Shakespeare. It’s the most famous name in the English language, ringing proudly out across the British Isles. From his first works on stage around the 1590s to Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing in 2012, Shakespeare has been at the heart of literary culture for more than four hundred years, and his influence has spread around the world. In celebration of his 450th birthday this week, it’s time to look at his impact not just on the written word but on the world of cinema, as we count down the top ten best Shakespeares on film.
10. The Tempest (2010)
Let’s get something straight: Julie Taymor’s take on The Tempest isn’t a particularly good one. Despite her amazing cast – Ben Whishaw and Alfred Molina among them – Taymor’s film is slow and confused, with an overload of special effects that can’t hide its choppy pace and tone. What it does have? Helen Mirren as Prospera, a genderflipped version of Shakespeare’s vengeful sorcerer. Her performance is worth more than the rest of the film combined; she perfectly captures the power of Shakespeare’s words, lending them a new resonance and proving exactly why more adapters should take the risk and cast women in male roles. Skip through the rest of the movie and treat yourself to a stunning solo performance from Mirren.
9. Henry V (1944)
For Laurence Olivier’s adaptation of this famous history play, the clue is in the year. Produced during the chaos of World War II, it’s a Technicolor exercise in English patriotism; released to coincide with the Normandy landings, Churchill himself instructed director-star Olivier to use the film as a morale booster for a war-fatigued British nation. They even went so far as to cast real WWII soldier Esmond Knight as Fluellen. Despite stripping away King Henry’s darker traits, leaving Olivier as a whiter-than-white hero figure and destroying some of the play’s more intriguing nuances, it’s an interesting insight into British filmmaking of the era.
8. A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1999)
A big-budget Hollywood production that isn’t afraid to play around with Shakespeare’s source material, this end-of-the-century adaptation moves the action to the end of the century before. Set in an Edwardian-styled Italy, it boasts an impressive mix of familiar names: Michelle Pfeiffer, Stanley Tucci, Christian Bale, Calista Flockhart, Rupert Everett, and Kevin Kline are just a few. The mismatched lovers play their parts with zeal, the fairy King and Queen (Everett and Pfeiffer) are delightfully awful to each other, and the scenery is not half bad. Treating Shakespeare’s language and story with obvious affection, it’s a fluffy cloud of a film that manages the comedy well enough and will leave you with a smile on your face.
7. My Own Private Idaho (1991)
Adaptations don’t always have to preserve Shakespeare’s words to keep their meaning. Gus Van Sant’s film about street hustlers is an imaginative retelling of Henry IV Part I and II, with Keanu Reeves’ Scott as the problematic heir and William Richert’s Bob standing in for Falstaff. Whilst executives at New Line Cinema (who’d rescued it when its funding fell through) wanted to excise the Shakespearean elements, the European distributors put their foot down and Scott lived to see another day. Capturing the betrayal and death that lurks around every corner of the comic history, My Own Private Idaho‘s originally divisive borrowing of Shakespeare has become one of its most recognised successes.
6. Much Ado About Nothing (1993)
The first Branagh film on this list, his Much Ado is another of Keanu Reeves’ Shakespearean vehicles (though not his best – he was nominated for a Razzie). No – it’s the performances of Branagh himself as Benedick and Emma Thompson as Beatrice that fill this film with energy and zing, more than making up for the flatness of Reeves and his co-star Michael Keaton as Dogberry. With a host of famous faces prancing about in 19th century Italy, it’s a deft and joyful adaptation that puts the nuance and emotion back into Shakespeare’s language. Thompson and Branagh’s chemistry is a delight, carrying the film through others’ more wooden performances – and make sure to look out for Kate Beckinsale’s pre-Underworld eyebrows.
5. Henry V (1989)
Branagh’s directorial debut and first Shakespeare adaptation is the antithesis of Olivier’s – not least in terms of mud. With a rare 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the film can only be described as gritty. Henry’s iconic Agincourt speech is delivered by a muddy, bloody, rain-soaked Branagh to an equally filthy “band of brothers”, and on-screen deaths are replete with pointy swords and spraying blood. As he always does, Branagh renders Shakespeare’s language understandable through tone, diction, and passionate delivery, and directs his cast to do the same. Though the text is heavily cut and scenes from Henry IV I and II form flashback sequences, Branagh’s Henry is a far fuller character than Olivier’s and the film a more rounded study in general.
4. The Lion King (1994)
The film that forever linked cartoons and Shakespeare in the minds of a generation, Disney’s tale of a lion cub losing his father is a loose retelling of Hamlet. Originally conceived in 1988 and with zero relevance or relationship to the play, it was reworked in the early ’90s after producer Don Hahn decided the script was unfocused and lacking in theme. Though technically Disney’s first original story, its links to Hamlet are clear; along with Simba as Hamlet, Mufasa and Scar stand in as the King’s Ghost and Claudius respectively, and Timon and Pumbaa aren’t so far from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (in Stoppard’s absurdist adaptation of the play, at least).
3. Shakespeare in Love (1998)
Alright, so this pseudo-biopic of Shakespeare isn’t a conventional adaptation, but it is a bloody good movie. As well as employing Romeo and Juliet as a play-within-a-film, it borrows heavily from the same play for its own plot, chronicling a fictional love story between Shakespeare and noblewoman Viola De Lessops that inspires Will to write that selfsame play. It’s all very meta. As well as bagging Gwyneth Paltrow an Oscar, it’s an excellent example of the ’90s British romcom, thus embodying two of our greatest traditions. Joseph Fiennes flutters his eyebrows as a very handsome Shakespeare, but the film also never shies away from its darker elements. In Shakespeare’s world love is tragic, and there’s a hidden pathos that slowly reveals itself.
2. 10 Things I Hate About You (1999)
This had all the potential to be yet another teen non-com borrowing from the Bard, but this turn-of-the-century update makes one of his most controversial plays palatable for a modern audience. Based on The Taming Of The Shrew, it explores Shakespeare’s dodgy 1590s approach to women with fun and a touch of feminism, giving the Shrew’s Katherina her own voice in Kat Stratford, a spiky third-wave feminist who listens to Riot Grrrl bands and won’t take shit from anyone. The “taming” of the title is turned into a multi-gender exploration of high school and first love, with exceptional performances from baby-faced Heath Ledger and Joseph Gordon-Levitt (before they were snapped up by Nolan’s Batman trilogy). A roller-coaster of heightened teenage emotion, it turns one of Shakespeare’s most controversial plays into a household favourite.
1. Romeo + Juliet (1996)
Shakespeare’s dogged presence in the national curriculum has made him the bane of teenagers’ lives across the globe, but it’s in films like Romeo + Juliet that he begins to live for them. Developed about as far away from Elizabethan London as you can imagine – in modern day Sydney under the eye of director Baz Luhrmann – the central tenet of Luhrmann’s approach was to imagine how Shakespeare himself might approach filmmaking. Combined with Luhrmann’s frenetic auteurship, Romeo + Juliet is a neon-soaked love letter to the original play; a super-heightened, super-intense exploration of forbidden first love that opens the Bard’s work out to everyone. With two of the most naturalistic Shakespearean performances ever captured on film, Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes defined Romeo and Juliet for a generation with their chemistry and talent, earning themselves rightful acclaim and securing the film as one of (if not the) greatest Shakespeare adaptations of all time.
Honourable mentions: Romeo and Juliet (Zeffirelli, 1968), Ran (Kurosawa, 1985), Throne of Blood (Kurosawa, 1957), West Side Story (Robert Wise & Jerome Robbins, 1961).
What do you think of our choices? Have we made any errors? Are there glaring omissions? Let us know who you’d add and lose below…