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The Top 10 Shakespeare Films

By Martin Keady · February 10, 2015

The influence of Shakespeare extends to every art form, as other writers, composers and artists have adapted or transposed his work to every other artistic medium, including music (for example, the operas of Verdi and Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District), visual art (the Shakespeare paintings of Millais and Fuseli), and other branches of literature, from poetry (the Romantics first celebrated Shakespeare as the universal poet) to fiction (including Borges, whose short story, Everything and Nothing, is perhaps the greatest ever literary response to Shakespeare).

Shakespeare’s influence is equally keenly felt in the “seventh art form”, cinema. Almost since the beginning of film, at the end of the 19th century, a succession of great directors (including Olivier, Welles, Kurosawa, Brook and Luhrmann) have sought to translate his works to the screen. These are some of the greatest successes.

 

10. Eric Rohmer’s A Tale of Winter (1992)

As the title suggests, Eric Rohmer’s A Tale of Winter is not, strictly speaking, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s late, great play (it is probably the greatest of Shakespeare’s late plays, or romances), The Winter’s Tale. Rather, it is a response to the play, a celebration of it and ultimately a reimagining.  In this way, it is authentically Shakespearean.

A Tale of Winter (Conte d’hiver) was the second instalment of Rohmer’s final great cycle of films, “Tales of the Four Seasons”, which he made throughout the 1990s and with which he effectively ended his illustrious career.  It is the amazing tale of a young woman, Félicie, who meets and falls in love with a young man called Charles on her holiday.  (So many of Rohmer’s great films, such as The Green Ray (Le Rayon Vert) are about holidays: he understood, as Shakespeare himself did, that holidays are genuinely ‘holy days’, when we are free to escape routine and become our true selves.)  However, having apparently made a note of his address, she finds that she has actually got it wrong and is unable to find him again.  (This may seem implausible to younger readers, who have all manner of electronic means of keeping in contact, and indeed of tracking each other down, but it was eminently possible in the pre-internet age.)  Consequently, she loses touch with him, with only their child to remind her of her lost love.

Then, she is saved by Shakespeare – literally.  When she sees a performance of The Winter’s Tale, and in particular the scene in which the seemingly dead Hermione, who had been “killed” by her husband Leontes’s jealousy, is somehow magically brought back to life, she is so moved that she, too, miraculously comes back to life and sets out to find Charles again.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=udkowq4qYH8]

 

Trailer Credit

9. Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935)

This Dream is truly dreamy.  Made at the height of Hollywood’s original golden age, it was based on Reinhardt’s hugely successful stage adaptation, which had played to enormous audiences at the Hollywood Bowl.  Reinhardt was primarily a stage director and A Midsummer Night’s Dream was his first and only film (Dieterle, a far more experienced movie-maker, was hired to work alongside him).  This firm grounding in the world of the theatre ensured that the poetry and dramatisation of the play were superb, but in addition there were numerous cinematic delights: a starry cast, including Jimmy Cagney as a marvellously mischievous Bottom; state-of-the-art special effects that brought the “fairy kingdom” to life; and a lustrous score by arguably the greatest film composer, Erich Korngold, who Reinhardt personally invited to Hollywood to produce the film’s music (incorporating large chunks of Mendelssohn that Korngold rearranged and reorchestrated).  The result is perhaps the most dazzling Shakespeare comedy ever committed to celluloid.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vfj9PHlmJF8]

 

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8. Laurence Olivier’s Henry V (1944)

No discussion of Shakespeare on screen is complete without reference to the immortal Laurence Olivier.  His three Shakespeare movies, Henry V (1944), Hamlet (1948) and Richard III (1955), are all masterful, but it is his Henry V that I have included in this list for two main reasons.  First, it was both critically and, even more importantly, commercially successful (Reinhardt’s Dream was critically lauded, but less successful at the box office), thus proving that there was potentially a mass market for screen adaptations of Shakespeare.  Secondly, it established the template for transposing Shakespeare from the stage to the screen.  Famously, it begins in the Globe theatre where the Chorus asks the audience to use their imagination – “O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend/The brightest heaven of invention,/ A kingdom for a stage, princes to act/And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!” – before literally taking flight to the fields of France.  Of course, Olivier’s depiction of Henry V’s invasion of France was a conscious homage to the Allied invasion of France on D-Day; the film was released less than six months after that momentous event and dedicated to the Allied troops.  Incidentally, this is another Shakespeare film with a sensational score, by the great English composer William Walton.  The original music that almost certainly accompanied Shakespeare’s plays (some of which may just have been written by Shakespeare himself) is, sadly, lost to us, but in the scores of Korngold, Walton and others we have a new “Shakespeare soundtrack.”

