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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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