With the United States premiere of the latest Shakespeare adaptation by Kenneth Branagh, “As You Like It”, running on HBO this past month and its subsequent DVD release on Tuesday, the time seemed right for a retrospective of Shakespeare’s works on the silver screen. Despite the fact that modern audiences largely ignore the works of William Shakespeare on film, there has been an illustrious history of film adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays. Many film greats have submitted the works of Shakespeare to film, some even developing their reputations mostly upon their vision of his material.
The works of Shakespeare have driven directors and actors alike to risk their salaries for the critical lauding and challenges that Shakespeare’s words and stories have to offer. Kevin Kline, Denzel Washington, Keanu Reeves, Anthony Hopkins, Michelle Pfeifer, Emma Thompson, Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Mickey Rooney, Mel Gibson, Ethan Hawke, Robin Williams, Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi, Alec Baldwin, Kate Winslet, Toshiro Mifune, Leonardo DiCaprio, Billy Crystal, Glenn Close, and Bryce Dallas Howard are just a few of the performers who have taken the proverbial Shakespearean plunge on screen. Many actors have been “struck so to the soul, that presently” they have even skipped over the divide from acting into direction to satisfy their obsessions. Lawrence Olivier, Al Pacino, Kenneth Branagh and Orson Welles have all sat in the director’s chair so they could get their own unique takes of the bard onto the screen. I now offer a list of some of the best.
Lawrence Olivier. Perhaps one of the more prolific actors to come from across the pond, Lawrence Olivier was always held in high regard in the Hollywood and acting communities as a whole. I recall a story from my own acting training about how Olivier once held an audience in awe simply by reading the phone book. This may be more of a legend than fact, but this incredible reputation of Olivier’s owes much to his work in Shakespeare, and on film he was able to bring that reputation to a much larger audience.
His first screen work in Shakespeare was as young juvenile Orlando from “As You Like It” (1936). Throughout his career he continued to return to the works of Shakespeare with later leading roles in “Othello” (1965), the television productions of “The Merchant of Venice” (1973) and “King Lear” (1983), and even providing the narration for Franco Zeffirelli’s “Romeo & Juliet” (1968). But it was at the height of his matinee popularity that he made his greatest contributions to Shakespeare’s legacy on film with his self-directed leading performances in the awkwardly titled “The Chronicle History of King Henry the Fift with his Battle Fought at Agincourt in France” (1944) -- now more simply known as “Henry V”, a definitive version of “Hamlet” (1948), and his tragic look at the misshapen psychopath “Richard III” (1955). Olivier brought such intensity to these performances that even American audiences were able to embrace Shakespeare’s poetry and see the drama of his stories.
Buy it: Olivier's Shakespeare
Orson Welles. Orson Welles was a theater man when Hollywood dragged him into the cutthroat world of filmmaking, a world that quite literally cut his visions to shreds, but what rich and unique visions they were. Much of his reputation as a director was built upon the brave new ways in which he staged his Shakespeare productions. In 1939, He staged a famous version of Macbeth with an entirely black cast, set in Haiti, utilizing the practice of Voodoo to bring a new life to go with Shakespeare’s words. On film, Welles’s large build made him a perfect embodiment of many of Shakespeare’s flawed tragic heroes, including his turns on television in the “Omnibus” production of “King Lear” (1953), as the money lender and flesh taker Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice” (1969), and even in the spin-off story from Shakespeare’s “Henry IV” and “Henry V” as Hal’s partner in crime Falstaff in a movie that was known both as “Falstaff” and “Chimes at Midnight” (1967). But it was his striking use of shadows and light in his filmed stagings of “Macbeth” (1948) and “The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice” (1952) that exemplified his bold choices as a director and his commanding presence as a world class Shakespearean actor.
Buy it: Orson Welles' Shakespeare
Akira Kurosawa. The filmmakers’ obsession with Shakespeare is not contained exclusively to English language artists. The great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa found a great deal of inspiration from the works of Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s tragic heroes and storylines fit well into the world of the Samurai warrior, which was a popular subject in Japanese cinema in the mid-20th century, akin to the American western. Kurosawa visited Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” in his film “Kumonosu jo” (1957), known in the U.S. as “Throne of Blood”. He returned to Shakespearean grounds late in his career with his Oscar winning epic “Ran” (1985), taken from the play “King Lear”. Kurosawa’s Shakespeare adaptations show the universality of Shakespeare’s work, transcending both language and environment.
Buy it: Kurosawa's Shakespeare
Franco Zeffirelli. There was a time in Hollywood when if you wanted to do a Shakespeare adaptation, you called Franco Zeffirelli. Starting with “The Taming of the Shrew” (1967), starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor as the warring lovers, Zeffirelli gained a reputation for his wonderful production values, impeccable period costumes and the ability to draw star power to Shakespeare. He followed “Shrew” with the topically popular “Romeo & Juliet” (1968), which became a classical version of the flower power rage against the machine of the late 60s. Don’t hate us because we love, man. In the 80s, Zeffirelli brought his extensive experience with opera to the big screen in the operatic adaptation “Otello” (1986), starring Placido Domingo as Shakespeare’s troubled Moor. And Mel Gibson tapped the Italian director to bring his version of “Hamlet” (1989) to the screen.
Buy it: Zeffirelli's Shakespeare
Roman Polanski. While not providing a whole list of Shakespeare adaptations, director Roman Polanski made a significant contribution to the bard’s filmography with his 1971 version of “Macbeth”. Polanski was on a roll of successful films with “Macbeth” sandwiched between “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968) and “Chinatown” (1974). He turned in one of the grittiest Shakespeare films yet with this adaptation of “the Scottish play”, replicating the realistic period costuming of Zeffirelli while adding the element of a dank location castle set.
