Shakespeare’s plays have been a popular choice for filmmakers since cinema began. From the earliest days in the 1890s, with the filming of a scene from King John, filmmakers have turned to Shakespeare for inspiration.
Up to 500 films of Shakespeare’s plays were produced in the silent era between 1899 and 1927 (sadly, most are lost). The next 90-plus years have not been as prolific, but best estimates number Shakespearean film adaptations between 500 and 600. So choosing the “best” Shakespeare film adaptations is a daunting and pretty much impossible task.
Instead, I have put together seven of the best Shakespeare adaptations based on two simple criteria: they had to be entertaining, and they needed to illuminate or extend our understanding of the play. The films did not need to be slavishly faithful to the play’s text or dialogue, but should be faithful to the spirit of the play. (I chose seven because of the “Seven Ages of Man” from As You Like It.)
There are some notable omissions, many of them critical masterpieces — and there are no Kenneth Branagh films! In my defence, many in the first category fail the “entertaining” criteria (sorry, but it had to be said). And Branagh, while his films are entertaining and popular and brought Shakespeare to a wider audience, they are not really illuminating or extending.
So with these, plus many other, reservations, I humbly propose my list of seven of the best Shakespeare film adaptions, in chronological order. I chose this ordering as it shows how Shakespeare has had a place in cinema history from its very beginning in the 19th century through to the 21st century — a testament to its continuing relevance and our fascination with the elusiveness of these works.
1. Max Reinhardt – A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935)
This film is worth watching just to see Mickey Rooney’s delinquent Puck and James Cagney’s unexpectedly appealing Bottom. These big Hollywood names are just two of a cast that included Olivia de Havilland (Hermia) and Dick Powell (terribly miscast as Lysander). But one of the most important aspects of Reinhardt’s film is his darker vision of Shakespeare’s play, a play more commonly regarded before this as light-hearted and lightweight.
Austrian-born Reinhardt was a prominent film and theatre director in Germany and Austria. As life became more dangerous for Jews, he moved to the UK in 1933, then the US.
His A Midsummer Night’s Dream was released in 1935 and is a film of its time. The innocence of the lovers and the romantic Mendelssohn music from previous stage adaptations remains. However, Reinhardt’s film is a dark and disturbing vision, overshadowed by his own experience as well as the oncoming cataclysm of World War 2 and the Holocaust.
Oberon and his fairies are menacing, Titania and her fairies are dominated and terrorised and the scene of Oberon’s victory over Titania is one of triumphalism, threat and subjugation. Theseus displays a similar exhibition of power in the film’s opening scenes with a display of military might, parading his “prize”, the captured Amazon queen Hippolyta.
Reinhardt is one of the few directors to focus on the problematic and violent beginning to Hippolyta and Theseus’s relationship. Hippolyta’s body language and facial expressions in the play’s early scene are priceless!
2. Akira Kurosawa – Throne of Blood (1957)
Shakespeare has always been popular in Japan. Akira Kurosawa directed three stunning Shakespeare film adaptations with Throne of Blood (1957), based on Macbeth, being the best known (the others are The Bad Sleep Well and Ran). His adaptations are an exhilarating mingling of Shakespeare’s plays, a uniquely Japanese aesthetic, the incorporation of Japanese traditional art forms and Kurosawa’s innovative technique and vision.
In Throne of Blood, Kurosawa draws heavily on the Noh theatre tradition, its stillness and silences giving the film an eerie and unsettling feeling which heightens the tension and adds to the horror. The weird sister or witch is replaced by a spirit in the form of an old woman with a spinning wheel. The spirit’s make-up suggests the tradition of the Noh theatre as does the low, monotonous voice in which the spirit delivers Macbeth and Banquo’s propehcy.
Noh is also utilised to great effect with Kurosawa’s Lady Macbeth (Asaji, played by Isuzu Yamada). She sits quietly and utters her lines in the low monotone of Noh theatre. Her steely control is far more terrifying than passionate ranting, and this technique is put to chilling effect in Banquo’s feast scene. Although she displays virtually no emotion throughout the film, this gives a searingly cold menace to her character. She is one scary lady!
Throne of Blood is most famous for its spectacular final scenes when Macbeth (Washizu, played by Toshiro Mifune) is attacked by his soldiers inside the castle. As waves of arrows rain down on him, he performs a terrified, frenzied dance to escape them. Kurosawa and Mifune revealed later there were no special effects or stunt doubles, and that arrows tipped with sharp needles were actually fired at Mifune. So the terror in this unforgettable scene is not all acting!