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nIhYxshDPLg]

 

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7. Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957)

Kurosawa made a magnificent cinematic adaptation of King Lear in 1985, near the end of his career, but Throne of Blood just edges it for me as the classic Kurosawa Shakespeare.  Its original Japanese title is Kumonosu-jo, which roughly translates into English as “Spider Web Castle”, and wonderful though Throne of Blood is as a title, it is a shame that “Spider Web Castle” was not retained, because it is the perfect image of the strength and fragility that Macbeth (here, General Washizu) combines.  Kurosawa not only translated the play from stage to screen (although he used elements of the formal and stylised Japanese noh theatre, particularly in the performance of his Lady Macbeth) but from English to Japanese.  In doing so, he showed that what mattered in filming Shakespeare was not just capturing the letter (the text) of a play but its spirit (its ideas, themes and subtext).  In Macbeth, that spirit is the sense of evil foreboding that encapsulates the play, and Kurosawa portrays it in the shadowy world of the Spider Web Forest, where Macbeth/Washizu first meets the witches, and which his enemies ultimately use to conceal themselves as they advance upon him.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m4KMDzNx1Xk]

 

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6. Orson Welles’s Othello (1952)

As I discussed in my “Top 10 Orson Welles Films”, Welles was a great Shakespearean all his life; indeed, his first great artistic successes were on stage in the 1930s with a “Voodoo Macbeth” in Harlem and a “Caesar” on Broadway.  His first attempt to film Shakespeare, his 1948 Macbeth, was not an unadulterated success, but his second attempt, Othello, was a huge improvement.  Welles himself was a magnificent Moor; he obviously understood the insecurities that rack even the greatest of men.  But as is so often the case with Othello, the film is stolen by Micheál MacLiammóir’s Iago, who is one of the great Shakespearean, and indeed cinematic, villains.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fCZ0obRJa08]

 

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5. Grigory Kozintsev’s Hamlet (1964)

Grigory Kozintsev’s career as a director was a long and storied one – somehow, unlike so many Soviet artists, including directors, he continued to make films throughout Stalin’s long reign – but it is on the strength of his last two films, of Hamlet and King Lear, that his reputation largely rests.

The genius of Kozintsev’s Shakespeare movies is twofold.  First, as an artist working in a police state, he intuitively understood Shakespeare, who, we often forget, was himself an artist working in the Elizabethan police state.  Hence, Kozintsev’s Hamlet emphasises the political dimension of the play (much more so than Olivier’s Hamlet some 15 years before), showing how it is not just medieval Denmark that is a “prison”, but Communist Russia.  Secondly, Kozintsev summed up the essence of adapting Shakespeare for screen.  As he famously put it, the real attraction of filming Shakespeare was not that you could show a man on horseback but that you could show a close-up of his eyes – you could literally show what he was thinking.  And this Kozintsev does time and again with  his star, Innokenty Smoktunovsky, who, like Olivier, was a beautiful, blonde Hamlet.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hr4xI8yZFXk]

 

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4. Orson Welles’s Chimes at Midnight (1965)

If Kozintsev is the great Soviet (Eastern) interpreter of Shakespeare on screen, then Welles (just ahead of Olivier) is the great Western (Hollywood) Shakespeare film-maker.  Like so many of his post-Citizen Kane movies, his Chimes at Midnight was a genuine labour of love; it took him years to raise the money to film his stage adaptation of Shakespeare’s history plays, which focused on Falstaff.  Clearly, Welles, a true bon viveur himself, identified with Shakespeare’s great fat man, who proudly proclaims: “I am not only witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in other men”.  Chimes recasts Falstaff as a genuine tragic hero in his own right, who the callous Prince Hal learns life from but ultimately casts aside.  Welles, who had been cast aside by the Hollywood studio system after making its greatest ever film, obviously saw a parallel between himself and Falstaff, and not only in the size of their waistband.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eii4_wbuPJY]