Buy it: Polanski's Shakespeare
Baz Luhrmann. In 1996, Australian director Baz Luhrmann returned one of Shakespeare’s most youthful tragedies to the youth that inspired it with “William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet”. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes in the titular roles. The adaptation was criticized for its poorly handled performances, but earned great praise for Lurhmann’s clever modernization of the setting. Utilizing a soundtrack filled with popular rock anthems, Luhrmann turned what had become stiff and inaccessible to youth culture into a world of gang violence and hip-hop references that could appeal to the very demographic it was about.
Buy it: William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet
Julie Taymor. After successfully adapting what some deemed the inadaptable “Lion King” from screen to stage, Julie Taymor decided to adapt what many deem Shakespeare’s worst play “Titus Andronicus” to the screen with the movie “Titus” (1999). Anthony Hopkins plays the titular role in this highly visual and stylized Shakespearean gore-fest after a long career of playing Shakespeare on stage and screen. Taymor’s stunning production and costume design, along with a cornucopic usage of color, distracts from what is really a deplorable story, making this adaptation a visual feast for audiences that are more accepting of the story because of it.
Buy it: Titus
Al Pacino. Actor Al Pacino has always held a great passion for Shakespeare. In a career full of visceral, emotionally charged characters, he has never been what many people erroneously feel makes for a good Shakespearean actor. In his attempt to fulfill a dream of bringing Shakespeare’s “Richard III” to the screen, Pacino created one of the more unique Shakespeare films ever and an amazing quasi-documentary in the film “Looking for Richard” (1996). Pacino’s film is part a performance of “Richard III”, part a documentary on making a movie of a Shakespeare play, and part a Shakespearean acting seminar for both the audience and the cast of his film, which includes such Hollywood players as Alec Baldwin, Kevin Spacey, Winona Ryder, and Aidan Quinn. For a more traditional Shakespeare film starring Pacino see Michael Radford’s beautifully adapted “The Merchant of Venice” (2004).
Buy it: Pacino's Shakespeare
Kenneth Branagh. The current reigning champion of Shakespeare on film is British director/actor Kenneth Branagh. Armed with training at the Royal Shakespeare Company and a company of other RSC alumni, Branagh has brought both Shakespeare standards and some of his more obscure works to film. As an actor Branagh relishes in those rich complex characters of Shakespeare, like his performance as Iago in director Oliver Parker’s 1995 adaptation of “Othello” and, of course, that melancholy Dane in his own uncut version of “Hamlet” (1996). But as a director he seems to find more joy in Shakespeare than most. Having adapted more of Shakespeare’s comedies than any previous director, Branagh delights in the confounding romances of Shakespeare in the films “Much Ado About Nothing” (1993), the 30s style musical version of “Love’s Labour’s Lost” (2000), and his latest 19th century Japan set “As You Like It” (2007). But perhaps his most successful Shakespeare was his first, the historically based “Henry V” (1989).
Buy it: Branagh's Shakespeare
Other entries. Along with the contribution of these Shakespeare luminaries, there have been many adaptations throughout cinematic history that have also successfully captured the spirit of the great bard. “A Mid Summer Night’s Dream” has had two wonderful film adaptations. In 1935, William Dieterle and Max Reinhardt directed a version with James Cagney, Mickey Rooney and Olivia de Havilland. While Kevin Kline, Michelle Pfeifer, Stanley Tucci, Calista Flockhart, Rupert Everett, and Christian Bale are just some of the start-studded cast of Michael Hoffman’s 1999 version. In 2000, director Michael Almereyda filmed a modern version of “Hamlet” that sees Ethan Hawke soliloquizing in the rental racks of a Blockbuster. Trevor Nunn directed the only good version of “Twelfth Night” (1996) I’ve ever seen. In 1969, Tony Richardson tackled an overly romanticized version of “Shakespeare’s Hamlet”, with Anthony Hopkins as Claudius and Marianne Faithful as Ophelia?! Just last year, director Geoffrey Wright took “Macbeth” into the Australian underworld. And in 1995, Ian McKellen and Richard Loncraine offered their stage version of “Richard III” to the screen, set in Nazi Germany.
Buy it: Richard III
Modernized versions. Even when his words aren’t used, Shakespeare’s stories often make for popular fare at the box office. High school seems to be a ripe setting for Shakespeare’s plots. Recently his story influence can be found in “O” (2001, “Othello”), “10 Things I Hate About You” (1999, “The Taming of the Shrew”), and “She’s the Man” (2006, “Twelfth Night”). His stories also adapt well into the musical format, “Kiss Me Kate” (1953, “The Taming of the Shrew”) and the classic “West Side Story” (1961, “Romeo & Juliet”). They have also made for some very far removed (in the geographical sense) loose adaptations, “Scotland, Pa.” (2001, “Macbeth”), "Forbidden Planet" (1956, “The Tempest”), the less imaginatively titled “Tempest” (1982, “The Tempest”), and Gus Van Sant lifted portions of Shakespeare's history of "Henry IV" for his 1991 film "My Own Private Idaho".
Buy it: West Side Story
So although Kenneth Branagh’s latest Shakespeare adaptation had to look for a home on a cable network like HBO, the works of Shakespeare have obviously had a profound influence on the silver screen. Whether they appear in the form of a period costume piece, a modern re-envisioning, or merely an extracted storyline, the works of Shakespeare will probably find their way onto movie screens for a long time to come.
Buy it: As You Like It