3. Derek Jarman – The Tempest (1979)
Derek Jarman’s unconventional adaptation of The Tempest is an interesting and challenging vision of one of Shakespeare’s final plays. Jarman began life as an experimental filmmaker and his urge to test and push boundaries is present in all his work, even those with more traditional narratives such as The Tempest.
Many of Jarman’s films depict the decay of British society, its greed and selfishness, and this is carried through in The Tempest. The action takes place in a decaying mansion near the sea, rather than on an island. For Jarman, it is the isolation and insularity of Prospero’s world (and mind) which is important. This crumbling building is reflective of the ending of Prospero’s dominion, and the destructive nature of colonial and patriarchal power.
Jarman gives his characters a real edge — an edge that is hinted at in the play but not always realised on stage. Miranda (Toyah Willcox) is a sensual young woman and not a chaste innocent, Caliban (Jack Birkett) is a muscular Other — his physicality and difference represented by his dark, naked body, while Ariel (Karl Johnson) is an urbane, androgynous young man (he has a David Bowie look about him) in a white boiler suit and white gloves.
Jarman’s film is underscored by a playful sense of humour. At one point Ariel tries to open a door, then in a double take, as if remembering he is supernatural, simply disappears. This ironic, tongue-in-cheek humour spills out spectacularly in the film’s finale at Miranda’s wedding masque, when musical comedy star Elizabeth Welch sings Stormy Weather as she glides though a guard of honour formed by sailor boys and is showered with confetti.
It’s camp, it’s fun, it’s edgy and it’s challenging. It’s everything we would expect from Jarman — and from Shakespeare!
4. Richard Loncraine – Richard III (1995)
Richard Loncraine’s Richard III opens boldly and unforgettably (no spoilers), leaving the audience in no doubt that this is a film about war, violence, treachery and surprise. Loncraine gives his film a World War 2 and Nazi regime setting, with the interesting twist that one side of the British Army, and eventually government, are the fascists.
Now, before anyone screams “cliche”, there is nothing wrong with placing Shakespeare’s plays in a “modern” or contemporary setting. It becomes exciting as it can add dimension to the play through the audiences’ shared understanding of the context. Problems arise if this is done gratuitously and a setting is chosen which has little relevance to the play, or makes no contribution to our understanding of it.
Loncraine’s film avoids this. Instead it draws important parallels between Richard’s regime and the Nazis. Both were based on tyranny, murder, and the madness of their leaders’ lust for power. The use of modern history’s best example of a tyrannical state gone mad with its own power, and the subsequent loss of morality and humanity, is a perfect fit for Richard III.
Ian McKellan’s performance as Richard is stellar – his opening soliloquy (“Now is the winter of our discontent”) is a masterpiece. He achieves just the right balance of playfulness, irony, menace and charm. His grandiose announcements on the microphone, his self-conscious reflection of his failings while at the urinal, his description of his talent for duplicity in the public bathroom mirror, tells us all we need to know about Richard. In a gesture of sentimental goodwill, Richard waves a white handkerchief as Clarence departs for prison, and at the same time delivers his brother’s death sentence directly to the camera. Marvellous!
5. Baz Luhrmann – Romeo+Juliet (1996)
Baz Luhrmann unleashed his Romeo+Juliet on an unsuspecting world in 1996, and teaching Shakespeare to high school students has never been the same.
Luhrmann made Shakespeare’s possibly best known play sexy, funny, cool and entertaining. To quote my colleague Dr David McInnis: “This film made Hawaiian shirts and Shakespeare cool. Neither feat should go unrecognised.” Luhrmann’s manic camera switches, jump cutting, swirling colours and constant action, all set to a blaring soundtrack, make this an instantly appealing film to a younger audience.
But Luhrmann’s film is not just an exercise is popularity. Rest assured, he does not forsake Shakespeare, as Romeo does Rosaline. By setting the dispute between the Capulets and Montagues within a turf war between the gangs of Verona Beach, he gives us a modern context in which to understand the feud. It helps us reflect on the puerile nature of the families’ vendetta and underlines the tragedy and waste of young lives in such a cause.
