In a conversation about films on Facebook a friend mentioned that he was watching the Kurosawa classic Ran, to which I replied with a comment about its origins as an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s King Lear. Friend then commented that he had never read a Shakespeare play (good move, they’re not meant to be read) or seen a film adaptation of one of his plays. That got me thinking about Shakespeare film adaptations that are worth watching, both ones that are direct films of his work (i.e. using his Elizabethan dialogue etc.) and ones that draw more loosely from his plays. And so I have compiled a list, starting with the straight adaptations and then the ones that are inspired by his work. Quite a few of these are films I have not seen myself but ones which sound like they would be worth viewing.
Othello (1951), directed by Orson WellesOthello
tells of a Moorish mercenary who commands the army of Venice. After he elopes with the daughter of a Venetian grandee, Othello’s supposedly loyal lieutenant Iago poisons his mind by insinuating that she has been unfaithful with another of his officers. Like many of Welles’s films, Othello
had a troubled production thanks to financial difficulties and was shot in fits and starts over a number of years. At one point Welles had his cast assembled in Essaouira to shoot a murder scene, but no costumes or sets for them; making a virtue of necessity, Welles filmed the murder in a local bathhouse.
I have not seen this film myself but images and excerpts from it look intriguing. Of Irish interest is the casting of Micheál Mac Liammóir as Iago. But beware – the film was made in the less enlightened days of the past, when it was not always considered inappropriate for actors to play characters of different ethnicities to themselves, so modern viewers may find it problematic that Welles plays Othello.
Macbeth (1971), directed by Roman Polanski
Shakespeare’s account of a Scottish nobleman who usurps his country’s throne and then embarks on a reign of terror is one of his most brutal plays but also perhaps his best. I have not seen Polanski’s film version but by all accounts it is unflinching in its depictions of gruesome violence, and coming so soon after the horrific murder of Sharon Tate, the directors wife, it is hard not to see the film as a product of the dark place in which Polanski then found himself. Polanski’s own crimes make him a deeply problematic figure and readers will have to decide for themselves whether it is acceptable to watch any film he has directed.
Richard III (1995), directed by Richard Loncraine
It occurs to me that Richard III
is the English Macbeth
– another account of a maniac who murders his way to the throne and then can’t stop the slaughter, causing his power to ebb away even as he tries to kill off anyone who might challenge him. In this 1930s themed production Ian McKellen (who co-wrote the script) plays a surprisingly urbane Richard, but one whose apparent politeness masks the heart of a psychopath.
is problematic to modern audiences on account of its association of the main character’s physical disability with his moral depravity. And much of Shakespeare’s account of his life is little more than propaganda serving the descendants of those who ultimately defeated him. Nevertheless, as a stylish fictional account of one of history’s greatest badasses this film cannot be beaten.
Much Ado About Nothing (1993), directed by Kenneth Branagh
Of course Shakespeare isn’t all doom and gloom. This film of one of his comedies was a bit hit at the time and while I have not seen it since I remember it fondly. I also can’t really remember much about it so it probably features the usual Shakespeare comedy staples of separated twins, men pretending to be women, women pretending to be men, comic misunderstandings, people with funny voices, and so on. It does also feature Keanu Reeves wearing leather trousers and being very evil; at one point his henchman has to give him a topless backrub.
Macbeth (1948), directed by Orson Welles
I don’t really know anything about this but Orson Welles is great and Macbeth
is great so this should be at least worth a look, even if it does feature Welles attempting a Scottish accent.
Twelfth Night (1996), directed by Trevor NunnTwelfth Night
is the official best of the Shakespeare comedies so perhaps this production with its all-star cast manages to successfully bring the roffles to the big screen.
Throne of Blood (1957), directed by Akira Kurosawa
This takes the Macbeth
story and transfers it to feudal Japan. The supernatural elements remain foregrounded – both the witches and their prophecies that set the Macbeth-analogue on his blood-soaked path to power, and then memorably the banquet where the ghost of the friend he has had murdered shows up as an uninvited guest.
Ran (1985), directed by Akira Kurosawa
Kurosawa’s last film is based on King Lear
(summary: old king decides to retire, dividing his realm between his daughters; what happens next may surprise you), with the story again moved to feudal Japan. In this one the Lear-analogue divides his domain among his sons rather than daughters, which has always left me wondering if the idea of reigning queens is unimaginable to the Japanese (for all that historically I understand there to have been female emperors). The film is beautiful and tragic, profiting from a budget that seems to be equivalent to that of all Kurosawa’s other films added together.
(2006), directed by Vishal Bhardwaj
This takes the Othello
story and sets it in contemporary India, with Omkara (the Othello-analogue) a common gangster working for crooked politicians who need him to do their dirty work. The problem with Othello
is that too often the malevolent Iago takes over the play, leaving the title character looking like a bit of a cipher. But here Omkara is played by Ajay Devgn as a serious badass, making his descent all the more terrifying. This may be the best cinematic adaptation of Othello
and it is a shame that it is not better known outside India.
