William Shakespeare has gradually phased out of mainstream culture as a result of modern society’s reluctance to grapple with the original verse. There has been a growing number of films that lay claim to Shakespeare, however, their validity is somewhat challenged – O, 10 Things I Hate About You and She’s the Man. To the Bard’s most faithful, these adaptations are nothing but sleazy spin-offs, as they ultimately discard original text language. This discussion evidently coincides with the question, what is deemed to be Shakespearean? With the premise that Shakespeare = original verse, we glance a selective eye over the many true adaptations, in an attempt to pick out the top ten movies most worthy of its Shakespearean title.
10. Richard III (1995)
Richard Loncraine’s Richard III, written by and starring Sir Ian McKellen, repositions the classic tale in Nazified England and depicts Richard III’s Machiavellian rise to power. The best element to this particular adaptation is the acting prowess of Sir Ian McKellen. Nominated for the BAFTA for Best Actor in a Leading Role, McKellen expertly portrays the ruthlessness and animosity of the King. His performance is made superlative through his rich vocal quality that gives life to Shakespearean verse.
9. Romeo and Juliet (1996)
Probably the most famous of adaptations is Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet. Injecting Shakespeare into the MTV generation, Luhrmann’s red curtain aesthetics and glamorous cast, compensates for the use of original language and in doing so, prominently appeals to youth culture, otherwise reluctant to contend with the Bard’s original text. Often considered as a benchmark for other filmmakers, Luhrmann’s abrasive approach has influenced future adaptations, which similarly invite a post-modern outlook to Shakespeare. Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet has proved that Shakespeare can still be homed within the mainstream, without having to sacrifice the original language.
8. Coriolanus (2011)
Shakespearean thespian Ralph Fiennes makes his directorial debut with one of the Bard’s lesser-known tragedies. This tale of corruption and politics endures a post-modern revival and is set amongst a post-apocalyptic world, strangled by poverty and desperation. Known for his many Shakespearean portrayals on the stage, the RADA trained actor translates the theatre-style performance onto the big screen. This is perhaps the film’s biggest boast. The ‘up-close and personal’ camerawork is superbly captivating and Fiennes’s display of raw emotion, often in a canted close-up, makes for a powerhouse performance. His veteran co-stars, Brian Cox, Vanessa Redgrave and Gerard Butler, similarly execute their Shakespearean roles with the necessary vigour and emotion to allow the tragedy to be indeed, tragic.
7. Merchant of Venice (2004)
The proudest feature of this adaptation is the casting of Al Pacino in the legendary role of Shylock. Although best known for his many mob movies, Pacino’s performance in Michael Radford’s Merchant of Venice stands as a shinning example of how to perform Shakespeare on screen. His rendition of the celebrated “Hath not a Jew’s eyes” speech adds to his multitude of inspirational speeches and is remembered as one of the greatest deliveries of the Shylock speech to date. Joseph Fiennes shares a similarly successful Shakespearean history to that of his brother, Ralph. Although equally effective, Joseph favours the gentle and subtle approach to delivering Shakespeare.
6. Prospero’s Books (1991)
Owing to the language as being all-important, it is not often that filmmakers discover that perfect balance between the audio and the visual. This being said, Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books is the most visually stunning films to possess a Shakespearean title as well as maintaining the poetry of language. It is often said that John Gielgud was the most brilliant Shakespearean actor of the 20th Century. His utterly sensitive performance as Prospero certainly validates that claim.
5. A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1999)
Visually and audibly captivating, Michael Hoffman’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream stirs the imagination and is completely creative with everything from set-design to costume to performance. What makes this adaptation so respectable is that it manages to do all of this, whilst never losing sight of the Bard’s intentions. The film is graced with stellar performances from Stanley Tucci, who brings a cheeky charisma to the energetic Puck, Michelle Pfeiffer as the glamorous Fairy Queen Titania, Christian Bale as Demetrius and Kevin Kline’s interpretation of Nick Bottom is stupendous given the character’s range of demands.
4. Henry V (1989)
Sir Kenneth Branagh, known for his many portrayals of Shakespearean characters, gives us a powerful and inspiring performance as King Henry V. Dominating the screen, physically and audibly, the Irishman demonstrates a natural flare for the Bard. Many filmmakers will tell you, especially ones that have tried and failed, that it’s no simple thing directing Shakespeare. Kenneth Branagh takes on the role of director in this adaptation and executes it with admirable dexterity. Also starring Shakespearean actor Derek Jacobi, Branagh’s adaptation promotes an accurate reimagining of the play, faithful to Shakespeare’s intentions.
3. Henry V (1944)
Serving as the original from which Branagh’s adaptation would emerge, Sir Laurence Oliver’s Henry V has graced us Anglophiles with a rich slice of Shakespeare, steaming with theatrical performances. Olivier possesses this godly confidence in acting out Shakespeare that makes for magnetic viewing. His screen presence in the role of Henry V elevates Shakespeare to a whole new level, setting a standard for which only the likes of Kenneth Branagh could aspire to.
2. Hamlet (1948)
Olivier’s Hamlet saw the actor awarded with two Oscars, one for Best Picture, the other for Best Actor. His delivery of the “to be or not to be” speech is unique in every sense of the word, as Olivier offers his own interpretation. We feel his passion for Shakespeare in every word, as it spoken with such sensitivity, thought and grace.
1. Hamlet (1996)
Just edging ahead of Oliver’s adaptation, Branagh’s Hamlet acts as the ultimate Shakespearean film worthy of its title. Directed by Kenneth Branagh, Hamlet successfully fuses a catalogue of Shakespearean elements, resulting in the most ambitious film to date. As opposed to cutting the original text to suit the ninety-minute mark, the innovative Hamlet celebrates the text by hanging on its every word and every scene.