The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom


Shakespeare in Film

Written by: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer

A look back at all the Shakespeare adaptations I’ve seen over the years — the good, the bad and the obscure.



Ian McKellen as Richard III.

A lively forum thread about this article inspired me to revisit it and add a few more entries about some of my favorite film adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays. As a Shakespeare and a movie buff, I’m always delighted to see another Shakespearean play made into a flick.


A glance at his IMDb listing shows that Shakespeare has had his plays made into various movies 618 times – a record, I believe – starting with an 1899 version of King John. I haven’t seen all 618 of these movies, but I’ve seen a lot of the good ones. I thought I’d share a list of what I’ve seen, favorites, dogs and all.

Keep in mind that this article is a work in progress. I add to it every so often, and even now it doesn’t include every Shakespeare (or Shakespeare-related) movie I’ve seen.

For this round, I’ll take a look at film versions of Twelfth Night, Richard III and a Kenneth Branagh comedy that isn’t a straight-up adaptation of a play but rather a love letter to Shakespeare geeks everywhere.


Image Twelfth Night (1996), dir. Trevor Nunn. I’m a huge fan of this version, although I’ve encountered some minor resistance from fellow fans of the play who find Trevor Nunn’s moody film too dark for their tastes. Maybe they have a point, but I for one admire Ben Kingsley’s sober performance as the play’s “clown” – in this case, a recently returned veteran who rolls into town to blow off some steam – as well as Mel Smith as Sir Toby and Richard E. Grant as Sir Andrew. I’ve argued before that Shakespeare’s comedies aren’t particularly funny, and to that end, I’d like to recognize two moments from the play’s central comic set-piece to illustrate how a low-key tone can really help a scene.

At timestamp 3:05, check out Mel Smith – he was the albino in the Pit of Despair – as he takes a potentially comic line and delivers it dead-serious: “Art any more than a steward …” Sir Toby’s seriousness about having fun adds a whole new level to his character. Presumably this country is at war, and I love how Nunn emphasizes that we need to keep having fun and loving life, even when it sucks.

At timestamp 6:17, check out one of my favorite lines in all of Shakespeare. Sir Toby mentions a woman who adores him, and poor old Sir Andrew says, “I was adored once, too.” I’d like to take a moment to recount two productions of this play I was in. One was pretty good, the other shitty, and yet both productions played this line for a laugh in roughly the same way. In both productions, the guy playing Andrew said this line, and then the guys playing Toby and Feste (the clown) looked at each other and shook their heads in mockery of Andrew. Ugh.

By contrast, Nunn let Grant whisper this line to himself. And it breaks my heart.

Image Richard III (1995), dir. Richard Loncraine. A lavishly mounted film version of the celebrated Royal National Theatre production with Ian McKellen in the title role. I never saw the stage version, so I can’t compare, but McKellen and Loncraine really busted their asses to boil this play down to its most basic elements, while still retaining spicy minor characters like the old queen (played by Maggie Smith in a role I think they combined with the Duchess of York).

Look no further than the play’s famous opening speech, which McKellen and Loncraine split into two parts – the first delivered sincerely as a laudatory speech at a big party, the second a scathing condemnation of the reigning king that Richard delivers while taking a piss. Great stuff.

Image A Midwinter’s Tale, or In The Bleak Midwinter (1995). I confess that I’m working from a pretty distant memory of this one. I only saw it once back in college, and unfortunately for Kenneth Branagh, I saw it around the same time that I first saw Waiting for Guffman. Both movies tackle the maddening, pretentious and pathetic world of community theater, but despite the best of intentions, Branagh can’t help but indulge in a sentimental, last-minute happy ending. Guffman, by contrast, simply has sharper teeth and greater contempt for community theater types, and as a guy who has known many of these types, Guffman’s contempt is well warranted.

I do like, though, how both the American and British titles for this movie sound like lost Shakespeare plays.

That said, a few brief glances at this movie on YouTube reveal a better movie than I remember. Maybe British people feel the same way about Waiting for Guffman as I do about this one.

Image Macbeth (1971), dir. Roman Polanski. My ninth-grade English teacher was essentially a waste, but he did have the good sense to show us Polanski’s demented and titillating version of Shakespeare’s shortest and most fucked-up tragedy — fucked-up both in content and structure. It’s structure is fucked-up because of its succession of quick scenes and reliance on weird staging devices like the moving forest. It’s content is fucked-up because of its heavy reliance on the occult. Plenty of Shakespeare plays feature ghosts, but Macbeth is just weirder, with all the witches and incantations. Polanski deserves extra points for his unsettling weird sisters – all of them twisted and deformed and covered in exotic sores. Eww!
Image Henry V (1989), dir. Kenneth Branagh. A fantastic history teacher showed this one to us my senior year, and I largely credit this movie for turning me into a Shakespeare geek. Confession: While watching this, I couldn’t believe how I understood everything. Branagh showed us that a good performance of classical material can trump its archaic language and make it accessible. An absolute treat. I still get chills when Exeter (Flash Gordon’s chief hawkman, Brian Blessed) cracks Scroop across the face, and I still crack up when Henry says, “Here comes your father” – one of those rare examples of a funny Shakespeare joke.
Image Much Ado About Nothing (1993), dir. Kenneth Branagh. Another slam-dunk – and everybody needs to lay the fuck off of Keanu Reeves. Judas Priest, every fucking time I bring up this movie with my geek friends, everyone falls over themselves to be the first to do a Keanu impression, and the conversation ends there. Knock it off! It’s exhausting and completely beside the point. The movie rocks! Hell, I even like some of Michael Keaton’s schtick as Dogberry, a role Branagh mercifully trimmed down (even if he did miss out on really accentuating the very good heart that beats inside the old constable’s chest). Also, everyone should lay off of Robert Sean Leonard, who got saddled with one of the worst roles in the canon (Claudio). I’d like to see you convincingly play a character who is relaxed verse one moment, Ovidian hogwash the next.
Image Romie-0 and Julie-8 (1979). A fun, goofy, animated sci-fi version of the classic tale, and probably my first exposure to Shakespeare of any kind, seeing as how my older sister and I watched the shit out of this cartoon, which came on a four-pack of animated goodness that included:

A Cosmic Christmas: Visiting aliens learn the true meaning of Christmas. Jesus is curiously absent.

The Devil and Daniel Mouse: A hard-rockin’ mouse “unwittingly” sells her soul to the devil, even though the devil makes his appearance in a giant column of flame, is red, has horns, cloven feet and a forked tongue, and introduces himself as “B.L. ZeBub, esquire.” The mouse and her erstwhile boyfriend sing a kickin’ rock song to win their souls back. If you’re ever at a rock concert with me, and you hear me say, “Are your feet in the seat? Do you have a smile as you walk down the aisle?” I’m quoting this cartoon.

Please Don’t Eat the Planet: Probably the most ingenious toon on the tape. Corn-pone space farmers set up shop on a planet where the caste system is a meritocracy of comedic skill, with the funniest person being the king (voiced by Sid Caesar). Shenanigans ensue, however, when the innocuous, down-home, day-to-day life of the newly arrived space farmers strikes the natives as uncontrollably funny. An environmental message gently joins the narrative when it turns out that the laugh-a-minute population have been mining their planet so heavily that it threatens to collapse. Doozer-esque, hardhat-wearing insects work to the fortify the planet, singing the song “You’ve got to build it up” — a song I’ve had rolling around my head for my entire adult life. I’ll probably have it carved on my fucking tombstone.

Speaking of songs from cartoons that roll around in your head, Romie-0 and Julie-8, of course, features two competing robotics companies – Megastellar and SuperSolar – who build the latest and greatest in android technlogy. They introduce their respective magnum opi at a convention, where the portly Megastellar rep sings:

He’s the best, he’s the latest from the Megastellar company.
More than bionic, he’s more than a toy,
More than a robot, he’s a man-made boy,
Ain’t no robot like Romie-0, oh no …

And yes, I remembered all those lyrics from childhood without Googling a one of them. I did have to e-mail my sister to remember the name SuperSolar, though. In fact, why don’t we watch it together?

