William Shakespeare is strongly regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and his works are still being reinterpreted to this day. After writing 39 plays and 154 sonnets, the playwright focused mainly on comedies, tragedies and histories. His plays are performed more often than any playwright in history, with Hollywood also using its mastery of storytelling for more than a century.
Although many of his film adaptations have graced the silver screen, not all are the cream of the crop. Some have faded into darkness while others have an endurance that cannot be ignored. The fact that director Joel Coen’s The tragedy of Macbeth received universal criticism with its release last month, only reinforcing the idea that Shakespeare’s influence in Hollywood is here to stay. Here are the best Shakespeare movie adaptations.
10 Hamlet (1948)
Laurence Olivier had an unbridled passion for Shakespeare. The knight star appeared on stage in England for decades as a well-known Shakespeare actor before directing the famous Old Vic theater. Hamlet was the first non-American film (and only real Shakespeare adaptation) to win the Oscar for Best Picture, and also earned Olivier an Award for Best Actor, and with good reason. He manages to be both seriously faithful to the source material, while also editing the play to his astonishing necessities, something only a true Shakespeare lover can do.
9 My own private Idaho (1991)
Loosely based on Henry IV and the following parts, My own private Idaho tells the story of two street-wise friends as they leave Portland, Oregon and embark on a journey of self-growth and discovery along the way. With Keanu Reeves and the late River Phoenix (in his best performance), the film is considered a cult classic and gained a large following among LGBTQ + audiences. It garnered critical acclaim and moderate financial success, with the film and Phoenix earning numerous nominations and awards. Director Gus Van Sant has beautifully modernized Shakespeare’s words and truly his talented clues in this Henry IV adjustment.
8 Julius Caesar (1953)
Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Julius Caesar is an American adaptation of the Shakespearean play of betrayal and star Louis Calhern in the title role and Marlon brando as Mark Antony. The film is an excellent early example of Hollywood’s use of the iconic playwright’s works and is one of films’ most epic depictions of a Shakespeare play. Brando stole the show as Caesar’s opponent, and was nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role at the Oscars. The film received critical acclaim with its release and was praised for its faithful adaptation and sharp directing.
7 West Side Story (1961)
Inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, 1961’s west side story is a big screen adaptation of the 1957 Broadway musical of the same name. The film portrays Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer as star-crossed lovers of quarrels with New York families and gangs, the Jets and the Sharks. The main component of west side story is the forbidden element of love; Maria and Tony quickly fall deeply in love with each other, much like Romeo and Juliet. The film won 10 Oscars and was the highest-grossing film of 1961, and is still highly regarded as one of the greatest musicals of all time. An award-winning remanufacturing by Steven Spielberg was released in 2021.
6 Macbeth (2015)
2015’s epic historical drama Macbeth features a talented A-list cast, including Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard and Paddy Considine. The film follows Fassbender as Macbeth, a Scottish general who comes to power after discovering a prophecy claiming he will one day be king. Macbeth‘s cinematography is astonishing and the daring battle scenes are intense and are true to the Shakespeare play. Both Fassbender and Cotillard deliver strong performances that truly stand out and impress. It started at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival and received praise for the screenplay, cast, direction and overall footage.
5 She is the man (2006)
Probably the most light-hearted film adaptation of Shakespeare, She is The Man is a modern retelling of the romantic comedy Twelfth Night. It stars Amanda Bynes as a teenager Viola Hastings, as she pretends to be a boy play in the boys’ soccer team at a boarding school. The film is true to its referenced material, incorporating the characters’ names and points of departure and all the funny antics. The film introduced the Shakespeare play to a new generation and did it in a fun and entertaining way; it also helped to introduce Channing Tatum to the world, happy. While it may not be critically acclaimed, it is nonetheless amusing.
4 Much Ado About Nothing (2012)
Joss Whedon’s black and white romantic comedy Very busy about nothing is a modern retelling of the Shakespeare play of the same name. It is largely unchanged from the original (including the dialogue) and yet shockingly contemporary, and also reunites Angel alums Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof as the famous Beatrice and Benedict. The movie was filmed in Whedon’s house over the 12 day period and although more comfortable than the 1993 Kenneth Branagh version, it has almost more heart and magic in its storytelling, reaching viewers on an intimate and simple level. Very busy about nothing garnered praise and appreciation from critics, with many calling it a great contemporary Shakespeare film.
3 10 Things I Hate About You (1999)
10 things I hate about you is an iconic romantic comedy with a cast of the then Hollywood make-up and newcomers including Julia Stiles, Heath Ledger and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. This is a modernization of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew and is retold in a ’90s high school environment. The premise follows new student Cameron as he crushes “It” girl Bianca, who is only allowed to go out if her temperamental older sister Kat does too. He recruits the bad boy Patrick to strive for Kat, and thus comes to terms with their father’s strict appointment rules. The film was a breakthrough role for Stiles, Ledger and Gordon-Levitt, and is a very clever, unique and crowd-pleasing version of the Shakespeare play.
2 Hamlet (1996)
Kenneth Branagh edited, directed and starred in several Shakespeare adaptations, including the excellent Hamlet, in which he played the title role. With an impressive supporting cast that includes Kate Winslet, Billy Crystal, Charlton Heston and Judi Dench, the film is the first unabridged theatrical film version of Hamlet, clocking in at a massive 242 minutes. Branagh’s version is highly regarded as one of the best Shakespeare adaptations ever made, even if it was not a box office success (most likely due to its four hours of playing time). He uses flashbacks to portray scenes that are either implied or described in Shakespeare’s texts, bringing his words to life on the big screen. Hamlet received critical acclaim and earned four Oscar nominations, especially for his incredible set design and costumes.
1 Romeo + Juliet (1996)
One of the most famous and award-winning adaptations of Shakespeare, Romeo + Juliet Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes play the title roles as two teenagers who fall in love despite their families arguing. Many are familiar with Franco Zeffirelli’s famous 1968 version of Romeo and Juliet, what is a powerful depiction in its own right, but it is the strength and high-octane design of this adaptation that is surely the most unique and spectacular. Director Baz Luhrmann uses the power of music to beautifully enhance the scenes, mood and cinematography and the beautiful images only enhance the experience for viewers. Romeo + Juliet is strongly regarded as one of the most influential Shakespeare film adaptations ever made and is recognized for its fresh and innovative storytelling; it’s as if Shakespeare made the world’s most famous feature-length video, driving DiCaprio and Dene to stars in the process.
Lord Macbeth (Denzel Washington) and his wife (Frances McDormand) take control of Scotland in The Tragedy of Macbeth.
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