A Definitive List of the Best Shakespeare Film Adaptations
There’s nothing I miss more right now than live theater. At the start of the lockdown, I took advantage of the National Theater pro-shot productions that they released on YouTube. (Their production of Dream of a summer night starring Gwendoline Christie as Titania/Hippolyta is one of the storybooks.) St. Ann’s Warehouse has also made available to stream the all-female Shakespeare trilogy directed by Phyllida Lloyd. However, watching these theatrical productions from my apartment depressed me and made me miss the theater even more, so I turned to the cinematic universe of Shakespeare’s film adaptations.
William Shakespeare’s plays are almost all based on myths, history and other stories he brought to life with his fantastical lyrics – there are 410 film and television adaptations of his works. Many film adaptations of his work attempt to re-contextualize these plays into the contemporary moment, while others focus on making the plays as they were written in the “original” period. There are merits to both methods, but it’s not really a question of set design – it all depends on the strength of the actors. There are films set in modern times where an actor can deliver Shakespearean speeches in a deadly and boring way, and films set in Shakespearean times where the boring scenes come to life through a excellent acting and cinematography.
Although I’m a bit of a Shakespearean purist (in terms of language, no all-male cast elements), I think some of the best Shakespearean film adaptations just give Shakespeare “story by” credit and go into a completely different direction. The 90s and early 2000s were a great time for these kinds of adaptations that use Shakespeare as a launch pad, from Disney to steamy teen comedies. There are many interpretations for all types of fans. These films are perfect for a nostalgic viewing party or a missing theater type night.
Adaptations of Shakespeare in the original language
othello Directed by Trevor Nunn (1990)
Starring Willard White as Othello and Ian McKellen as Iago, it’s a must-watch production. Adapted from a stage version, it is very clearly a play that has been reformatted for television broadcast. They move the setting to Cyprus and all the characters look like they’re out of the American Civil War. If you’re like me and first found Ian McKellen as Gandalf and Magneto, it’s hugely exciting to see him as an intensely conniving villain. Sir Willard White is an equally electrifying actor who brings a nuanced performance to the role of Othello. What else can I say? British actors are generally very good at Shakespeare.
Romeo and Juliet Directed by Franco Zeffirelli (1968)
This version is set in the period of the original play and closely espouses the classical ideal of a Shakespearean production. However, it was somewhat of an outlier at the time as it was the first production to use teenage actors close to the age they were meant to portray, hence its high popularity among teenagers. Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey have incredible chemistry and speak the lines with a kind of ease that brings the film to life.
A lot of noise for nothing Directed by Joss Whedon (2012)
Although Whedon has steadily undermined his reputation over the past few years, this adaptation of “Much Ado” is still one of my favorites. Shot in black and white in 12 days, the film has an intimacy that is often missing when film productions go after period set design. Set in modern times with a cast of favorite actors from Firefly, avengersand angel, the film remains close to the original characters and language. Since the actors seem so comfortable with each other, it really feels like a weekend where everyone gets a little drunk and loose. There are very few uppercase A actors (aside from the one scene where it’s revealed Hero might have had sex), so it’s a perfect, comfortable couch watch.
Titus Directed by Julie Taymor (1999)
Shakespeare’s Bloodiest Revenge Play (Titus Andronicus) gets the surreal treatment from Julie Taymor. Starring Anthony Hopkins, Jessica Lange, Alan Cumming and a host of puppets, the film dwells on the generational trauma of war and how it engenders constant bloodshed, even off the battlefield. Taymor also plays with the presentation, confusing his audience about the time period and the setting. There’s no happy ending waiting at the end of this whole bloody affair, but it’s a good tragedy to watch on a dark and stormy night.
