15 of the Best Shakespeare Adaptations Ever Filmed

15 of the Best Shakespeare Adaptations Ever Filmed
Screenshot: Hamlet/Trailer, Fair Use

Joel Coen’s expressionistic new take on The Tragedy of Macbeth has been (at least) a modest hit, and certainly a buzzy critical success. It’s very hard to quantify success for a movie with a dual streaming and theatrical release strategy during a COVID uptick, but it seems that few people have complaints about its artistry.

Why is obvious: Just look at it!

In many ways, Coen’s interpretation takes it back to the basics. Though it’s visual style is explicitly expressionistic, with nods toward German silent films of the 1920s (and hints of Citizen Kane), that is but (gorgeous) set dressing that only serves to highlight the acting talent on display — with headliners Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand offering very different takes on a much older Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.

Like much of what Shakespeare wrote, the play has received at least a dozen major film adaptations. There’s a complexity to the best of his works that allows for daring reinterpretations, and a cheekiness that stands the test of time, provided you can plow through the lovely, if undeniably arcane, language. Here are 15 of the best cinematic takes on Shakespeare — most of which don’t stray too far from the original text, even when they offer us grand new visions of these great works.

Hamlet (1996)

In stark contrast to the grim expressionism of Joel Coen’s Macbeth, Kenneth Branagh’s glorious 1996 adaptation of Hamlet (a similarly dark play) eschews traditionally dour trappings in favour of sumptuous and colourful spectacle — without compromising the play’s themes one bit. The opulence even serves to emphasise the contrast between the luxury of Prince Hamlet’s environment and his gloomy inner world. Thecast, led by Branagh, Julie Christie, Derek Jacobi, and Kate Winslet, is a match for the Bard’s challenging material, and even a few slightly jarring cameos work surprisingly well (Billy Crystal is somehow a perfect fit as the First Gravedigger). What’s more, this is the complete text of Shakespeare’s longest work, a play generally truncated even on the stage — aside from being a helluva production, it might well be the only time you’ll encounter the melancholy Dane in full.

Romeo + Juliet (1996)

There are plenty of film adaptations of Romeo and Juliet, but few can claim to have captured the attention of pop culture in quite the same way. Following the critical success of Strictly Ballroom, but before Moulin Rouge!, this was Baz Luhrmann’s breakout, and signalled the arrival of a filmmaker with a very distinct vision and style. Using Shakespeare’s original dialogue (mostly), Luhrmann sets the action to a fantastical dreamscape of an American costal city, and amid a war between rival families who operate like a cross between corporations and street gangs. With frenetic music video editing and an oh-so-’90s soundtrack, the movie still looks and feels like nothing else, and certainly no other Shakespeare adaptation. All the visual flair in the world wouldn’t save it if the performers were’t up to it but, there’s a reason it cemented the superstar status of both Leo DiCaprio and Claire Danes.

Private Romeo (2011)

On the opposite end of the Shakespearean bling spectrum is this pared-down adaptation set at a modern, all-male military academy, amid the students of an English-lit class studying Romeo and Juliet. But that’s before the play itself takes over the narrative, and the lives of cadets Sam and Glenn. In one sense, it’s the most traditional of all filmed Shakespeare stagings — in that all of the characters are played by men. Here, the essential conflict turns not on obscure family rivalries, but on the homophobic reactions of their classmates. It’s a stagey, but sweet, take on the source material — the sincerity of the production and solid lead performances sell it.

Hamlet (1948)

Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet soars, in part, due to its visual beauty, contrasting its protagonist’s seething anger with his opulent surroundings. Laurence Olivier’s 1948 adaptation works on a very different level, with Hamlet’s interior world taking over the production, the darkness of his thoughts seeming to bleed through to all of Denmark. It’s a gloomy and claustrophobic take that masterfully captures the sense of walls closing in; we’re following Hamlet down into the darkness. The film also brings the play’s oedipal subtext to the forefront in Hamlet’s interactions with his mother, Gertrude, here played by a Eileen Herlie — an actor 11 years younger than Olivier.

