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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

daily list: 10 great cinematic adaptations from Shakespeare

Keira Knightley is gonna be starring in a new movie version of King Lear? Not as the king, I hope, but okay. (She’ll be Cordelia, actually, to Anthony Hopkins’ Lear.) I’m starting my Summer of Hamlet, in preparation for my trip to England in the fall to see David Tennant play the mad Dane, as well as for the upcoming Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Undead and Hamlet 2. So it looks like it’s time to do a roundup of the greatest movies ever made from the Bard’s work:
1. William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (1996). Baz Lurhmann’s stunning adaptation of the Bard’s best-known love story — starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes — keeps all of the writer’s language but sets the tale among warring mob families in contemporary Miami. Striking modernizations — the chorus asides become TV news reports, for one — highlight how modern and relevant Shakespeare remains. [my review] [buy at Amazon]

2. Much Ado About Nothing (1993). Shakespeare is never as full of life as when Kenneth Branagh takes him on, and his mounting of the comedy, set in a Tuscan villa, positively beams with sunshine and laughter and romance. Great cast, too: the director himself, Emma Thompson, Denzel Washington, Kate Beckinsale, Imelda Staunton, Keanu Reeves (yes, he’s perfect here), etc. [buy at Amazon]

3. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1990). Based on Tom Stoppard’s play, this is pretty much Hamlet fan fiction, asking the question, Just what do the Prince’s pals get up to when they’re offstage? The answer: a lot of philosophizing about the meaning of life. Tim Roth and Gary Oldman star. [buy at Amazon]

4. Scotland, PA (2001). It’s MacBeth done up comic-style — the action revolves around a small-town burger joint in the 1970s — and it’s hilarious. Maura Tierney may well be the most devious Lady MacB ever… and she’s certainly the funniest. [my review] [buy at Amazon]

5. Love’s Labour’s Lost (2000). Branagh again, turning the comedy into a musical by interspersing 1920s and 30s standards with the romantic topsy-turvy. The result: some of the most dramatically entertaining juxtapositions you’ll find on film — when lovesick Berowne segues from “And when love speaks, the voice of all the gods / Make heaven drowsy with the harmony” directly into a chorus of “Heaven, I’m in heaven”… well, it’s one of the greatest movie moments ever. It’s yet another example of how fresh and timeless Shakespeare still is. [my review] [buy at Amazon]

6. Shakespeare in Love (1998). It’s all fictional, of course, and bears little resemblance to the writer’s actual life, but what the hell. This is a delightful story, however invented, not just about the creation of one of his plays but about how life influences art. [my review] [buy at Amazon]

7. O (2001). The machinations of Othello are transferred to a high-school basketball team in the American South, where racial animosity runs high yet stays hidden until sexual jealousy drags it out. The young cast is spectacular: Julia Stiles, Mekhi Phifer, and Josh Hartnett, in a performance that proves he can act, it’s just that he mostly doesn’t bother. [my review] [buy at Amazon]

8. Forbidden Planet (1956). It’s The Tempest in space (sort of). What more do you need? Okay: the sprite is a giant robot. [buy at Amazon]

9. King of Texas (2002). Actually a TV movie, this moves King Lear to the frontier American West, and stars Patrick Stewart as a wealthy rancher and Marcia Gay Harden as one of his scheming daughters. [my review] [buy at Amazon]

10ish. Hamlet (2000). I’ve never actually seen Ethan Hawke’s performance as the mad Dane — it’s on my list for my Summer of Hamlet — but everyone raves about his “to be or not to be” soliloquy delivered in a video store, and about Bill Murray’s Polonius. So it should be good stuff. [buy at Amazon]

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  • Kate

    Yay for Scotland, PA! But I’m a big fan of the 1968 Romeo & Juliet, myself.

  • t6

    I’m personally a little concerned about Tennant as Hamlet, because it is just yet another example of an actor who is too old wanting to play Hamlet. I find it much more effective, if he is played by someone who looks like he could be coming back from college to attend his father’s funeral. I’m sure he’ll be fine, he is a grand actor…but I’d like to see fewer people in their 30s and 40s and more people in their late teens and early 20s tackling that role. And I’d like to see Glenn Close’s amazing talent not wasted on a really uninspired take on Gertrude.

    Anyway, some Shakespeare from me:

    Midsummer Night’s Dream (1969)–Diana Rigg, Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, Ian Richardson, Ian Holm, David Warner? And all the fairies naked in green body paint? What more could a person ask for?

    Titus (1999) Julie Taymor’s Titus makes me weak in the knees…sooooo good!

    King Lear (1983) Olivier as Lear and Diana Rigg as Reagan and John Hurt as the fool? Bring it!

    Kurosawa’s Ran (1985) His take on Lear is pretty awesome.

    Zeferrili’s Romeo and Juliet (1968) for the score and the costuming alone is worth the price of admission, not to mention performances by Olivia Hussey, Leonard Whiting, Michael York, and John McEnery.