It also lends a body language and attitude which beautifully captures the swagger of these young men. To underscore the violence of the opening scenes, Shakespeare replaces the sword, with its promise of the graceful choreography of swordplay, with the crude functionality of a gun.
In Luhrmann’s film, Romeo and Juliet’s story is played out against a backdrop of male posturing, aggression and violence. He ensures the play is not only understood as a tragic love story, but a condemnation of senseless feuds and vendettas, and their inevitable fatal consequences on the innocents. Regrettably, it is still very much a film of our times.
6. David Richards – The Taming of the Shrew (BBC shakespeare-told Series, 2005)
David Richard’s The Taming of the Shrew features a virtuoso performance by Shirley Henderson as Kate. (You may remember her as Moaning Myrtle in the Harry Potter films.) Set in today’s political world, Kate is a fiery MP who spits and grunts and screams her way through any given working day. Her favourite gesture to people who displease her, and that’s most people, is to give them the finger and tell them to “swivel”.
The opening scenes work to establish Kate’s unlikeableness, but it also makes her quite appealing. These are some of the funniest sequences I have seen in a Shakespeare adaptation, and the effect of this softens Kate into an amusingly unpleasant person. Certainly none of us would ever want to work with her, but she is very witty. The wedding scene is hilarious!
Kate and Petrucchio’s (Rufus Sewell) relationship is a believable one – the chemistry between the actors works. Kate’s shift to a more amenable person, especially given her status as a high-achieving powerful woman, is affecting and believable. Her sister Bianca (Jaime Murray) is suitably superficial and glamorous and Twiggy makes an appearance as Kate’s equally vain and shallow mother. This gives us pause to consider why Kate is like she is, an intelligent woman living with two airheads whose favourite topics of conversation are themselves, men and clothes – in that order.
The energy and tempo of the film is unrelenting. And Henderson and Sewell somehow make the play’s awkward ending plausible. Kate even uses some of the actual words in her final speech and she makes it work. Oh — did I mention it is in modern language except for a few bits and pieces (the excellent script was written by Sally Wainwright). But don’t let that put you off – this is a thought-provoking, rich, and very amusing adaptation of the play. And it’s still Shakespeare.
7. Ralph Fiennes – Coriolanus (2011)
Ralph Fiennes’ film adaptation of Coriolanus was the culmination of a decade-long dream to bring this neglected and misunderstood play to a wider audience. Fiennes uses the Balkans War as the setting in which he places Coriolanus’s story of the warrior turned politician, who is betrayed by the people who elected him, and who joins his enemy to fight his homeland.
In Coriolanus, Shakespeare asks the age-old question – what becomes of the returned soldier? (He also asks this question in Macbeth and Othello.) Fiennes’ film focuses on this problem and presents us with a complex vision of a man whose usefulness to society is defined purely by his ability to kill better than anyone else, but is somehow expected to lose this brutality once he is off the battlefield. The film constantly tests and prods our reaction to this violent and vengeful man.
The film has a stellar cast — and all deliver wonderful performances. Fiennes as Coriolanus is at times brave, volatile, confused and betrayed; Brian Cox is compassionate and faithful as Menenius; and Gerard Butler as Aufidius imposes his masculinity and charisma on all around him (the scene in which he and Coriolanus embrace near the end of the film is very powerful). The supporting cast is also superb but there is no doubt the majestic Vanessa Redgrave steals the show — her impassioned plea to her son Coriolanus to return his loyalty to Rome is a triumph, and is surely one of the great performances of the formidable Volumnia. It is worth watching this film just to witness this great Shakespearean actor in full flight.
I have never seen Redgrave on stage, and most probably never will. And perhaps this is the greatest gift of Shakespeare films. While stage has its own magic, we have to be there, in the moment. Film defies the constrictions of time and space — and we all get to witness the magic.
With so many to choose from, this list can hardly be definitive. So … what are your favourite Shakespeare films?
Dr Gayle Allan has been teaching, researching and writing about Shakespeare for more than 20 years. Her main research and publishing interests are in 16th century theories of jealousy, and film adaptations of Shakespeare.
Banner image: Ralph Fiennes in Coriolanus. Artwork: Sarah Fisher
From the 14-26 July, ACMI, in association with the University of Melbourne, present Shakespeare on Film, an international touring program from the British Film Institute (BFI) and the British Council. Tickets can be booked directly with ACMI.