Ran (1985)
Ran (1985)

The 25 best Shakespeare movies of all time

To film, or not to film, that is the question. We rank the 25 best Shakespeare-to-screen adaptations.

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It would seem a no-brainer: Combine the world's most revered dramatist with today's most popular medium. Alas, translating the Bard to the big screen has proved trickier than anyone ever thought. In ranking the 25 most successful attempts at Shakespeare movies, we tapped our Film and Theater experts. Their only ground rule: No plots about the playwright himself would be eligible. (Sorry, Shakespeare in Love fans). But any adaptations of the plays themselves, loose or faithful, were fair game. On our way, we found Oscar winners, foreign films and even a science fiction movie.

So if top-25 lists be the food of love, read on. And if we've forgotten your favorite title, please flourish your poison pen in the comments section below.

Best Shakespeare movies

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  • Drama
Chimes at Midnight (1965)
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. Though cash-poor, his production is incredibly vivid, featuring noirish camera angles and battle scenes that clearly influenced Braveheart.—JR

  • Film
Macbeth (1971)
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.—KU

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  • Film
  • Action and adventure
Ran (1985)
Ran (1985)

Merging King Lear with legends of an actual 16th-century Japanese warlord, Akira 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

  • Film
  • Drama
Othello (1952)
Othello (1952)

Filmed sporadically over three years in Morocco and Italy, 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.—DC

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  • Film
  • Action and adventure
Throne of Blood (1957)
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.—DF

 

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Gus Van Sant borrows elements from the Henry IV plays in this dreamy street-hustler drama, but shifts focus revealingly. His hero is not the slumming heir or the Falstaffian lecher, but a narcoleptic sidekick—played by the achingly vulnerable River Phoenix—doomed to a life of getting picked up and left behind.—AF

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  • Film
  • Action and adventure
Henry V (1989)
Henry V (1989)

Kenneth Branagh's ballsy directorial debut was a metal-studded glove thrown down at the feet of Laurence Olivier's supremacy. Aiming for battlefield realism (mud, blood and moral chaos), Branagh found the sweet spot between British jingoism and imperialist critique that would have been unthinkable in Olivier's famed World War II--era treatment.—DC

  • Film
Richard III (1955)
Richard III (1955)

Neither as immediately beloved as his Henry V nor as moody as Hamlet, Laurence Olivier's third effort directing the Bard left many viewers cold. Regardless, it's come to be seen (rightly) as the star's finest performance. Millions watched the movie's TV broadcast, including a future Johnny Rotten, cribbing notes for punk attitude.—JR

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  • Film
Hamlet (1948)
Hamlet (1948)

Writer-director-star Laurence Olivier's atmospheric version of the Prince of Denmark tragedy takes some purist-baiting liberties (no Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, for example). But it hardly matters in light of the ethereal black-and-white visuals—heavily influenced by Citizen Kane—and Olivier's hypnotic lead performance. Oscar fell head over heels, awarding the film Best Picture and Actor.—KU

  • Film
  • Drama
Romeo and Juliet (1968)
Romeo and Juliet (1968)

Okay, so neither of the two leads—Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey—managed to have a notable acting career. Doesn’t make their performances any less affecting, or diminish the power of Nino Rota’s haunting score. If a lazy lit teacher made you watch this in high school, be grateful. It could have been so much worse (i.e., Mel Gibson in the 1990 Hamlet).—JR

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11. Hamlet (2000)

Michael Almereyda’s adaptation sets Shakespeare’s classic in contemporary NYC, casts Ethan Hawke as the melancholy Dane, and stages “To be or not to be” in a Blockbuster. In short, it’s a lot of fun—and we didn’t even mention Bill Murray as Polonius.—JR

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  • Drama
Richard III (1995)
Richard III (1995)

Director Richard Loncraine's swift, stylish take on the Bard's matchlessly vitriolic play recasts the malformed king as an English Hitler in an alternate 1930s. The bravura opening sequence—in which a wormy Ian McKellen begins his winter-of-discontent soliloquy as a public address and continues it alone in the loo, sputtering into a urinal—is typical of the film's invigorating wit.—AF

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  • Film
Titus (1999)
Titus (1999)

Forget her Broadway disaster Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark: Julie Taymor’s earlier adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s weakest plays boasts plenty of visual extravagance, with an unhinged Anthony Hopkins in the title role and plenty of Mussolini-esque production design.—JR

  • Film
Much Ado About Nothing (1993)
Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

