Ten Best Shakespeare Movie Adaptations

If you thought there wasn’t much more to Shakespeare than outdated English and dreary essays (the bane of your school days), then think again – The Bard is having his moment in the Hollywood spotlight. Joss Whedon’s recent Much Ado About Nothing caused a stir, Romeo & Juliet starring Hailee Steinfeld and Douglas Booth will be released soon, and the exciting news that Marion Cotillard will join Michael Fassbender in a new adaptation of Macbeth is still hot off the press. It is indeed a great time for Shakespeare in film, and to celebrate everything that’s going on, here’s a look back of some of the best Shakespearean film adaptations to date.

1) Coriolanus (2011)

(Image via Cinespect)

Critically praised and surging with adrenaline, Ralph Fiennes’ gritty adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s less commonly read plays is both smart and satisfying. Not only is this Fiennes’ directorial debut, but he also stars as the titular Roman warrior in an absolutely electrifying performance – you won’t want to take your eyes off him for even a second. Set in an alternate modern-day Rome, it raises questions regarding nature vs. nurture and man’s duty to the state, as opposed to his duty to himself. There’s action! There’s politics! There’s soliloquies and speeches! The question is, what doesn’t it have? The star-studded cast also features the fantastic Vanessa Redgrave as Coriolanus’ mother, Volumnia, and Jessica Chastain as Virgilia, his wife. Additionally, Gerard Butler appears as Coriolanus’ nemesis-turned-frenemy, Aufidius.

2) Hamlet (2009)

(Image via Telegraph)

In this award-winning modern dress production by the Royal Shakespeare Company, David Tennant stars as Hamlet, the moody Danish prince of “To be, or not to be?” fame. Recorded for adaptation into a TV film, it brings the classic story of vengeance from the stage straight to your screens. Although best-known as the tenth incarnation of “The Doctor” on Doctor Who, Tennant makes a manic and mercurial Hamlet, bringing a raw and terrifying energy to the role of a man tormented by indecision. Just listen to the way he hisses out those syllables. Patrick Stewart doubles as the ghost of Papa Hamlet and his murderer, Claudius. Meticulously filmed and carefully cut, as usual, the RSC does not disappoint. And here’s a fun, yet rather macabre fact: the skull used in the “Alas, poor Yorick!” scene is indeed a real human skull – it belonged to a Polish musician and composer named André Tchaikowsky. If that doesn’t drive home a message on mortality, then I don’t know what will.

3) Henry V (1944)

(Image via Folger Shakespeare Library)

Laurence Olivier’s famous and beloved Henry V was created during the second World War to boost English morale, and it served its purpose well. Extravagant, heroic, and optimistic, Olivier’s triumphant adaptation is a pure joy to watch and truly feels like a little cinematic treat – this is a good one to watch when you’re feeling down in the dumps. Deliberately cartoon-like settings and backdrops make it look as if a medieval book of hours has magically come to life, and Olivier, one of the greatest Shakespearean actors of all time, shines so magnificently as King Henry that you almost forget how ridiculous that (historically accurate) bowl-cut hairstyle looks. This is rather a happy and cheery version of the play, with Henry’s capacity for cruelty carefully cut out as he leads his troops to victory against the French. Don’t be surprised if you feel like taking up arms and skipping off to join Henry by time the movie is over.

4) Henry V (1989)

(Image via Cineplex)

Like Olivier, Kenneth Branagh also presents a rousing rendition of the heroic English king in what is widely considered to be one of the greatest performances of his career. Branagh received Academy Award nominations for both Best Director and Best Actor. In contrast to Olivier’s adaptation, here we actually see Henry getting down and dirty – often quite literally. Exciting, ambitious, and impressive, this is a film that anyone, fan of Shakespeare or not, simply has to see. Branagh proves wildly charismatic, as Henry should be, and the film also features several other well-known names, including Derek Jacobi, Judi Dench, Robbie Coltrane, and Emma Thompson. Oh, and if you look carefully, you’ll see a young Christian Bale, too.

5) Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

(Image via Classic FM)

If you have a thing for idyllic romance, then this will be right up your alley. Directed by and starring – once again – Kenneth Branagh, the film is also packed with tons of other famous faces, such as Emma Thompson, Denzel Washington, Keanu Reeves, Kate Beckinsale, Robert Sean Leonard (Dr. Wilson, for those of you who are fans of House), and Michael Keaton. While perhaps not as stylish as Joss Whedon’s recent take, it’s still a relaxing, delightful little film that’s perfect with a glass of wine on a pleasant summer afternoon. In this romantic comedy of witty banter and cheeky laughs, Branagh and Thompson as Benedick and Beatrice take “playing hard to get” to the next level and are a movie match made in heaven. In fact, when the movie was being filmed, they were married in real life! Watching Keanu Reeves scheme, skulk, and slink about as the evil Don John is also a good bit of fun.

6) The Hollow Crown: Richard II (2012)

(Image via PBS)

Last summer, BBC released an adaptation of the Henriad plays in a series of four TV films known as The Hollow Crown: Richard II, Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2, and Henry V. However, the first of the four proved to be, well, the brightest jewel in the crown, snatching up several BAFTA awards, including a Leading Actor win for Ben Whishaw. And indeed Whishaw, who you may know as tech genius Q in Skyfall, gives an unforgettable performance as the doomed king. He captures the essence of Shakespeare’s Richard perfectly: vain, petulant, and unstable, yet fragile, tragic, and strangely brave – a Richard we actually feel sorry for, despite his foolishness. Whishaw’s Richard is almost childlike at times, bringing forth the startling reality of just how young Richard actually was when he served as king. Poetic soliloquies and monologues are delivered with gut-wrenching precision and perfection as we see Richard fall from a man with everything at his fingertips to a king deposed, left to rot away in prison as he loses both the crown and his grip on reality. Joining Whishaw to round out a fantastic cast are Patrick Stewart himself as Richard’s uncle, John of Gaunt, and Rory Kinnear as Bolingbroke, the future Henry IV who returns from exile to overthrow Richard and claim the throne. Richard II is a play rarely adapted for film or TV, and when it’s finally done, it feels great to see it done right.

7) Romeo and Juliet (1968)

(Image via Digital Spy)

Although Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet is somewhat more popular among the younger crowd, Franco Zeffirelli’s take on the world’s most famous love story was the crowd-pleaser of its time. As elegant as it is romantic, it was nominated for several Academy Awards, including Best Director and Best Picture, although it only won in the areas of Best Cinematography and Best Costume Design. Leonard Whiting, who my friends swear could very well be Zac Efron’s doppelgänger, and Olivia Hussey play the young star-crossed lovers, with a fresh sense of innocence that you just can’t get from some other adaptations (ahem, Baz Luhrmann). Get your Kleenex ready – we all know how this one ends, but it doesn’t mean it’ll hurt any less.

8) Throne of Blood (1957)

(Image via Movie Mail)

A masterpiece by famed Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, Throne of Blood plucks the story of Macbeth out of the Scottish highlands and drops it into feudal Japan. Shrouded in mist and loomed over by a murder most foul, Throne of Blood is dark, unsettling, and sometimes a bit creepy – everything Macbeth ought to be – and the fact that it’s a black-and-white film seems to enhance the atmosphere even more. Toshiro Mifune gives an intense, riveting performance as “General Washizu,” the equivalent to Macbeth, a man lured into darkness by promises of greatness. Isuzu Yamada plays his scheming wife, “Asaji” – better known to the Western world as Lady Macbeth, a truly unforgettable character who is portrayed beautifully. Expertly crafted and completely engrossing from start to finish, Kurosawa’s classic is absolutely gripping and chills to the bone. The infamous arrow scene in particular is a highlight.

9) The Taming of the Shrew (1967)

(Image via Cinelogue)

If it’s a spectacle you’re looking for, then this is it. Big egos in even bigger costumes clash in the forms of the legendary Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Echoing their tempestuous real-life relationship, Burton swaggers across the screen as Petruchio, a man determined to “tame” the infamously ill-tempered Kate, played by Taylor. Some describe Franco Zeffirelli’s bold adaptation as “the motion picture they were made for,” and their chemistry is indeed electrifying. Lushly decorated sets and gorgeous costume designs make for a sumptuous and satisfying viewing experience. The Taming of the Shrew has long been criticized as being a misogynistic story, and the film’s controversial marketing campaign did nothing to help matters, but if we take it for what it is at its core – a richly made comedy dealing with the age-old battle of the sexes – then it is still a film worth watching and appreciating.

10) Ten Things I Hate About You (1999)

(Image via Construction Magazine)

If the thought alone of listening to hours of dialogue spoken in Elizabethan English already puts you to sleep, then fear not! There’s still something out there for you. This popular teenage comedy transposes the story of The Taming of the Shrew into a 90s high school environment. In what is to be considered their breakout roles, the late Heath Ledger plays Patrick (Petruchio), and Julia Stiles portrays Kat in a story full of high school drama and teenage antics. Though only loosely based on Shakespeare’s play, it’s a flick that’s both funny and easy on the brain. And anyway, sometimes it’s nice to reminisce about the 90s and our own high school days.

About Shannon Hsu

Shannon is a Communication & Theatre student, Shakespeare enthusiast, and film/TV addict who is terrible at video games. Twitter: @pooryoricks

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