Shakespeare as a starting point
Had run Directed by Akira Kurosawa (1985)
If you’re in the mood for a cinephile, extra-drama, war-tragedy kind of movie, this is the one for you. Adapted from King Lear, Kurosawa’s interpretation has three sons who turn against their aging warlord father, Ichimonji Hidetora. Despite the gender swap, the story comes close enough to the tragic story of the original play. Kurosawa focuses on the horrors of war and the general chaos caused by power. The samurai imagery is hugely influential, too – it’s one of those films that rewards many watches, the way Shakespeare rewards rewatches.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead Directed by Tom Stoppard (1990)
Based on the play by Tom Stoppard, this film adaptation takes the perspective of supporting characters who die behind the scenes of Hamlet. If you’ve ever poked fun at Hamlet for having crazy plans and no sequel, this is probably the movie for you. Rosencrantz (Gary Oldman) and Guildenstern (Tim Roth) have big roles to play in Hamlet, but it’s mostly offstage. It’s an absurd take on Hamlet and the horror of existence in general. Most of what happens in the play happens between the Hamlet scenes from Rosencrantz’s and Guildenstern’s perspective, so it’s perfect for the real thing. Hamlet heads.
The Lion King Directed by Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff (1994)
This cartoon lion epic is definitive Hamlet 20th century interpretation. It may be exaggerated, but it is certainly one of the best known. Shifting the drama from Elsinore to the Pride Lands, the film begins with a little more explanation of the kingdom and why we should care about the death of Father Mufasa which spurs Simba into action, instead of starting by Hamlet’s depression. Jeremy Irons as Scar takes the character of Claudius in both hilarious and diabolical directions, and he explained more about his evil plan in the iconic song “Be Prepared.” For this adaptation they chose to focus primarily on family drama and avoid most of Hamlet’s failed plans in Simba’s journey – he fights Scar and the hyenas directly in the first place instead of testing Scar with a coin. (although I would have loved to see Simba put on a play to make Scar feel guilty and prove himself wrong).
She is the man Directed by Andy Fickman (2006)
twelfth night gets a fairly faithful adaptation in the form of this high school comedy. The cross-dressing premise leads to delightfully over-the-top explorations of boys versus girls, especially in Amanda Bynes’ performance as Viola Hastings. That movie that helped Channing Tatum rise as Duke Orsino, which does a big favor. Viola poses as her brother Sebastian for two weeks in order to play football in Illyria, and her rise to popularity as her brother is also quite fun and campy. In the end, the fact is that Viola can not only play football as well as boys, but also being a boy for a little while has helped her feel more comfortable as a girl.
10 things i hate about you Directed by Gil Junger (1999)
This reinvention of The Taming of the Shrew is much easier and more enjoyable to watch than just reading the play. Patrick Verona (Health Ledger) is a much nicer and likable version of Petruchio, and Kat (Julia Stiles) has more adventures and explanations about what she wants and who she is outside of her relationship and her life. prickly personality. It’s a teenage classic for good reason, with some good nerd jokes from Shakespeare.
There are so many adaptations of Shakespeare that you could make lists ranking adaptations of individual plays and occupy yourself for months. What’s frustrating about Shakespeare’s film adaptations is that they’re still pretty white and heterosexual. Experimental theater tends to push Shakespeare’s gendered and racial boundaries. It’s fairly easy for a small theater company to put together a diverse, prop-free production of a Shakespeare play, as they’re all in the public domain and don’t require licensing fees. As my dad always says, restraint is the soul of creativity, which is why so many of Shakespeare’s theatrical productions are fun. Movies help alleviate the lack of theatre. Shakespeare’s films are a different beast and require a fair amount of reimagining to function as movies instead of just filming parts, and there are so many to choose from. Although I didn’t include Kenneth Branagh on this particular list, all of his Shakespearean adaptations are extremely well done.
Now that William Shakespeare has received the COVID-19 vaccine, who knows, will the Shakespeare adaptations go? I imagine there will be an adaptation of Shakespeare in a quarantine house or pod where all the actors slowly degenerate into madness while saying the bard’s famous words. If you still have the Shakespeare itch, dive into his many amazing puns and a whole host of articles on Shakespeare’s great tales.