The 25 best Shakespeare-to-screen adaptations

To film, or not to film, that is the question. We rank the answers.

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  • THRONE OF BLOOD (1957)

  • OTHELLO (1952)

  • RAN (1985)

  • MACBETH (1971)

  • CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT (1965)

THRONE OF BLOOD (1957)

5. THRONE OF BLOOD (1957)
Filmmaker Akira Kurosawa did more than just change the geography of Shakespeare's tale regarding a weary warrior who would be king. His samurai-epic take on Macbeth not only nails the tragedy's theme—how ambition can curdle into corruption—but grounds the work in a new cultural context that turns a centuries-old work into a critique of Japan's postwar imperialism. Toshiro Mifune's power-hungry lord driven to extreme measures in the name of personal empire-building cast a harsh light on those leaders who'd just sent a nation into war, grasping for glory yet leaving ruins in their wake. All this, plus a truly spooky Lady Macbeth (courtesy of Isuzu Yamada in Noh makeup) and one of the greatest screen deaths ever filmed.—DF

4. OTHELLO (1952)
Filmed sporadically over three years in Morocco and Italy, beset by financial woes and poorly received in America, Orson Welles's 90-minute account of the Venetian Moor who loved not wisely but too well is another of his famously troubled projects. And yet despite (or because of) its feverishly disjointed, patchwork quality, the final cut is riveting: a black-and-white Gothic cathedral of low-angle swoops, metaphorical shadow-play and obsessive visual motifs of bars and cages. Welles is monumental in the title role, his wistful dignity making you forget the use of blackface (itself tastefully restrained). And although he may have been a bit too old for the role, Irish actor Michel MacLiammir is cold-bloodedly perfect as the pathologically evil Iago. They don't film Shakespeare like this anymore, and that's the real tragedy.—DC

3. RAN (1985)
If King Lear moves us at the sight of humanity laid bare, Akira Kurosawa's epic offers the colder discomfort of humanity stripped away. Merging Lear with legends of an actual 16th-century Japanese warlord, Kurosawa marshals more than a thousand extras into a magisterial pageant of blood: bright primary colors clashing on behalf of leaders who are uniformly unworthy. The central character (played by Tatsuya Nakadai with Noh stylings) is a brute in the throes of comeuppance, and the film has no room for samurai heroism; the warriors are slain from afar, in flurries of arrows or crackles of early guns. "As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods / They kill us for their sport," says Shakespeare's Lear. In Ran's even grimmer view, the flies butcher each other in swarms, as the helpless gods watch from a distance.—AF

2. MACBETH (1971)
A tragedy was born out of tragedy: Reeling from the murder of his wife Sharon Tate by members of the Manson cult, Roman Polanski embarked on this harrowing adaptation of Shakespeare's tale of a doom-laden Scottish royal (Jon Finch). Right from its "fair is foul" opening with the trio of witches, the film seems caked in nauseating layers of grime and grit. There is no escape from the disgust and horror: The famous "out, damned spot" sequence with Lady Macbeth (Francesca Annis) is skin-crawling in its literal and emotional nakedness, while a memorably gruesome decapitation climaxes with a shot from the severed head's point of view. Polanski's squalid visuals make for a brilliantly unsettling combination with the play's poetry; it's high art as primal scream.—KU

1. CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT (1965)
Atop our list sits Orson Welles, further negating the perception that Citizen Kane was his only masterpiece. (Chimes was the director's personal favorite of all his films—the one he hoped to "get into heaven" with.) The script comes from Welles's own condensation of both parts of Henry IV, along with a few other Shakespeare works, which he first mounted onstage in 1939 to a disastrous reception. Ever confident of his own correctness, Welles tended the flame until an opportunity arose decades later to capture the play on celluloid. Though cash-poor, his production is incredibly vivid, featuring noirish camera angles and battle scenes that clearly influenced Braveheart. Enlivening the whole is Welles's immortal portrayal of Falstaff, transposed from a vain buffoon to a perceptive central figure. Finding the movie on DVD is tricky (rights are still in dispute) but the effort is worth it.—JR

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Users say

10 comments
Liz
Liz

I was expecting more Shakespeare, fewer adaptations. Either way, Ethan Hawke's "Hamlet" is an enormous misstep.

pratik mitra
pratik mitra

kozintesev should have been there in the list!

Travis
Travis

Do some proofreading. Keanu Reeves is Don John, not Don Pedro.

Andrew
Andrew

And what about Othello (1995) and As You Like It (2006)? You can't go wrong with Kenneth Branagh.

Albert
Albert

Although it's controversial, Olivier's 1965 "Othello" should have been included, and I would never have put Baz Luhrmann's desecration of "Romeo and Juliet" on the list. And what about the Orson Welles "Macbeth"?

Andrew
Andrew

Despite the negative reviews, I'm actually rather pleased with this list - so much so, in fact, that I've been using it as a reference as to which Shakespeare adaptations to watch. Yet I too am not without my reservations. That the 1996 Hamlet should below the 2000 version, and that the 1990 version should not be included, is inexcusable. Of all the films on this list, the one I think least worthy of being included is that adolescent schizophrenic cacophony of gaudy ostentation Romeo + Juliet (1996), although I understand why it is included (not why it ranks so highly, however). Still, there are some notable films that have been unduly neglected, some of which other users have previously mentioned: West Side Story (1961), 10 Things I Hate about You (1999), A Midsummer Night's Dream (1999), and the grossly underrated The Tempest (2010). I have not seen Coriolanus (2011), though I'm sure it lives up to its hype.

richard brooks
richard brooks

A Shakespeare cinematic list that doesn't include Grigory Kozintsev's Hamlet (1964) and King Lear (1971) loses all validity.

Rebecca E
Rebecca E

The fact that Baz Luhrman's awful "Romeo and Juliet" and Ethan Hawke's dismal "Hamlet" are both on this list and Ralph Fiennes' superb Coriolanus, "West Side Story", and "10 Things I Hate About You" are not makes little to no sense. Also, Keanu Reeves was unwatchable in "Much Ado..."

Pete
Pete

I'm sorry, I can't trust a list that includes Forbidden Planet but not the BBC version of Macbeth starring Patrick Stewart. Or a list that ranks Baz Luhrman's Romeo + Juliet below the 1968 version.