Ran (1985)

This was the third of Akira Kurosawa’s (relatively loose) Shakespeare adaptations, after The Bad Sleep Well, a retelling of Hamlet as a crime drama set in postwar Japan; and Throne of Blood, a feudal-era period piece based on Macbeth. Each is a masterpiece, but neither tops Ran for sheer visual spectacle — nor for the emotional impact of the seething rage and quiet sadness that permeates the film. By the time the movie was released, Kurosawa was 75, nearly blind, and had suffered a number of personal tragedies. While he was still respected in international circles, he was seen as an outdated art-house director in his home country. Financing for the movie took years to gather, but the result is an epic triumph — a movie considered by many to be Kurosawa’s best, and the director’s own personal favourite.

Maqbool (2003)

Vishal Bhardwaj’s first in a trilogy of Shakespeare adaptations is, probably, his best, transplanting Macbeth to modern-day Mumbai and setting the action among gangsters and criminals. The great Irrfan Khan stars as the title character in a film that captures the twisty power politics of the original play while also demonstrating the essential flexibility (and internationality) of Shakespeare’s themes.

Richard III (1995)

There’s an entire branch of historical inquiry dedicated to the proposition that Richard III wasn’t nearly as bad as his reputation suggests. Along with the mystery of the deaths of the princes in the tower under his watch, perceptions of him throughout history have certainly been coloured by Shakespeare (even as the last medieval king’s legacy is under more recent scrutiny, as a result of the recent rediscovery of his remains under a parking lot in Leicester). That’s all to say that Shakespeare isn’t history, and Shakespeare movies, even less so — though I suspect he got more of Richard III’s character right than some would care to admit. This film version, based on a Royal National Theatre production that also starred Ian McKellen, moves the action to the 1930s during that era’s craze for fascism, drawing direct lines between the time of Richard, Shakespeare’s own 16th century, the Nazi era, and the present day, making the case that we’re never nearly as advanced as we think we are, nor as immune to the pull of a charismatic leader as we might want to believe.

Henry V (1989)

Back to Kenneth Branagh (and not for the last time) with his first Shakespeare adaptation, one that opened to nearly universal acclaim (and scored him Oscar nominations for both Best Actor and Best Director). What Branagh brings to Shakespeare on film, other than his own accomplishments as a theatre actor, is a gritty, period-film realness. Here, he memorably stages the Battle of Agincourt in the mud and muck, sending his characters home covered in filth and blood. Unlike even some of the strongest earlier adaptations, this one moves firmly and thrillingly from stage to screen.

Chimes at Midnight (1965)

Based on: Henry IV (Parts 1 & 2), Henry V, Richard II, and The Merry Wives of Windsor

In a very modern sense, Sir John Falstaff was a breakout character for Shakespeare, a bit of drink-addled comic relief and occasional buffoonery who, nonetheless, inspired a degree of affection and sympathy from audiences that belied his second-tier status among the plays’ dramatic personae. Orson Welles, who knew a thing or two about betrayal, tragedy, and boozy excess, was drawn to Falstaff from early on in his life and career — his first attempt at a Shakespearean mash-up of the various plays featuring the character began when he was a student in 1930. Decades later, he managed it, reconfiguring and reworking the original texts in order to shine a spotlight on Falstaff (played by Welles, naturally) while still telling the story he wanted to tell. It’s an impressive alternate take on the original works, with a visual flair that culminates in an iconic and much-emulated battle sequence.

(Tom Stoppard’s 1990 film Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, while moving further away from the Bard and deeper into satire than Welles cared to, is another quite good take on Shakespearean sidekicks.)

