roman general Titus, almost quit acting due to the intensity of the role. He’s extremely compelling in the role. Jessica Lange is also deliciously evil in the role of Tamora, the Queen of the Goths- but it may be Harry Lennix who gives the best performance in the film as Aaron the moor, an evil but complex man who has a child with Tamora.

The film’s unique set design combines time periods, having ancient Rome as its backdrop but also featuring automobiles and other modern staples. Taymor is a visually expressive director and isn’t afraid to embrace the graphic violence of the play. And in the scene where Titus’s brother Marcus (Colm Feore) finds his niece Lavina (Laura Fraser) with her tongue cut out and hands chopped off, Taymor actually crafts an image both poetic and gruesome, just as Shakespeare would’ve liked it.

“Twelfth Night” (1996)
A delicately but lively directed adaptation of Shakespeare’s comedy, “Twelfth Night” stars Imogen Stubbs as Viola, who becomes shipwrecked on the shores of Illyria. Viola disguises herself as a man named Cesario and enters the service of Duke Orsino (Toby Stephens), who is in love with Olivia (Helena Bonham Carter). When Orsino sends Viola to tell Olivia of his love, Olivia falls in love with “Cesario.” Bonham Carter, in one of her less bizarre performances, is enchanting as Olivia and Stubbs is great being befuddled at the complications which arise due to her disguise. Stage director Trevor Nunn keeps things moving at a brisk pace and never tries to overplay the comedy, allowing it to subtly come through the actor’s performances.

Other notable adaptations: Grigori Kozintsev’s “Hamlet” and “King Lear,” Orson Welles’ “Macbeth” and “Othello,” Al Pacino’s documentary “Looking for Richard,” Fred M. Wilcox’s “Forbidden Planet,” a 1950s sci-fi film starring Leslie Nielsen that draws inspiration from “The Tempest,” Michael Radford’s “The Merchant of Venice” with Al Pacino and Jeremy Irons, Kenneth Branagh’s “Much Ado About Nothing.”

Andrew Davies
I'm a tiny Canadian who loves movies and William Shakespeare, and am an aspiring actor. I'm also a graduate of the Journalism Program at King's College as well as a grauate of Dalhousie University.

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