Bhardwaj has also made Maqbool
(2003), based on Macbeth, and Haider
(2014), based on Hamlet
. I have not seen these but suspect they would be worth watching. Like Omkara
is set among gangsters, with the witches apparently portrayed by two policemen who keep showing up to push the Macbeth analogue onwards. I would be curious as to how overtly supernatural this one goes with the plot (i.e. is there an air of prophecy to the witch-policemen and does this have an equivalent of Banquo-at-the-feast?). Haider
meanwhile is set in Kashmir and uses the political turmoil there as a backdrop, which has the potential to be a bit edgy and possibly problematic to anyone with particular views on the Kashmir conflict.
Forbidden Planet (1956), directed by Fred M. Wilcox
This science fiction classic draws on The Tempest
, Shakespeare’s tale of a sorcerer marooned on a desert island with his daughter and magical servants. In the film the desert island is the planet, where a newly arriving spaceship finds that the only survivors of a previous colony are the scientist Dr Morbius, his daughter and a robot of Morbius’s own design, the other colonists all having been killed by invisible monsters.
My Own Private Idaho (1991), directed by Gus Van Sant
I have not seen this highly regarded film myself but reputedly it draws on Henry IV Part 1
, Henry IV Part 2
, and Henry V
. I suspect this means it has parallels to the plot about the troubled relationship between King Henry IV and his dissolute son Prince Hal (in turn matey with the disreputable Falstaff); it probably does not have as much to do with Henry IV’s struggle against Welsh and English rebels or Henry V’s invasion of France.
West Side Story (1961), directed by Robert Wise & Jerome RobbinsRomeo & Juliet
tells of an ultimately doomed love-story between teenagers from opposing feuding families. It is endlessly adaptable, with the feuding families easily replaced by whatever other divisions are currently topical. West Side Story
takes the Romeo & Juliet
outline and transposes it to New York, where the opposing groups are nativist and Puerto Rican street gangs. This is one of the all-time great operas, lending its ultimately squalid tale of knife fights, rumbles, and tragic young love an operatic quality.
Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (1990), directed by Tom Stoppard
Tom Stoppard directed this film version of his own play, which takes two minor characters from Hamlet
and tells the story from their point of view. Hamlet
is gloomy and miserable but Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead
is funny, for all that the title rather spoils the fact that things might not end well for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. To get the jokes one might perhaps need some basic familiarity with Hamlet
( in which Hamlet discovers that his uncle has murdered his dad, married his mother, and usurped the throne of Denmark, leaving Hamlet unsure what to do about it) but it would probably also work as an introduction to Shakespeare’s longest play. I have not seen this film myself and have heard that it is a bit stagey, but I think it would still be worth viewing.
Theatre of Blood (1973), Directed by Douglas Hickox
While I have not seen this one myself, I think it might work as kind of greatest hits of the playwright’s work. Vincent Price plays an unsuccessful Shakespearean actor so incensed by his bad reviews that he starts kidnapping theatre critics and murdering them in the manner of various famous deaths from the Bard’s plays.
After all those recommendations, here are some films I suggest people avoid. Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 film of Henry V is well made and reasonably well acted but the story of Henry V (English king invades France, beats the French repeatedly, marries a French princess, the end) is not really that interesting. Futhermore this is probably the favourite Shakespeare play of Brexiters.
The 2015 film of Macbeth sounds like it should be good, given its strong cast (Michael Fassbender as Macbeth, Marion Cotillard as Lady Macbeth, with Paddy Considine, Jack Reynor, David Thewlis, Sean Harris and Elizabeth Debicki in supporting roles) but it ends up being pretty boring. Check out one of the other Macbeth adaptations instead.
Laurence Olivier directed and starred in a number of Shakespeare films (Henry V (1944), Hamlet (1948), Richard III(1955), and Othello (1965)). They’re a bit old-fashioned and over-reverential, the kind of heritage Shakespeare you watch without enjoying out of duty. Massive caveat: I have never actually seen his Richard III and it is so long since I saw the others that I might have entirely different opinions of them if I saw them now.
And you? What Shakespeare adaptations would you recommend? If I’ve missed any good ones let me know in the comments.
Laurence Olivier’s Richard III (Guardian, Reel History – Richard III: Laurence Olivier’s melodramatic baddie is seriously limp)
Akira Kurosawa’s Ran (Irish Times – Ran review: Kurosawa’s masterpiece remains as sharp as a serpent’s tooth)
Vishal Bhardwaj’s Omkara (Cinema For All – Omkara)
Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet (Kirkville – Film Review: Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet)