Though William Shakespeare formed the basis for much of what we consider modern English and created a theater of poetry and intellectual insight that is still unmatched today, it’s difficult to translate his particular magic to film. Whether it’s because something is lost of the elemental energy that exists between live actors and audience or that film comes with expected aesthetic considerations that just don’t jive with the bard’s language is up for debate, but movie adaptations of his plays that work are few and far between. Luckily, there are a few filmmakers who have been able to capture what makes the plays so special, and below we list 10 of the best Shakespeare adaptations.
10 Ran (1985)
In this adaptation of King Lear, Tatsuya Nakadai plays the aged Lord Hidetora Ichimonji, a ruler who chooses to abdicate his throne and divide his land amongst his three sons, plunging his country into a war that eventually consumes his sanity and his life.
Ran (which translates as “chaos” or “turmoil”) is Akira Kurosawa’s late-life masterpiece and is frequently listed among the greatest films ever made. A family tragedy that unfolds on a grand scale, Ran is a visually stunning and existentially harrowing epic of human cruelty with few rivals in cinema.
9 My Own Private Idaho (1991)
Gus Van Sant’s loose-in-the-extreme adaptation of Henry IV stars River Phoenix as a gay sex worker who suffers from narcolepsy. When he crosses paths with a rebellious politician’s son (Keanu Reeves) the two hit the road, traveling from Portland to Idaho to Italy on a journey of trick-turning and self-discovery. The two stars are at their peak beauty, and Van Sant’s remixing of Bard’s poetry makes for a sumptuous and sexy road movie that’s as thoughtful as it is fresh.
8 Hamlet (1996)
In an act of extreme folly or genius, depending on your view, Kenneth Branagh directed and starred in this screen treatment of Hamlet which presented Shakespeare’s script completely unabridged. The resulting 242-minute opus will test the patience of even the most diehard purist, but it features a cast of some of the finest talent ever assembled for a project, including Derek Jacobi, Julie Christie, Charlton Heston, Judi Dench, Gérard Depardieu, John Gielgud, and a young Kate Winslet.
Though Branagh may not re-invent the wheel as a director, you have to admire his ambition, and Hamlet is far more stirring and watchable than a four-hour speech-a-thon has any right to be.
7 Romeo and Juliet (1968)
Though there’s a lot to like about Baz Luhrmann’s whacky modern take on Romeo and Juliet, the late Franco Zeffirelli’s period-accurate rendition is the truest to the heart of the story. Starring a boy-band beautiful Leonard Whiting and the then 15-year-old Olivia Hussey as the titular doomed lovers, this Italian production remains the last Shakespeare film to date nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.
6 Titus (1999)
Before she was declared something of a persona-non-grata for her catastrophic work on Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark, Julie Taymor was riding high on the fame a prestige afforded by her visionary stage production of Disney’s The Lion King and directed this similarly inventive film of Titus Andronicus, one of Shakespeare’s nastiest and least-loved works.
An epic tragedy filled with gruesome violence and caustic humor, Taymor cast Anthony Hopkins as the titular Roman general and Jessica Lange as the barbarian queen who opposes him. Though Taymor could be accused of over-stylizing and complicating the piece, Titus feels like Caligula meets Hellraiser and is unlike any other Shakespeare adaptation on film.
5 Chimes at Midnight (1966)
Orson Welles was no slouch when it came to Shakespeare, but Chimes at Midnight is easily his finest hour with the Bard, made at the peak of his creative powers.
When Henry IV (John Gielgud) seizes the throne of England, he sets off the War of the Roses and tangles with the rebellious Hotspur (Norman Rodway) and his forces. His heir, Prince Hal (Keith Baxter) is a layabout and womanizer who prefers partying with his street urchin friends to the ruling, the most influential of which is his father figure, Falstaff (Welles).
Sprawling, elegiac and winsome, Chimes at Midnight is easily one of the greatest Shakespeare adaptations in any medium.
4 Much Ado About Nothing (2012)
For some, the always celebrated Kenneth Branagh’s Tuscany-set version of one of Shakespeare’s best-loved comedies is the adaptation of choice, but Joss Whedon’s charmingly casual populist take reminds us of something we often forget: Shakespeare is for everyone.
Filmed in his own home with a stable of actors from all across his projects and sparked by his own wine-soaked, after-hours readings he’d host with them, Whedon’s Much Ado won’t win the hearts of those who treat iambic pentameter with its verses, beats, stressed and unstressed syllables as gospel, but it’s a lovely, heartfelt treatment of the material that gives the poetry back to the average viewer.
3 Macbeth (2015)
The most recent screen adaptation to stick the landing, this Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard led retelling of Macbeth is just faithful enough to the source material without sacrificing its own visual poetry. Justin Kurzel’s film is helped considerably by Fassbender, whose performance easy joins the ranks of greatest Shakespeare film performances.
2 Throne of Blood (1957)
A slightly lesser film than his masterful Ran, Kurosawa’s first go-round with the Bard is still a wonderfully moody and effective piece. Starring screen icon Toshirô Mifune as a samurai upstart named Washizu who, after a spirit predicts his future is spurred by his power-hungry wife Asaji (Isuzu Yamada) to commit murder, Kurosawa masterfully transplants the Macbeth story to feudal Japan for this dark epic.
1 Coriolanus (2011)
Based on one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known works, Ralph Fiennes directorial debut is a still underappreciated updating of the material that’s striking and relevant to today’s headlines.
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Fiennes stars as Caius Martius (aka Coriolanus) a haughty and brutal Roman general who finds himself pushed by his mother (Vanessa Redgrave) to campaign for a position as Consul. Ill-mannered and unsuited to public office, he sparks a riot that has him expelled from Rome. Full of rage, Coriolanus tracks down his greatest nemesis Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler) and enlists him to help him destroy the city he once served.
Powerful and packed with profound cultural resonance for modern audiences, Fiennes’ Coriolanus is a must-see.