The Bard on the Big Screen: The Film Adaptations of Shakespeare

images_articles_movieshakespeare_600416404With the recent addition of Joss Whedon’s movie version of Much Ado About Nothing to movie houses, I’ve gotten excited about Shakespeare again.  I haven’t seen it yet, but it looks like  a joyride of a film, chock full of favorite Whedonverse actors like Nathan Fillion, Amy Acker, and Alexis Denisof, and it’s my favorite Shakespeare play, one I can watch in different iterations over and over and still enjoy.  The Bard’s prolific output of Elizabethan drama stands the test of time, and is delightfully open to interpretation.  There are both faithful adaptations of his work with period costumes of the day and endless variations of time and place.  I’ve by no means seen them all, but I eat up screen Shakespeare whenever I can get it, and since the early ’90’s I have been something of an aficionado.  I’ve seen quite a few very loose adaptations that bear little resemblance to the original works at all:  for instance the teen comedies 10 Things I Hate About You and She’s the Man were based in part on The Taming of the Shrew and Twelfth Night, respectively, but neither really had much in common with their inspirations (10 Things is the superior film of the two, but neither is exactly Shakespeare, if you follow my meaning).  I don’t mind updates in setting and so forth, but the wonderful language is what makes the plays so special– Shakespeare was a brilliant wordsmith capable of dry biting wit, broad slapstick, and tragic soliloquy.  Therefore, you won’t see any movies simply “based upon” the Bard in my reviews here– only true adaptations with the original words intact need apply.  I’m not even ranking these, because they are all kinds of degrees of awesome, so instead I’m going in chronological order, and sticking to “modern” films (1990 or later– you’ve already been forced to watch the 60’s versions of, say, Romeo and Juliet and The Taming of the Shrew in your English Lit classes).

HAMLET (1990)

MSDHAML EC036Once upon a time, Mel Gibson wasn’t box office poison and this is the film that started the slight wave of Shakespearean cinema that had been largely absent in the 70’s and 80’s.  A big-budget big-screen bonanza helmed by Franco Zeffirelli himself, this version starred Gibson as a too-old Hamlet, Glenn Close (in her first Shakespeare role) as his too-young mother, Helena Bonham Carter as doomed Ophelia and a host of other respected actors in supporting roles, including  Ian Holm, Paul Scofield, and Stannis Baratheon (oops, Stephen Dillane).  For Fluffy, this was a bit of a mixed bag on film;  a bit draggy in places, completely riveting in others.  The performances vary from decent (Gibson’s Prince of Denmark is notably more douchey than sympathetic) to electrifying (Bonham Carter’s downward spiral into madness is nothing short of perfection).  A faithful adaptation with a grim look thanks to beautiful location work (mostly Scottish), it mostly works on the strength of Zeffirelli’s direction and his deep understanding of the Bard’s work.  Oh, and Bonham Carter.  She is divine.


1Famed Shakespearean Kenneth Branagh directed and stars in this adaptation of (as I said before) my favorite play.  I tend to gravitate more toward the comedies than the tragedies, and this one is one of the most brilliant.  Branagh and his then-wife Emma Thompson are luminous as Benedick and Beatrice, the sparring partners who have no idea they are actually in love.  The cast is filled with big Hollywood names– Michael Keaton, Denzel Washington, Keanu Reeves, Robert Sean Leonard and Kate Beckinsale (in her film debut as Hero), and Shakespearean stalwarts like Imelda Staunton and Brian Blessed.  Keaton as comic constable Dogberry is a particular standout– he plays the character as broadly as if he were actually onstage– and even Reeves seems to have an understanding of his character (decidedly in Sad Keanu mode, he takes his misery out on those around him as the villain of the piece).  But it is our central couple, frenemies who become something more through a series of sparkling, classic interchanges (and the machinations of their friends), who make this my favorite Shakespeare movie ever– well, them and the lush, gorgeous Tuscan countryside where it was filmed, which becomes almost a characterization in itself.

OTHELLO (1995)

othello-iagoThe Moor of Venice was in the past seldom portrayed by an actual actor of color–  the pasty Olivier was considered the definitive Othello for many years– so it was refreshing to see the insanely talented Laurence Fishburne take on the role, arguably the Bard’s juiciest, and go, well, insane (onscreen, anyway).  Kenneth Branagh is on hand again as the villainous Iago, who plants the seeds of doubt in Othello which come to such spectacularly awful fruition.  Branagh plays Iago as possibly jealous of not only his lost promotion but also the Moor’s marriage to Desdemona due to his own homoerotic attraction to Othello, another neat, realistically modern spin which was of course open to interpretation from the source material.  Fishburne’s brooding descent from a regal upstanding hero into a homicidal maniac is brutally pitch-perfect.  Irene Jacob as Desdemona is lovely, her doe-eyed innocence the natural counterpoint to the intense Othello, and Oliver Parker’s able direction keeps everything well-paced on its collision course with the inevitable tragedy.


viola1Another of my very favorite plays, Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare’s numerous cross-dressing, gender-bending mistaken-identity tales (which can get occasionally confusing even to those of us familiar with the original material).  It’s like, okay, he loves her but she loves him but he’s really a she and she has a lookalike twin brother she thinks is dead but he isn’t really and the he that’s a she is in love with the other guy but he thinks she’s a guy and well… it’s complicated.  Mix in a comic subplot in which the aptly named Toby Belch and his friends give the “Punk’d” treatment to an uppity butler and some nice songs courtesy of Ben Kingsley– yes, he can sing too!– and this is definitely a fully-packed watch.  Helena Bonham Carter (again) is a real treat as lovelorn Olivia, who does not realize the object of her affection, Cesario, is actually a girl, Viola (Imogen Stubbs).  Meanwhile, Viola is pining for her boss, Duke Orsino (Toby Stephens), who only has eyes for Olivia.  Then Viola’s presumed-dead twin brother shows up and things get really interesting.  Beautifully directed by Trevor Nunn on location in Cornwall, this is one of the best adaptations of the comedies (despite Stubbs being slightly too pretty to be believable as a boy).


