I had the great good fortune a few months ago to see Mark Rylance and the Globe company in Twelfth Night and Richard III at the Belasco Theater on Broadway. The experience has probably spoiled me for Shakespearean theater forever, but it was definitely worth it. Since then, I've been thinking about how difficult it is to translate Shakespeare to film and how few really good Shakespearean adaptations are out there. Many of them are simply poorly produced and acted - like Renato Castellani's abysmal Romeo and Juliet or Michael Hoffman's A Midsummer Night's Dream - or disastrously oversimplified - like Baz Luhrman's pop-culture extravaganza, Romeo + Juliet - or, most often, a terrible combination of both. These are the 10 best Shakespearean adaptations.
11. Shakespeare in Love (1998) - Romeo and Juliet (sort of) - A bonus!
Shakespeare in Love is neither a Shakespearean adaptation nor a faithful rendition of the historical playwright's life. It's a period fantasy with next to no grounding in reality, vaguely referencing Shakespeare's most popular play. All that being said, it's really, really fun. Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard's script is witty and sweet, so that its utter implausibility ceases to matter. Joseph Fiennes is excellent as Shakespeare and Gwyneth Paltrow is effective as the fictional Viola.
10. Romeo and Juliet (1936)
Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer play the star-crossed lovers in this costly MGM production. Though they were far from teenagers, they both give excellent performances, as does the supporting cast, which includes Basil Rathbone and John Barrymore. Lavish costumes, sets, and cinematography make this one of the most visually stunning movies made by MGM, easily ranking with the even more lavish Marie Antoinette, and it's a showpiece for Norma Shearer, who, though largely forgotten today, was one of the greatest Hollywood actresses of her era.
9. Romeo and Juliet (1968)
Most consider this version the definitive cinematic adaptation of the material and it is certainly an excellent one. Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting as the teenaged lovers are stirring, but it is Franco Zeffirelli's direction, Danilo Donati's costumes, and Nino Rota's iconic score that make the film such a classic. At the time of its release, it was the most successful Shakespearean adaptation of all time, earning major money and major accolades from critics as prominent as the late, great Roger Ebert.
8. Romeo, Juliet, and Darkness (1960)
This Czech adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, directed by Jiri Weiss, updates the love story to Prague during the Nazi occupation in 1942. Rather than Capulet and Montague, the young lovers are Jew and Gentile, sensitively portrayed by Daniela Smutna and Ivan Mistrik. This twentieth century reinterpretation of the romantic play focuses as much on politics as it does on love. Weiss was one of the great Czech filmmakers, but his work remains largely unknown in the United States.
7. Much Ado About Nothing (1993)
of the few adaptations of the comedic plays which is actually funny,
this cinematic rendition of the romance between saucy Beatrice and
arrogant Benedick stars Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh, supported by
Denzel Washington, Kate Beckinsale, Michael Keaton, and Keanu Reeves.
Shot in the gorgeous countryside of Tuscany, this sexy, witty romp is a
pleasure from first frame to last.
6. Henry V (1944)
Laurence Olivier, one of the giants of Shakespearean theater, stars as the English monarch, who, after a debauched youth with his crony Falstaff, led England to victory at the Battle of Agincourt. Henry V self-reflexively returns to the recreated Globe theater after each scene, constantly reminding us of the magic of theatricality. Both a critical and commercial success, this film would also earn Olivier an honorary Academy Award for his work as producer, director, and actor. Robert Newton, best known for playing Long John Silver, is a comic delight as Pistol.
5. West Side Story (1961) - Romeo and Juliet
One of the greatest musicals of all time and one of the finest reinterpretations of Shakespeare's most popular play is brilliantly brought to the screen by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise. With one of the best musical scores of all time, by Leonard Bernstein, and groundbreaking and powerful choreography by Jerome Robbins, West Side Story is a gritty, bold, vibrant portrayal of rival gangs in Manhattan and the destruction they wreak on both themselves and lovers Tony and Maria. Even with the phony Puerto Rican accents, this film is marvelous.
4. The Lion King (1994) - Hamlet
Though none of Shakespeare's language remains in The Lion King, its reinterpretation of Hamlet is a powerful one. Simba is an overconfident lion cub, intent on inheriting his kingdom. His treacherous exiled uncle Scar (brilliantly voiced by Jeremy Irons) tempts him into danger, luring the rightful king Mufasa to his death as he tries to rescue his son. While it is undoubtedly the case that the Disney artists simplified the complex psychology and moral ambiguities of Shakespeare's masterpiece, The Lion King is much more than a kiddie flick, delving into such profound subjects as death, sacrifice, duty, and betrayal.
3. Throne of Blood (1957) - Macbeth
Akira Kurosawa, one of the greatest directors of all time, directs this brilliant reinterpretation of Macbeth, set in feudal Japan. Toshiro Mifune, a ubiquitous (and fabulous) actor who appeared in such masterpieces as Seven Samurai and Rashomon, plays the feudal lord who descends to extreme depths of treachery, alongside his scheming wife (Isuzu Yamada), in his efforts to gain power. Although the story is significantly altered from the original play, as eminent a critic as Harold Bloom felt that it was the best cinematic adaptation of the material.
2. Richard III (1955)
Richard III is my very favorite of all Shakespeare's plays and my standards for any performance of it are extremely high. This version is both the best cinematic adaptation of the play and the best of Laurence Olivier's Shakespearean films. The incredibly good supporting cast includes such legends as Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud, and Claire Bloom. A bloodthirsty scoundrel, a selfish paranoid, a manipulative schemer, and a dreadful king, Richard is both one of the most reprehensible and most fascinating of all of Shakespeare's many captivating protagonists.
1. Chimes at Midnight (1966) - Richard II, Henry IV parts 1 and 2, Henry V, The Merry Wives of Windsor
Chimes at Midnight is a superlative work - in my opinion the finest that Orson Welles ever made, better even than Citizen Kane, and unjustifiably obscure. A copyright dispute has made it difficult to track down, but it is well worth the effort. Welles plays Falstaff, the tragic buffoon whose paternal friendship with Hal, the future Henry V, has greater depth than at first glance appears. This is a perfect film and, by far, the greatest translation of Shakespeare's masterful art to the screen - funny, suspenseful, satirical, and tragic.