There are too many Shakespeare adaptations to cite in this article or even in the following one we will publish. I am excluding theater adaptations, musicals and many worthy films, I’m sure, but one’s got to start somewhere.
2016 is the four hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, and what better way to celebrate his life’s work than to look at films that have revived him over the course of the last century. You will notice that some plays, the most famous ones are adapted more than once, but each director approaches it differently and adds a personal touch.
So without further ado, in honor of the great dramaturge’s death, here are some Shakespeare-based films you should see.
- Hamlet, Svend Gade and Heinz Schall (1921)
This silent German film, inspired by Dr. Edward P. Vining’s book The Mystery of Hamlet (1881), portrays Hamlet as a woman passing for a man. Played by the famous Danish star Asta Nielson, Hamlet is forced by her mother to masquerade as a boy in order to secure the lineage. This early version is silent and therefore misses out on Shakespeare’s text, and the main character’s gender requires a few changes, but the major plot points are the same. Nielson’s performance is brilliant but the film might feel a bit slow to the modern viewer. Still this is one of the earliest adaptations of Shakespeare on film and a rather good one.
- Henry V, Laurence Olivier (1944)
Olivier was a revered and prolific actor and theater director but he only directed five films, three of which were Shakespeare adaptations: Henry V (1944), Hamlet (1948) and Richard III (1955) (all of which have made the list).
Henry V was Olivier’s directorial debut and he received an Academy Honorary Award for his achievement as actor, director and producer of the film. The film is shot in color and the costumes are particularly impressive. It opens on a voice over taking us on a tour of the London of the time, until we arrive at the Globe playhouse, (where Shakespeare’s plays were first performed) and the film begins.
Henry V was shot towards the end of WW2 and functioned as a moral booster for the British troops and people.
- Hamlet, Laurence Olivier (1948)
The film won 4 academy awards: Best picture, actor, costume design and Art direction. So there’s really no need to tell you how great it is and why you should watch it. But, fun anecdote, in the scene where Hamlet kills Claudius, Olivier jumped from a fifteen feet high platform and landed on Claudius’ stuntman, who lost two teeth and blacked out.
Also fun fact, Eileen Eerie, who plays Hamlet’s mother, was 13 years younger than Olivier.
- Macbeth, Orson Welles (1948)
This is Welles’ first feature film Shakespeare adaptation (he had made a play, also based on Macbeth but with an all-black cast). Welles creates a dark atmosphere of distorted angles and shadows, in which he stars and directs. Welles’ witches are more prominent in the film than they are in the play and have extra scenes. According to him they represent the “struggle between the old and the new religion.” The film had a rather low budget (800 000$) and was heavily cut and censored. Also it was filmed on sets used for Westerns and in 23 days. This film is pure passion.
- Othello, Orson Welles (1952)
Welles’ Othello is essentially told in flashback (it’s framed by the funeral procession of Othello and Desdemona) and was shot in fragments within the course of 3 years (between 1948-51). Because he had trouble with the budget, Welles dubbed a lot of the dialogue in post, and sometimes the lips’ movement and the sound are incompatible. Still the numerous improvisations (again due to lack of funds) combined with slight inconsistencies make a rather intriguing film. Welles rearranges the text in order to make it more cinematic rather than theatrical and the result is a mixture of horror and expressionism.
- Richard III, Laurence Olivier (1955)
A tale of betrayal and greed, Olivier once again in the title role delivers an astonishing performance (with his fake elongated nose and limp). The film is in Technicolor, the costumes are lavish and beautiful and the cast has been widely praised. The film didn’t do as well as Olivier’s previous Shakespeare adaptations, and perhaps that’s why he didn’t receive enough funding to make another one (he wanted to adapt Macbeth as well.) Nevertheless, Olivier’s Richard III is charismatic and even though he is beyond evil, we don’t necessarily hate him.
- Throne of Blood, Akira Kurosawa (1957)
Kurosawa turns 11th century Scotland into medieval Japan. Macbeth, now called Washizu (played by Mifura) is a warrior, who while lost in the forest hears the prophecy. Like Macbeth his greed and blood thirst drive him and his wife to madness. In true Kurosawa fashion, the film alternates between scenes of complete stillness and action packed sequences, the camera work is precise and the scenery astonishing. This film is another cinematic masterpiece and definitely one you should watch.
- Chimes At Midnight, Orson Wells (1965)
This critic put it in far better words than I ever could: “Chimes expands Welles’ lifelong self-identification with Falstaff—the fat troublemaker with the big ego.” The script contains text from different Shakespeare plays and the characters are familiar (Prince Hal, Henry IV). It’s a tale of rejection and loneliness and despite all the financial set backs (again, why didn’t anyone give him money to make his movies??) Welles succeeds in creating another masterpiece. Chimes is perhaps Welles deepest tribute to Shakespeare because he loved the character so much that he decided to build an entire story around it. The result is feels like collaboration more than just an adaptation.
- Romeo and Juliet, Franco Zeffirelli (1968)
The film won 2 academy awards (costume design and cinematography) and 3 Golden Globes. The characters (and actors) are young and vivacious, which makes the film passionate and full of movement. Zeffirelli focuses on the love that they have for one anther rather than the violence that surrounds them. A must watch.
- Macbeth, Roman Polanski (1971)
Polanski’s rendition of Macbeth is bloody and violent and even if you sometimes have to close your eyes, it is widely acknowledged as one of the best Shakespeare on screen. The director and his co-writer Kenneth Tynan take some liberties (a lot of the monologues are interior to the character on a voice over), but the majority of the film is true to the original play.
From a purely objective point of view, it’s easy to recognize the craft of this film, but one must consider the circumstances that surrounded its creation. Macbeth is the first film that Polanski directed after the murder of his wife and unborn child (by Charles Mason and his followers). After giving up the film he was working on at the time (Day of the Dolphin) Polanski throws himself into this film. Even though the film portrays a pessimistic view of human nature, which perhaps reflects Polanski’s state of mind at the time, the film should not be seen only through this lens.
This remake of Macbeth is visually captivating, shot in Scotland amidst a constant fog.
“Polanski Meets Macbeth” is a documentary of the making-of of Macbeth, which features interviews, and behind the scenes footage.
- King Lear, Grigori Kozintsev 1971
Up until WW2 Kozintsev made political films, and he then turned to more literary subjects (he also made Hamlet and Don Quixote among others). However, the political aspirations of his previous films are still visible in King Lear and Kozintsev blatantly shows (from the opening scene) the inequality between the classes. He sought to portray the decay of civilization and the inevitable march “towards doom.” The dialogue is based on Boris Pasternak’s translation and the original text is subtitled and the music is composed by Shostakovish. This was Kozintsev’s last film.
- Ran, Akira Kurosawa (1985)
Although we now place Kurosawa in the list of the greatest filmmakers of all time, there was a time when he struggled to finance his films. The Japanese didn’t always appreciate his work and saw him as “too western”, so when he declared he was making a samurai epic based on Shakespeare’s King Lear no one really flocked to his side.
He finally made the film in 1983 with both Japanese and French financing. In fact with a budget if 12 million it was the most expensive Japanese film up until then.
Ran whose original title translates into “chaos” or “madness”, takes place in 16th century Feudal Japan. Kurosawa was 75 when he made the film and was very much concerned with his own mortality and life, he said it was going to be his last film but he later made two other ones.