Julius Caesar (1953)

A fascinating melding of classic Hollywood (on the cusp of the modern era) and the Bard, this very American production largely plays it straight, providing a sumptuous, big-budget take on Julius Caesar with an array of marquee actors who, in some cases surprisingly, get it right. Naturalist Marlon Brando still seems like an odd choice for the lead; Shakespeare’s formalism and the need to hit each word just right conflict with Brando’s heightened naturalism. Still, he makes clear here why he was, at least for a time, one of film’s very finest actors, giving a rousing performance as Caesar that lends unexpected shading to the character. Contrast that with John Gielgud as Cassius; he was a master of a more classical performance style. Taken together, they’re a fascinating duo.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935)

Another earlier, all-star Hollywood production, this one was the brainchild of Jewish theatre director Max Reinhardt, who had only recently fled Nazi Germany. The cast list is aWho’s Who of the era’s stars: Olivia de Havilland, James Cagney, Mickey Rooney, Joe E. Brown — a combination of serious and comedic talents that probably wouldn’t have worked in anything but this, Shakespeare’s most playful play. It’s a gorgeously filmed and appropriately lusty adaptation, and the cast is having just the right amount of fun with it.

The Tempest (1979)

Filmmaker, activist, and gleeful provocateur Derek Jarman took on The Tempest in this 1979 production, moving the play’s setting forward — a bit — by adding Renaissance-era stylings, plus healthy doses of homoeroticism, camp, and horror. Jarman digs deep into the play’s sexual politics, but his style is so distinctive and unforgettable that it’s enjoyable enough for its pure spectacle.

Forbidden Planet (1956)

Based on: The Tempest

As Shakespeare adaptations go, this is about as loose as they come, with none of the playwright’s dialogue and an outer-space setting far removed from Prospero’s island. Rather than a sorcerous shipwreck, it’s a starship captained by Leslie Nielsen that finds itself lured to the home of Walter Pidgeon’s Dr. Morbius and his daughter, Alta. In place of servant Caliban, we get the fearsome (but generally more friendly) Robby the Robot, and Morbius’ power comes not from magic, but from ancient alien technology. Aside from being among the greatest of ‘50s era science fiction filmmaking, thought, the movie grapples with Shakespearean themes while layering in its own ideas about power and psychology.

Coriolanus (2011)

One of Shakespeare’s lesser-known, and therefore lesser-filmed plays, received a striking adaptation from star and director Ralph Fiennes back in 2011. While staying true to the original dialogue, Fiennes’ version sets the story in the present, in a war-torn Eastern European country (it was filmed largely in Serbia and Montenegro). As in the original, Coriolanus is fascinating for how he breaks the mould of many of Shakespeare’s introspective anti-heroes: We’re not privy to much of his inner monologue, so we’re left to judge him by his actions alone. Fiennes’ innovation is the setting and the explicit action — suggested in the text of the play, but rarely dramatized in this way. As always, the stylistic choices are only as valuable as the performances that support them, and so Fiennes, Vanessa Redgrave, and Brian Cox were fine choices.

Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

There’s a joyfulness here that’s often so often missing from Shakespeare adaptations (and, let’s be honest: from Shakespeare in general; his comedies are often defined by their slightly lower body counts). Branagh and Emma Thompson are as good a romantic comedy pairing as just about any in Hollywood history, and the Tuscan setting is gloriously sunny and cheering. There are dramatic moments, naturally, but it’s all in service of making us cheer for Shakespeare’s best, and most equally matched, couple.

Much Ado About Nothing (2019)

I’ve avoided TV adaptations, for the most part, since they’re generally filmed stage productions and slightly outside the theme here. Still, consider this a bonus that brings us (very nearly) right up to date. This Kenny Leon-directed, Shakespeare in the Park production captures all the joy of the original and then some, interpreting Shakespeare’s dialogue from the angle of a group of family and friends gathering at a modern Atlanta house. Lead by Tony nominee and Orange is the New Black star Danielle Brooks, the production and its performers make clear there’s much still to be mined from these texts through genuinely engaging with the material, rather than by falling back on centuries of expectations about what it means to speak Shakespeare.

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