I’ve always had a strange fascination with Shakespeare on film, to the extent that I took a class with that exact title in Ireland in 2003. In the proud tradition of study abroad programs, it was one of the least rigorous academic pursuits I’ve undertaken; once weekly, I took a 20-minute bus ride to a community center with loose ties to the university, watched a movie with mostly older people who (I think) just wanted to get out of the house, and pretended to understand the cinematic theories bandied about by the professor during the class discussion. There may have been a paper at the end, and if so, mine was probably awful.
But I loved the movies, even when they weren’t very good. Any time a Shakespeare adaptation comes out (especially one of the tragedies), it’s a guarantee that I’ll be on hand. And I’m not exactly sure why, because I don’t enjoy the vast majority of them. There’s something off-putting and self-conscious about watching modern actors speak like Elizabethans, especially when the director chooses to set the story in the modern world. It’s very difficult to get past the conceit, and that’s especially true when humor is involved. Tragedy is tragedy, and will be constant forever, but comedy evolves, and telling jokes in an obsolete tongue does it no favors.
I love reading him, but I didn’t start really loving it until after high school, when I read enough on my own to get past language-time barrier and understand the poetry and puns and humor and plot at real speed, without having to pause after every third line to check the footnotes.
For the most part, the reading is where my enjoyment stops. I feel like a philistine saying this, but I haven’t even enjoyed seeing Shakespeare on stage. The same chronic problem of feeling the self-conscious Shakespearean delivery from the actors persists. The only exception was King Lear, which I saw performed in Battery Park in the summer of 2009, when the actors moved all around the park from scene to scene. And you can barely call that a stage.
In the world of cinema, though, there are some exceptions. From my experience, these seven films were the most adept adaptations.
*Quick note: there’s a very old and famous story about a conversation between Dustin Hoffman and Sir Laurence Olivier on the set of Marathon Man in 1976. The gist is that Hoffman, being a method actor, had stayed up all night in preparation for a scene they were filming that day. When he told Olivier, the British actor said, “why not try acting? It’s much easier.” The story has since been proven apocryphal, but it still annoys me. Olivier strikes me as a technically proficient but largely unmoving performer. Maybe it’s the American in me, but I’ll take Hoffman’s raw emotion any day. None of Olivier’s many Shakespeare adaptations will appear here, and it’s 100 percent personal bias.
*Second note: For the purposes of this list, I’m sticking with films that adhere at least somewhat to Shakespearean text, and excluding broader adaptations like West Side Story.
7. Coriolanus —2012
This film, which I saw last week, is the inspiration behind the article. In his directorial debut, Ralph Fiennes plays the title character from the obscure Shakespeare play—a warlike Roman general whose pride keeps him from winning the favor of the people and earning high civilian office. When a group of senators conspire to have him exiled, he vows vengeance and joins his former enemy as they advance toward Rome. Fiennes is the star of the film, his anger alternating between a taut, below-the-surface well of tension and a boiling, spewing rage. The locations mostly look like impoverished Eastern bloc wastelands, and the film is modernized to make use of modern martial raiment and current technology. That aspect is often seamless, but it can also be grating and forced. But Brian Cox and Gerard Butler are excellent in supporting roles, and Vanessa Redgrave steals the scene over and over again as Coriolanus’ mother Volumnia. The gritty sets and the violent drama keep the pace brisk, and the film mostly earns its overwhelmingly positive reviews.
6. Romeo + Juliet, 1996
Remember when Baz Luhrmann was the strangest, most electric director around? His ’96 adaptation of Romeo and Juliet grossed $147 million worldwide, which is a record for Shakespearean films by a healthy margin. To call this film “modernized” would be a severe understatement; it’s so hyper-modern that it’s practically futuristic. It’s set in Verona Beach, and with a very young Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes in the lead roles, there are times when it feels like a punk adapatation designed for an MTV audience. Roger Ebert, among others, hated the film, with its stylized violence and frenetic speed. But there’s something appealing about Luhrmann’s delirious style that hit its artistic peak with Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge, and it goes deeper than a visceral attraction. The gang violence surrounding the young lovers is so oppressive as to feel claustrophobic, and though it’s easy to forget Shakespeare in all the seed, that’s exactly the element he brought to the text to heighten the tragedy. It never feels like Romeo and Juliet have a chance, and Luhrmann communicates the nauseous impossibility with a delicacy that manages to co-exist with the frenzy.
