Much Ado About Nothing
The Samuel Goldwyn Company

Shakespeare on Screen: The Best Adaptations of the Bard

All the world's a soundstage... at least when you're filming an adaptation of Shakespeare. These are the best, most enduring films based on his timeless plays.
Author
Article Tags
Share
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on reddit
Share on pinterest
The Latest
Tonic Topics
Join the Convo on Facebook!

Just over four centuries after his death, the world is still obsessed with the works of William Shakespeare. He could never have dreamed that one day, his plays would be performed by actors on film instead of the stage—but I think he would have gotten a kick out of it. After all, Shakespeare always meant for his work to be viewed by people of all classes and backgrounds. That’s one of the reasons there are so many puns and dirty jokes; you’ve got to keep the groundlings entertained.

These are the very best Shakespeare adaptation ever recorded on film, from the early days of motion picture history to the present.

Titus (1999)

Anthony Hopkins seems to be having the time of his life as the title character in Julie Taymor’s adaption of Titus Andronicus. This marks the first time the play was ever adapted to film, and unfortunately, audiences weren’t very interested in seeing a movie based on a play they’d never heard of. Titus was a box-office bomb and divided critics, but I think the stylish brutality, sinister spectacle, and gallows humor make this one worthy of our list.

Julius Caesar (1953)

Marlon Brando stars as Marc Anthony in this lavish Hollywood production of Julius Caesar alongside James Mason, John Gielgud, Greer Garson, and Deborah Kerr. It was an ambitious, and in many ways uniquely American production, in contrast to Laurence Olivier’s string of Shakespearean adaptations. Brando isn’t the best actor to ever try his hand at Marc Anthony’s forum speech, but he delivers it with his trademark fiery passion.

Romeo + Juliet (1996)

Bas Luhrman’s over-the-top adaptation of Romeo and Juliet made Shakespeare cool for a whole generation, thanks to the stylish direction, modern Los Angeles setting, and cast stacked with young, beautiful people. Oh, and don’t forget the absolutely incredible soundtrack! Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes might have gotten top billing, but Harold Perrineau is the MVP of the production as Mercutio.

King Lear (1971)

King Lear is one of Shakespeare’s bleakest plays, but Peter Brook’s 1971 film adaptation cranks it up to 11. Paul Scofield stars as the aged king in this production, which was heavily influenced by the work of Samuel Beckett. It transforms the familiar play into something nightmarish, and critics were divided as to whether it was a triumph or a farce. In other words, your mileage may vary.

Henry V (1944)

Laurence Olivier’s passion for Shakespeare is unmatched in theater history, but I’m not sure that his command of the stage always translated successfully to the screen. His Hamlet is a stark, reserved masterpiece in black and white, but his Technicolor Henry V is a true film spectacle. The fact that you can take Henry seriously with that haircut is a testament to his skill.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935)

Doesn’t it seem like we’re due for a new adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with modern CGI effects? In 1935, they had to make do practical effects and camera trickery. Even though it’s almost 90 years old, there’s still something magical about this production. Like many of the adaptations on this list, it bombed at the box office and was only later appreciated.

Richard III (1995)

Ian McKellen is impossible to ignore in his version of Richard III, which sees the play transported 450 years to the 1930s, where Richard is a fascist hoping to put England under his boot. The supporting cast includes Annette Benning, Jim Broadbent, Kristen Scott Thomas, Maggie Smith, and Robert Downey Jr. McKellen adapted the screenplay from his National Theatre stage production, along with director Richard Loncraine. Although it was nominated for a slew of awards and hailed as a triumph by critics, it was a box-office disappointment.

Read More: Demystifying the ‘Lord of the Rings’ Timeline

The Bad Sleep Well (1960)

Akira Kurosawa knew his way around a Shakespeare play, but while Throne of Blood (based on Macbeth)might be better known, The Bad Sleep Well is arguably superior. The Bad Sleep Well is based on Hamlet, translating the familiar play to a setting that Shakespeare could only have imagined. The film takes place in contemporary Japan and stars Toshiro Mifune, delivering a performance that’s full of rage and paranoia.