    I loved Lawrence Fishburn’s Othello (1995)–Branaugh is a great Iago.

    And have to give love to Branaugh’s Henry V (1989). I had never read Henry V prior to seeing the film because I was so mad at his character after Henry IV Pt. 1. But Branaugh brought me around.

    I have yet to see Pacino’s Merchant of Venice, though I’ve heard good things.

    But lastly, I register my displeasure with any version of Taming of the Shrew that portrays it as a Hollywood (read: studio system era Hollywood) romance. I was lucky to see an RSC version of the Shrew where they used both framing scenes and make it very clear that the taming of Kate is not romantic, but abuse. Very well done.

  • Ran gets mentioned a lot, but I think Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood tops it. It’s Macbeth transferred to the feudal samurai era, and delivered in the tradition of Japanese Noh. Like Ran, it’s proof that Shakespeare can transcend national, cultural, and temporal boundaries.

    RE: the Taming of the Shrew. Would you include Ten Things I Hate About You in your displeasure? I always felt that handled the anti-feminist overtones with a lot of tact and grace in that film.

  • Kathy A

    I’ve seen the DVD of the Trevor Nunn-directed “Macbeth” with Ian McKellen and Judi Dench as the mister and missus, and it’s amazing. Minimalist set that allows the performers’ art to shine.

  • I would also strongly recommend Al Pacino’s Looking For Richard. It’s a remarkable analysis of the Bard and what goes into a performance.

    Oh yeah, and A Midwinter’s Tale, while you’re gushing about Branagh. And The Dresser. And …

  • t6


    I haven’t seen Ten Things I Hate About You…but it has been recommended by people whose opinions I respect. So it is on my list.

    For me, one of the problems of Taming of the Shrew (and also Romeo & Juliet) is that we tend to make Shakespeare more anti-feminist than it is written. Juliet is a very strong character, but we like to make her more of a classic ingenue by cutting out a lot of her moments of strength…most specifically her speech contemplating if she should take the poison…and Romeo’s weakness (manifested by his initial infatuation with Rosaline) is downplayed.

    As for the Shrew…eliminating the two framing scenes seriously distorts the show. Most glaringly is that the story of Kate is not real. It is a play put on to mess with Christopher Sly. A character who ends the play drunk and claiming that he knows how to tame shrews while others remark that he’d best get home to his wife if he knows what’s good for him.

    For me, the things that bugs me the most is that Shakespeare is nuanced and complicated and has a lot of interesting things going on it…very viable progressive readings…that are in period and historically congruent…but we distort the Bard to better align with our own jacked up desire to create a “simpler” “better” time that is more regressive than it actually was.

  • Jan Willem

    Funny you should write this. I’ve been on a bit of a Macbeth movies binge lately. This included Throne of Blood, the Orson Welles version featuring cheap horror movie production standards and ditto acting in places, the anaemic and understated Nunn/McKellen/Dench stage version and the wonderful Scotland PA, with the redoubtable Christopher Walken as a vegetarian inspector Macduff!
    There is a hilarious story about Polanski’s Macbeth. In the scene where Macbeth revisits the witches, the cave is filled with naked hags with sagging boobs. During the shooting, somebody remembered that it was one of the producers’ birthday. So the witches sang a jolly Happy Birthday To You for him and this was caught on film. A reel was sent to this guy, whose name happened to be… Hugh Hefner! The footage has never surfaced, but wouldn’t this make a great scene in the Hef biopic that’s rumoured to be in the making?

  • I’m personally a little concerned about Tennant as Hamlet, because it is just yet another example of an actor who is too old wanting to play Hamlet. I find it much more effective, if he is played by someone who looks like he could be coming back from college to attend his father’s funeral. I’m sure he’ll be fine, he is a grand actor…but I’d like to see fewer people in their 30s and 40s and more people in their late teens and early 20s tackling that role.

    Actually, if you look at the dialogue in the scene with the gravedigger, it rather conclusively indicates that Hamlet is 30. Really. So it would seem it is more appropriate for people in their 30’s and 40’s to take on the role.

  • Hm, not sure why that link isn’t working, but it goes here:

  • Kathy A

    Even though they were done for TV and not feature films, I loved the ShakespeaRetold movies shown on BBCA last summer. James McAvoy as Macbeth in a cutthroat Scottish restaurant scene, a rather strange version of Midsummer Night’s Dream, a thoroughly enjoyable Much Ado with Damian Lewis, Sarah Parish, and Billie Piper, and (my fave) Shrew with Shirley Henderson as an ambitious MP and Rufus Sewell as her Petruchio.

  • t6

    It looks like Shakespeare originally wrote Hamlet to be 16/17 (it would be odd for a 30-year-old to be in college) but he rewrote it to be 30 to match the age of Burbage, the first actor.