5. Richard III – 1995
The concept of Ian McKellen as Richard III seems fail proof, on paper, and it turns to be true on screen as well. As the sociopathic Duke of Gloucester, he achieves a terrifying presence that even Al Pacino, who was physically built for the part, couldn’t quite reach in the half-documentary half-fiction Looking For Richard. McKellen is less bombastically evil, but his more sinister energy reaches the depths I imagined when reading the play. Director Richard Loncraine modernizes the film and uses thinly veiled Third Reich imagery as a backdrop to Richard’s forces. He takes many liberties with Shakespeare’s text, most of them successful, which proves that being faithful to the script is a feeble virtue at best. King Richard’s most famous line, the one about kingdoms and horses, is re-contextualized so brilliantly in the modern setting that you get the feeling Shakespeare himself might have been envious.
4. Macbeth – 1971
This is the forgotten Shakespearean adaptation, directed by Roman Polanski, full of sex and graphic violence and the unblinking emotional honesty that became a hallmark of 1970s cinema. Polanski has never shied from exploring murky themes, and he tackles the blood and guts of Macbeth with an overt hand that nearly overshadows the play’s subtler themes. But they don’t, not quite, and Macbeth’s continuing psychological demise, as he makes compromise after another in the pursuit of power, is matched point-for-point by Polanski’s darkening mood. Within Shakespeare’s most fated drama, Polanski creates a world where the doomed king’s bad decisions propel him up to power while damning him to hell. In the play’s very first scene, three witches utter the sinister line: “Fair is foul and foul is fair. Hover through the fog and filthy air.” On the page, we can only read these lines; in the film, we can feel them.
3. Henry V – 1989
Kenneth Brannagh’s first Shakespearean adaptation is considered by many (but not me) to be his best. It garnered Branagh a best actor and best director nomination at the Oscars, and it remains the highest-rated Shakespeare film on the critical compilation website Rotten Tomatoes, where it holds a rare 100 percent approval mark. When Brannagh gives the famous St. Crispin’s Day speech, at the onset of the unwinnable Battle of Agincourt, it was a dual triumph; along with its cinematic strength, it was also his way of letting the world know that the legendary Olivier had a very capable rival in the realm of Shakespearean film. The production, gritty and dark, foreshadowed what would become Brannagh’s trademark realism, brought to bear in many future adaptations.
2. Hamlet – 1996
Unlike the awkward Ethan Hawke version that would come out four years later, Kenneth Brannagh’s Hamlet is set where Shakespeare wrote it, though the action is advanced to the 19th century from the original ambiguous time period. Obviously, any adaptation of that particular play depends on the title character, and Brannagh is brilliant. Most critics crowned it the best cinematic Hamlet ever, and Brannagh’s aim (he was also the director) to tell the story as simply as possible without sacrificing Shakespere’s subtlety paid off. It’s an unpretentious, powerful work of art that renders the story accessible without a crass modernization.
1. Romeo & Juliet – 1968
Francisco Zeffirelli’s film is still the best adaptation ever. My favorite story about the film comes from Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, who said he “cried his eyes out” when he saw the film at age 13 when the two lovers didn’t run away. Zeffirelli filmed everything in Italy, and somehow captured a vibe that felt more like the French New Wave than the bulk of clunky Shakespeare films from his time and ours. There’s emotional weight to the proceedings that has eluded so many other directors, and though it seems like faint praise to say that he makes us actually care about the characters and the story, history has shown that it’s no easy task to overcome the impediment presented by the language. The art is usually lost somewhere in the transition to film, but Zeffirelli pulled off the rare feat of enriching the text with his deft human touch.