Henry V (1989)

While Laurence Olivier is usually hailed as the greatest modern Shakespearean actor, Kenneth Branagh certainly gives him a run for his money. He and his then-wife Emma Thompson star in this straightforward adaptation of Shakespeare’s history. While this isn’t their best film together—more on that one later—there’s a charming earnestness in the 1989 Henry V. Despite adapting the same play, there’s a totally different vibe here compared to Olivier’s film.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1990)

If you want to nitpick, then Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is technically not a Shakespeare adaptation. The original play is by Tom Stoppard, but it’s built around two minor characters from Hamlet. The film is funny and weird, following the hapless characters as they’re caught up on the fringes of Shakespeare’s famously bloody tragedy. Gary Oldman and Tim Roth play the main characters, and they’re delightful.

Romeo & Juliet (1968)

Every generation deserves its Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare’s most popular play asks only for two young actors with sizzling chemistry, and Franco Zefferelli certainly found that in Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting. The camera loved these fresh-faced, doomed teenagers. Zefferelli also adapted The Taming of the Shrew with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, as well as the 1991 Hamlet starring Mel Gibson (for some reason). This is by far his best.

Forbidden Planet (1956)

Shakespeare and science fiction might not seem like a good fit at first, but The Tempest is his strangest play and very open to interpretation. Leslie Nielsen and Anne Francis star in this sci-fi romp—and yes, the scrolling text at the beginning of the trailer reminds you of Star Wars. This is a very, very loose adaptation of The Tempest, and the film doesn’t even credit Shakespeare as an inspiration. Forbidden Planet was hugely influential in the sci-fi genre—and it proves that the stories and themes from Shakespeare are timeless.  

Macbeth (2015)

It’s tough to find an adaptation of “The Scottish Play” that gets it right. This version, starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, is a marvelously bleak film. It’s both violent and beautiful, and it features Fassbender’s finest performance. I’ll just say it: He’s cinema’s best Macbeth. Sadly, it bombed at the box office like so many Shakespeare adaptations. I blame generations of boring high school English classes.

10 Things I Hate About You (1999)

10 Things I Hate About You is the spiritual successor to Clueless, breathing fresh life in a stuffy old classic. If you haven’t seen this adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew, then clearly, you didn’t grow up in the 90s. Unlike almost every movie on this list, 10 Things I Hate About You was a success at the box office and helped launch the careers of Julia Stiles, Heath Ledger, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

Read More: Ranking Jane Austen’s Heroines From Worst to Best

Coriolanus (2011)

Coriolanus isn’t one of Shakespeare’s best-known plays; in fact, it had never been adapted for the screen before 2011. Ralph Fiennes delivers a riveting performance in the film, which he also directed. It’s also a welcome reminder of what a powerful actor Gerard Butler can be when given the right material. The action is transposed to the Balkans during wartime, but the dialogue remains largely unchanged from Shakespeare’s Roman tragedy.

Chimes at Midnight (1965)

https://youtu.be/OAs2bL4Sasw

The debate about the best Shakespearean actor on film usually comes down to Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh. But don’t discount Orson Welles. His lifelong passion for Shakespeare led to Chimes at Midnight, a comedy-drama that follows the character of Falstaff across the events of Henry IV, Parts 1 & 2, along with Richard II, Henry V, and The Merry Wives of Windsor.  Although Welles has been lionized for Citizen Kane, he considered this film to be his best work.

The Lion King (1994)

https://youtu.be/mzABW42AIhM

Yeah, that’s right: The Lion King is an adaptation of Hamlet. And wouldn’t the original play have been all the more captivating if there’d been a singing meerkat and warthog? Honestly, though, this is a pretty good version of Hamlet. The film lowers the body count, of course, and replaces poor mad Ophelia with a headstrong young lioness. Though only loosely inspired by the play, you can nonetheless trace several of the major plotlines back to the Bard.

Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

Finally, we have Much Ado About Nothing, which boasts one of the most attractive casts ever assembled. Denzel Washington in leather pants! An oiled-up Keanu Reeves! Kate Beckinsale in her first major film role! It’s a beautiful and joyful film with a deeply melodramatic plot. Everybody onscreen is having a wonderful time and delivers Shakespeare’s dialogue with ease. Plus, it’s legitimately funny. The tragedies and histories might get all the awards recognition, but for me, this is the best and most enjoyable Shakespeare adaptation. Audiences at the time agreed with me, as it’s also one of the most profitable films on this list, too.