    But writing in the number 30 for Burbage doesn’t change that the character as written doesn’t make a lot of sense as a 30 year old. Hamlet is in college, and is also unmarried. His existential crisis. The central problem of his indecision and inability to act…

    The play gives a troika of sons dealing with the murder of their fathers (Hamlet, Laertes, Fortinbras) and is about this process of action, growth, and becoming. Having Hamlet be 30…breaks a lot of the thematic symmetry and logic.

  • the best “Shrew” i’ve seen is a canadian Stratford production, which starred Alison Janney as Kate, and had the framing scenes… she was a bookish, strongwilled woman and Petruccio is good too in that he starts off eager to tame her, then seems to become reluctant… at least in that production.

  • as for Hamlet being 30… it’s like any other of shakespeare’s complex and difficult characters — to actually play Hamlet with a 20 or 22 year old actor would be a hard. not many men that age have enough experience with life and emotion to portray Hamlet’s wild ride. not saying there aren’t *any* just not any i can think of off the top of my head. i always get around the age thing by thinking, well, he didn’t become king at a young age, so he’s off playing the wild prince at some college or other. even today, there’s plenty of young men who spend their 20s in academia rather than the real world. also, a course of study was not fixed and set as it is today. it could easily depend upon his tutors and lecture schedule that he could take years to continue his studies. we shouldn’t be too literal in thinking university = 4 years.

  • No one mentioned Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet (1996)?

    Four hours long and yet i’ve seen it four or five times, though you really have to see it at the cinema. Brilliant.

    Just excuse Jack Lemmon in the opening…

  • Tom S.

    No love for Ian McKellan’s Richard III (1995)? The use of 1930s Britain is an inspired choice, IMO, and brilliantly executed.

  • MaryAnn

    Hey, I didn’t say this was an exhaustive list of the great cinematic adaptations of the Bard. :->

    to actually play Hamlet with a 20 or 22 year old actor would be a hard.

    Thanks for making the point I would have made.

  • t6

    I don’t know. There are quite a few phenomenal 20 year old actors. I mean, I would have rather seen Leo DiCaprio circa Romeo + Juliet play Hamlet than Mel Gibson…who wasn’t very good.

    Additionally, I find a lot of the older male actors bring a gravitas that undercuts some of the uncertainly and fragility that makes the “To be or not to be” speech work super well.

    This is a music analogy that few will get but…here goes anyway. Schubert’s song cycle “Die Schoene Muellerin” is written for a tenor. And having a tenor voice sing this song of a young man infatuated with the miller girl (who isn’t into him)…to go through his exuberance then realization that this isn’t happening…the anger and sadness that eventually drives him to commit suicide by throwing himself into his beloved river…well the fragility of the tenor voice makes his mental break down believable. The youth implied in it, makes his emotional extremes believable. When a baritone sings it…then the wandering miller comes off as too stable of a character…his emotional excesses too strange and his eventual death not as affecting…because it doesn’t seem grounded.

    My preference for Hamlet (only my preference), is for him not to be a man who is in command and scheming and in charge…but someone vulnerable, uncertain of how to be and not all that stable. I think having Hamlet played by a younger actor who can project that lack of establishment, rather than an older more established actor who sees this as one of the great roles to show off his talent, makes it work for me better. I’d rather older actors wanting to show off their command take on Lear or Lady Mac.

    I also tend to want to see Gertrude played as the Queen of country who is a strong and capable stateswoman rather than the oversexed, somewhat dim figure who is only there so the director can work though the thoroughly overdone and not textually supported Oedipal angle one more time. But I almost never get that.

  • Joanne

    McKellen’s Richard III is superlative, as is the Trevor Nunn Scottish Play with McKellen and Judi Dench, filmed from the RSC stage production.

    I also like Nunn’s Twelfth Night with Ben Kingsley as a superlative Feste, Nigel Hawthorne as Malvolio and Helena Bonham-Carter as Olivia. It’s really excellent and often overlooked. And Imogen Stubbs and Steven Mackintosh are actually pretty believable as identical twins.

  • t6

    I haven’t seen McKellen’s Richard III, but it is also on my list. I really enjoyed Nunn’s Twelfth Night…I loved that cast.

  • Awww, 10 Things I Hate About You (Taming of the Shrew) doesn’t make the grade? But… it was maybe the only teen high school “romantic comedy” movie ever that didn’t completely suck! For which I blame the bard.

  • MaryAnn

    I’ve actually never seen *10 Things*…

  • Der Bruno Stroszek

    I’ve got to throw in Orson Welles’s Chimes at Midnight here – a compendium of Falstaff’s scenes from The Merry Wives of Windsor, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 and Henry V. Maybe only Welles would have had the balls to rewrite Shakespeare like this, and it’s pretty conclusively great cinema too.

  • Jan Willem

    You might want to brush up your biology: identical twins don’t have the same sex! Viola and Sebastian are what is usually called fraternal twins, even though that espression is a bit sexist and quite inapproriate for three quarters of the possible twin combinations.
    By the way, I second the cheering for Sir Ian’s Richard III. I’ve given away numerous DVD copies of this movie which I salvaged from a remainder bin.

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