The Bard's delightful romantic roundelay gets the Kenneth Branagh treatment (his second Shakespeare feature after Henry V). The star-director and Emma Thompson are a wonderful Benedick and Beatrice, the sun-dappled settings are swoonworthy, and even Keanu Reeves acquits himself nicely as the villainous Don Pedro.—KU

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  • Film
  • Science fiction
Forbidden Planet (1956)
Forbidden Planet (1956)

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic," wrote sci-fi novelist Arthur C. Clarke, and this uncredited adaptation of Shakespeare's final play amply proves his point. Prospero becomes reclusive scientist Morbius, lord of a distant world, while "airy spirit" Ariel becomes Robby the Robot.—JR

  • Film
Prospero's Books (1991)
Prospero's Books (1991)

Director Peter Greenaway puts his unique stamp on Shakespeare’s The Tempest (which you’d do well to at least skim in advance if you want to follow this thing); John Gielgud not only plays the title role but provides the voice for most of the others. If nothing else, you’ve never seen so much onscreen nudity outside of the world of porn.—JR

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  • Film
  • Action and adventure

It’s the Bard in overdrive, with some folks named Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes in the title roles, and those frantic Baz Luhrmann shenanigans that would soon after “distinguish” Moulin Rouge! and Australia. Lots of sound and fury signifying nothing, but also a fair amount of romantic feeling.—JR

  • Film
Henry V (1944)
Henry V (1944)

Made in the midst of WWII, Laurence Olivier’s take on Shakespeare’s play winds up being a blatant attempt to stir up some patriotic fever, and isn’t nearly as discerning as Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 rendition. Still it won its star-director an honorary Oscar and has come to represent the beginning of the good stuff vis-à-vis Shakespeare adaptations.—JR

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  • Film
Hamlet (1996)
Hamlet (1996)

Given all the deep editing these texts often get for the screen, hats off to Kenneth Branagh for filming all four hours of the melancholy Dane. This reverential epic was shot in England's glorious Blenheim Palace and stuffed with star cameos (Gielgud, Heston, Crystal, Williams). The gilded ballrooms and mirrored walls conjure up a Continental candy box—albeit one filled with poison sweets.—DC

  • Film
A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935)
A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935)

Shakespeare's tale of actors and other wild creatures got the suitably out-there film version it deserved in this giddy golden-age spectacle. Everything from codirector Max Reinhardt's emphasis on surreal set design (lifted from his 1934 Hollywood Bowl production) to the left-of-center casting choices (James Cagney as Bottom; Mickey Rooney as Puck) gives this comedy the proper topsy-turvy spin.—DF

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  • Film
  • Drama
The Merchant of Venice (2004)
The Merchant of Venice (2004)

The painterly lushness of Michael Radford's location cinematography and Renaissance costumes add heft to this carefully judged take on Shakespeare's Jewish-problem play. Al Pacino's Shylock is no stock blood-libel villain, but a tragic antihero driven by rage and hurt to become the monster that his Christian neighbors already believe him to be.—AF

  • Film
The Tempest (1979)
The Tempest (1979)

Derek Jarman brings his signature provocation to Shakespeare’s final play, combining all manner of eras and elements for this telling of the tale of the magician Prospero. The original text doesn’t have a bunch of sailors dancing to “Stormy Weather,” but we’re okay with that.—JR

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  • Film
  • Action and adventure
King Lear (1971)
King Lear (1971)

Craggy, leonine Paul Scofield reprises his haunting onstage turn as the grief-maddened monarch in Peter Brook's film version (modeled after his groundbreaking 1962 Royal Shakespeare Company rendition). Shot starkly in black and white, minimally scored and imbued with an almost Beckettian gloom, the work has a raw, rough-hewn medievalism perfectly suited to the tragedy.—DC

  • Film
  • Action and adventure
Twelfth Night (1996)
Twelfth Night (1996)

Shakespearean comedy being a tough sell, director Trevor Nunn's wintry, bittersweet adaptation of the Bard's cross-dressing romp doesn't strain for laughs—it earns them quietly. A lot of what's delicious about this somber-paletted treatment comes from pitch-perfect casting: Nigel Hawthorne's snobby Malvolio, Helena Bonham Carter's sultry Olivia and Ben Kingsley's touchingly dour clown.—DC

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  • Film
Julius Caesar (1953)
Julius Caesar (1953)

Et tu, Marlon? Actually, Brando plays salsa phenomenon Marc Antony in this version, opposite James Mason’s Brutus; Louis Calhern gets stuck with the comparatively humdrum title role. It’s one of the better Shakespeare adaptations from the Method period, if a bit stodgy.—DF

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