 

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3. Grigory Kozintsev’s King Lear (1971)

It has been said that Hamlet is the greater play but King Lear the greater tragedy, because Lear almost achieves redemption (when he is reconciled with his beloved Cordelia, who he had foolishly exiled) only for it to be snatched away from him at the very end (when she is killed by the evil Edmund).  Perhaps that is why two films of King Lear make my top three; in cinema, it is often “happy endings” that are celebrated, but in Shakespearean cinema (and Shakespeare in general) it is the tragic endings  that are the most powerful.

Kozintsev’s Lear was based on the Russian translation of the play by Boris Pasternak, the author of Doctor Zhivago; Pasternak was credited by Kozintsev as a co-writer of the screenplay, along with Shakespeare.  And it was filmed in the desolate flat landscapes of Estonia, at the time a satellite Soviet state. But like any Lear, or indeed any production of Shakespeare’s great tragedies, it is only as good as its titular hero, and in Jüri Järvet (a great Estonian actor who appeared in Tarkovsky’s Solaris, among many other films) Kozintsev had a monumental Lear, notwithstanding his slender frame.

The most powerful scenes in the film, and they are among the most powerful in all Shakespearean cinema, are where the addled, indeed maddened, Lear confronts “mad Tom” on the blasted heath.  But instead of confronting one homeless, near-naked man on a stage, Kozintsev’s Lear sees hundreds, if not thousands, of destitute people – the populace that he has failed to look after as King, just as the great Soviet “Kings” had failed to take care of, or even feed, their people.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qH8fVqbUToc]

 

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2. Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1995)

Baz Luhrmann’s most recent literary adaptation, his 3-D Gatsby, was not a masterpiece of literary adaptation: at times, he resorted to just quoting, and transposing on screen, great chunks of the text.  But his Romeo + Juliet was.  Indeed, it is the great modern Shakespeare movie: lightning-paced, dazzlingly edited and utterly cinematic.  From the very beginning, with the confrontation between the Capulets’ and Montagues’ servants filmed as a shoot-out that turns a petrol station into a fireball, Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (the subtly altered title is indicative of how he updates the classic tale of young love that is thwarted by old foolishness) is, like all his movies, lurid and manic (and that is meant as the most sincere compliment).  This is a classic “teen” Shakespeare (full of sex and ecstasy – both the emotion and the drug) that is also absolutely timeless.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gjxHdNxvySU]

 

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1. Peter Brook’s King Lear (1971)

1971 is obviously the key year for Shakespearean film, as two of my top three, and the two greatest cinematic King Lears, were both made in that year.  Peter Brook’s Lear just tops Kozintsev’s because it is even bleaker – indeed, impossible as it sounds, it is even bleaker than Shakespeare’s ending.  When Paul Scofield’s Lear imagines seeing a living Cordelia again, even as he holds his daughter’s corpse in his arms, it is the ultimate Shakespearean cinematic trick: the classic example of how the finest Shakespearean adaptations not only capture great stage productions (Brook’s film was based on his own legendary production with Scofield for the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford) but add to and enhance them.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nwysi0MMX54]

 

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SHAKESPEARE THE SCREENWRITER

Perhaps the reason that Shakespeare so often successfully translates to screen (certainly more successfully than his contemporaries, even Marlowe: there is yet to be a great screen Faustus or Tamburlaine) is that he was, arguably, the first screenwriter.  For all his complex poetry and linguistic dexterity, Shakespeare often writes visually – in word-pictures.  When we think of Hamlet, we think of the skull he holds; with Macbeth, the air-borne dagger; with Othello, the “green-eyed monster”. Perhaps that is why his 400-year-old plays provided such remarkable source material for cinema, the 20th century’s greatest art form, and continue to be explored and developed, even amid the multiplicity of 21st century screens.