Whenever I end up in a discussion about books always being better than movie adaptations, I always end up thinking, “What about Shakespeare plays? Do those count?” As one of my teachers once pointed out, the point of a play is seeing it performed, so while reading a Shakespeare play is its own kind of joy, the ultimate goal should be seeing actors getting up there and saying the words and doing the actions along with all the tweaks, the edits, the props, the actions and everything applied by the producers of the adaptation. I enjoy watching a good Shakespeare movie, and thankfully there are a lot of them out there, so many that I am delighted but also disheartened because I don’t know if I’ll be able to watch all the ones I want to though I’m going to give it a try. Hopefully, this mix of adaptations of some of the Bard’s comedies, histories, and tragedies in no particular order will spark the interest of other Shakespeare fans who are looking out for another adaptation to enjoy.
In sharing some of the most fascinating ones I’ve personally seen (so I know I’m missing some big ones), I’ve also decided to leave out adaptations which are based on the plot of the play but don’t use the original language, so there will be no “10 Things I Hate About You” on this list (though it is a really good movie. Go see it!). Don’t forget to let me know which adaptations would be on your list of favourites. It not only adds to the discussion but then I’ll get more options to add to my “To Watch” list.
Seven Shakespeare Adaptations Lovers of the Bard Should Check Out
#1 Much Ado About Nothing (1993)
What’s It About: Shakespeare’s comedy about two pairs of lovers. One set, Beatrice and Benedick, appear to hate each other as they banter and trade hilarious witty repartee, the other set, Claudio and Hero, are deeply in love, until a scandal threatens their happiness.
Why You Should Watch: You can’t beat the 1993 adaptation. This movie is genuinely funny. The acting is spirited and joyous. I dare you to find a cast who seems to be having more fun than this group. Everyone seems to be having a grand time, and Beatrice and Benedick are played by Kenneth Branagh and his then wife, Emma Thompson who are both some of the most talented and fascinating actors out there.
Content Warning: There’s some very, very brief nudity.
Much Ado About Nothing Film Review – A Timeless Summer of Love
#2 The Hollow Crown series: Henry V (2012)
What’s It About: In this film series, Henry V stars Tom Hiddleston who was the wild heedless Prince Henry (AKA Prince Hal) in Henry IV Part 1&2. In Henry V, the prince has taken the throne and given up his irresponsible ways and become a king of self-restraint, intelligence and heroism. He sets out with a small English army to battle the French and leads his men by example and with rousing, encouraging words, defeating them in a mighty battle at Agincourt.
Why Should You Watch: Tom Hiddleston plays the prince who later becomes king. We all know he’s born to do Shakespeare. I know it. You know it. Prithee the whole world should know it. Although he’s not my favourite version of Henry Plantagenet (I’ll get into who is in a bit), he’s still as engaging as ever in this role which calls on him to be boyish, endearing, inspiring and even romantic. This adaptation is not the most exciting one I’ve seen of this play, but Hiddleston makes it a must-see.
Content Warning: Expect violence and furious battles. The whole play hinges on the outcome of England’s war with France.
Photo from Othello (1995)
#3 Othello (1995)
What’s It About: The Moor Othello has his life torn apart by jealousy and betrayal. Everything is orchestrated by one of the most notorious villains in literature Iago (unfortunately not the parrot from Aladdin. He was less insidious)
Why Should You Watch: This is a riveting tale which explores racism, jealousy, and betrayal. The movie does it justice I think with Laurence Fishburne as Othello and Kenneth Branagh again. I like him in this. In his only villainous Shakespearean role, Branagh is so treacherous and seductively crafty as he manipulates everyone.
Content Warning: Besides the violence that is characteristic of Shakespeare’s plays, look out for sex scenes with some nudity.