Screen-shot-2009-12-31-at-9.17.00-PMReleased close on the heels of Twelfth Night, director Baz Luhrmann’s modernization of the quintessential tragedy made a bigger splash in the collective consciousness due to its then-novel approach of utilizing a different setting from the original while maintaining the Elizabethan dialogue, the star power of its young leads (Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes), its cool indie-pop soundtrack and its very stylized, beautiful cinematography.  Set pieces like the first meeting at the aquarium (pictured) and the kiss in the elevator are classic in their visual impact.  My jaw remained dropped throughout my first viewing of this film– it’s absolutely gorgeous and oozes reckless romance.  The supporting cast are all memorable, especially John Leguizamo as a scenery-chewing Tybalt and Harold Perrineau as a flamboyant Mercutio, but other heavyweights on hand include Brian Dennehy, Paul Sorvino, Pete Postlethwaite, Paul Rudd and Miriam Margolyes.  For a certain generation, this was THE introduction to Shakespeare, and ushered in a new-wave sensibility regarding interpretation of his works while staying true to to the timeless nature of the source.  Almost two decades later, it still looks, feels and sounds fresh and not at all dated.


midsummerThis star-studded film is another, slightly less flashy update (the action is moved to turn-of-the-last-century Italy), but it feels a little uneven in its execution.  Make no mistake, it is a beautiful film of another of my most beloved plays, with some stellar performances, but not all the big names are quite up to the material.  Michelle Pfeiffer as Titania, in particular, seems to be merely reciting her lines, though she looks fab and is quite adorable while smitten with donkey-headed Nick Bottom (an outstanding Kevin Kline, who is always a high point in any movie in which he appears).  The sets are incredible and the casting is mostly spot-on;  Christian Bale, Calista Flockhart, Dominic West, and Anna Friel as the quartet of young lovers are a strong little ensemble, and Rupert Everett as Oberon plays perfectly off Stanley Tucci’s Puck.  But this is Kline’s tour de force, and he portrays Bottom with a yearning melancholy his bluster only barely conceals and which is often overlooked in stage productions.  Directed by Michael Hoffman, it’s a lovely mood piece with some of the funniest moments in the Bard’s repertoire.


BIttDlMCUAMP92qOne of the more problematic of Shakespeare’s plays for modern audiences– due in the main to its antisemitic tone–  concerns a Jewish money-lender’s over-arcing desire to exact a literal pound of flesh from a client unable to repay his debts.  However, as portrayed by Al Pacino, the character of Shylock is less a greedy and sadistic villain than a man who has simply taken all the abuse he can stand and has finally decided to exact his revenge on principle.  Though Merchant is usually classed as a comedy– and it does have its light, amusing moments– it also plays as the tragedy of a man pushed too far by an uncaring world and how his desire for vindication becomes his undoing.  There are a couple of sweet romances– Joseph Fiennes and Lynn Collins have a nice chemistry as Bassanio and Portia– but the resigned antagonism between Pacino’s Shylock and Jeremy Irons’s Antonio is at the core of this version, directed by Michael Radford with a neutral sensitivity to both sides of the thorny tale.  This play is also unique in that its ultimate heroic figure is female– though (as is typical of Shakespeare) she is disguised as a man at the time, and can also be read as a very early foray into feminism.


400fullAnother of the Bard’s cross-dressing comedies,  As You Like It presents an appealing heroine in Rosalind, daughter of a banished duke who is in turn banished herself.  In director Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation, the story takes place in late 19th-century Japan among a conclave of expatriate traders.  As Rosalind, Bryce Dallas Howard has the same issue Imogen Stubbs had ten years earlier in Twelfth Night:  she’s just too pretty for anyone to honestly mistake her for a boy.  Japan seems an odd setting for the iconic Forest of Arden, but somehow it works, though the lengthy introductory explanation helps in that regard.  There are good performances from Howard, David Oyelowo as her love interest Orlando, Kevin Kline (again) as the dolorous Jaques, and Alfred Molina as the clownish Touchstone.  Brian Blessed plays the dual role of the exiled duke and his usurping brother, but has sadly little screen time, and Romola Garai is a revelation as Rosalind’s adventurous but fragile cousin Celia.  Assuming the identity of a boy named Ganymede, Rosalind seeks her father in his exile in Arden, fortuitously runs into her crush Orlando, and stays in character as she tries to learn his true feelings for her true self.  This is one of the stranger Shakespeare films, but it looks great and features strong performances all around.

As I mentioned earlier, there are a great many other adaptations out there;  these are just the ones I’ve seen.  You can’t go wrong with a classic– even if it’s been ever-so-slightly altered.


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