#4 Midsummer Night’s Dream (1999)
What’s It About: Shakespeare loves having different pairs of lovers dancing around each other, their lives weaving together with sudden attacks of love or bursting apart with misunderstandings. This play is no different as Lysander, Hermia, Helena and Demetrius, some young Athenians, spend a night in a forest populated by meddling fairies as they argue and fall in and out of love. Oberon and Puck get involved for their own amusement and for private revenge and insanity and hilarity are rampant. At the same time, some local workmen try to rehearse a play in the privacy of the forest and get pulled into fairy mischief as well.
Why Should You Watch: I avoided this movie for awhile because I had not heard good things about it, but when I finally sat down to watch it, I found it enjoyable and full of fun. This movie is full of top notch stars. Look for Kevin Kline, Calista Flockhart, and Cristian Bale. I particularly liked Stanley Tucci as Puck. Rupert Everett is the fairy king Oberon, and if you never noticed how attractive he is in anything before (confession I hadn’t), you will be hard-pressed to find a sexier Oberon.
Content: Oberon’s treatment of his wife is questionable at best. These are definitely the morally ambiguous type of fairies.
#5 Henry V (1989)
What’s It About: See #2 as Kenneth Branagh plays the young king who has thrown off his wilder days to become a king we all would follow into the jaws of the French if he asked us to.
Why You Should Watch: I think this may have been the first Shakespearean adaptation I’d ever seen. At the time, I wasn’t too in tune with the language or the story of Henry V, but I was riveted by the production, the storytelling, and the acting. As director and main actor, Branagh pulled off his role perfectly and really showed me how stirring Shakespearean language can be. He’s been compared to Laurence Olivier before because of his mastery of the craft, and you can see why here whether he’s quietly but devastatingly telling the French why exactly they should fear his wrath, whether he’s urging his weary, frightened soldiers to fight with all the courage he knows they have or whether he’s earnestly wooing the French princess Katherine (played by Emma Thompson again).
Content Warning: This is a story about war. The battle scenes are not just close, bloody, primal and exciting, but heart-rending and painful as well. This is not a fight with superficial action going on.
#6 The Taming of the Shrew (1967)
What’s It About: By their father’s decree, beautiful, mild-mannered Bianca cannot be wooed or married until her beautiful, fierce, sharp-tongued, slap happy, older sister Kate gets married first. This is a serious obstacle for Bianca’s many suitors. Kate and her one daring suitor Petruchio are played by Elizabeth Taylor and her then-husband Richard Burton.
Why You Should Watch
When else would you get to see Elizabeth Taylor recite Shakespeare? She is defiant and fearless, and you can see why most of the other characters are rather afraid of her. The filmmakers take the rather sexist premise of the original play and show everything with a farcical slant. There’s plenty of slapstick and fierce banter back and forth. Expect lots of wreckage whenever Kate and Petruchio get upset. It’s directed by famed director Franco Zeffirelli who later received a nomination for directing a movie of another Shakespeare play you may have heard of, Romeo and Juliet.
#7 Hamlet (1990)
What’s It About: Even if you don’t know the plot of this play, you’ll know that there’s something definitely rotten in this state of Denmark where Hamlet (played by Mel Gibson) is devastated by his father’s death and his mother’s quick remarriage. Enter a horrifying ghost to tell him the truth about the reason his father died, and Hamlet finds himself tortured by indecision, rage and a lust for revenge.
Why You Should Watch
Mel Gibson playing one of the most complicated roles in Shakespeare! You can’t miss that. He does quite well actually. This movie has a lot of astonishing actors like Glenn Close as the much maligned Queen Gertrude and Helena Bonham Carter who of course plays poor Ophelia. It’s also directed by the much revered Franco Zeffirelli.
This is not known as one of Shakespeare’s plays with the highest body counts for nothing. Furthermore, one of the controversial themes of the play is that Hamlet had an Oedipal interest in his mother, a topic scholars still hotly debate. This movie emphasizes that inappropriate perspective quite a bit, so be warned.
Romeo + Juliet (1996)
Romeo and Juliet (1968)
Much Ado About Nothing (2012)
Henry V (1944)
Merchant of Venice (2004)
These are some other fantastic adaptations based on the Bard’s plays, a few I’ve heard good things about but haven’t seen yet. What would you add?
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