Image The Tempest (1979), dir. Derek Jarman. I’m not familiar with the work of avant-garde director Derek Jarman, but I tracked down a copy of his film of The Tempest on VHS. It rules, and not just because it has tits (Miranda shows up half-naked in her first scene). This is a randy, drugged-out and sometimes gross 1970s take on Shakespeare’s swan song — and I stress gross, becasue Jarman goes out of his way to show a flashback of Ariel in captivity before Prospero arrived, and it is, to say the least, bracing (the bracingness of this interlude involves the not-so-nice tits of the witch Sycorax). The movie succeeds as more than a Ken Russell exercise in dementia, however, with a downright beautiful final act that wraps up the play with a rendition of the blues song “Stormy Weather” and an indoor storm of flower petals. Highly recommended.
Image Othello (1965), dir. Stuart Burge and Laurence Olivier. That’s right — it’s Laurence Olivier in blackface, ladies and gentlemen. I recommend this one simply becasue it’s one of the most bizarro productions you’ll ever see put to film — and it’s relentlessly watchable. In the thankless lead role, you’ve got Olivier in his baroquely strange (yet surprisingly convincing) make-up, and Sir Larry delivers one of the most batshit insane performances in the history of batshit insane performances. Maybe you’ve heard me say that Shakespeare was an ignorant anti-Semite? Well, he’s a curious breed of bigot, too, portraying the Moorish general as a strange, exotic and alien creature who descends into an epileptic fit of jealousy. That’s right: he’s such a lusty and passionate African, he loses consciousness if he gets angry enough! (Though to be fair to Shakespeare, I can’t lambaste him too much for his portrayal of Othello, seeing as how he paints Othello as so resolutely heroic he ought to be wearing a cape.) Olivier certainly commits to this arcane choice and takes the rest of the performance in a very Greek direction, shouting and gallivanting around the set like it’s electrified. Frank Finlay’s Iago is also worth a look, his performance being the only one in the film — a filmed stage production — that could be mistaken for a film performance. He underplays every damn line he has, and somehow comes off as something creepier, more child-molester-y than your usual I-hate-the-Moor Iago.
Image Henry V (1944), dir. Laurence Olivier. Still pretty rad after all these years, and even more of a badass movie when you consider that Winston Churchill himself asked Olivier to make a Henry V for an England in the midst of WWII and the Academy awarded it one of those general-purpose Oscars for asskicking. Yes, it’s theatrical as hell, with a good 30 to 45 minutes taking place in an astonishing recreation of the Globe theater, but it’s worth it to see Olivier deliver the tennis balls speech to the Kuiper Belt and to see Robert Newton’s (Long John Silver in the classic Treasure Island) sad, sad Pistol.
Image A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1996), dir. Adrian Noble. This is a film version of a very successful RSC production that toured the United States, and that I missed. I’m still kicking myself in the ass for missing it onstage, because this although this isn’t my favorite version of Midsummer – no one production has put together all the pieces for me yet – I find this one especially satisfying because this is the only production where I’ve found the fairies interesting. Midsummer falls pretty cleanly into three sections – the lovers, the mechanicals and the fairies (well, four, but who cares about the framing device of the court?), and every production I’ve ever seen has either had an interesting bunch of lovers or mechanicals, but I’ve never seen one where the fairies were anything but an excuse for a costume designer to make people coo and say, “What an interesting concept for a fairy costume!” (Fill in your own arty fairy concept costume here. A sequined tuxedo? Dyed muslin? G-strings?) But Noble’s dreamy film is the first I had seen with the balls to portray Puck as an amoral maniac, right down to the malicious glint in actor Barry Lynch’s eyes. Oh, keep your remote control on quick draw when you watch this one so you can speed through the scenes with the mechanicals, whose dialogue sounds like electric pencil sharpeners fed into a speaker feedback loop.
Image The King is Alive (2000), no director credited. As a film in the bare-bones Dogme series, this movie was shot on location with only found props, natural light and hand-held cameras. I submit this as one of many left-field Shakespeare adaptations I’ll no doubt mention. The pitch: A bus full of tourists breaks down in the African desert. The stranded tourists decide to put on a production of King Lear to pass the time – and in the process, each of the characters in the story come to echo characters in Lear, but not the ones they’re playing, while, naturally, the main storyline careens in a Lord of the Flies direction. Furthermore, we also get to see some extended excerpts from their ad-hoc production, and make no mistake: they’re some of the greatest performances from this great play I’ve ever seen. It never occurred to me that Cordelia’s silence would have broken Lear’s heart until I saw this movie.
Image King Lear (1998), dir. Richard Eyre. A straight-up, brawny and energetic TV version of the celebrated National Theatre production with Ian Holm in the title role. Set on a series on stark sets with pan-epoch medieval costumes, this austere, headlong production beats the shit out of Olivier’s version. Barry Lynch (Puck from the Adrian Noble Midsummer, acting with the new name Finbar Lynch) turns up as a fantastic Edmund. The only drawback: no nudity. Holm apparently did the full monty for the theatrical version!
Image Hamlet (2000), dir. Michael Almereyda. Maybe my favorite film version of Hamlet. The upper-crust Manhattan setting serves the story well, and director Almereyda rounded up an excellent cast for this low-key production. Bill Murray’s performance as Polonius confirmed his status as an elder statesman of character actors, and Kyle MacLachlan, whom David Lynch yoinked from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to play the lead in Dune, gives us an old-before-his-time Claudius. Watch the final duel for an inspired choice regarding Gertrude and her poison drink. Sam Shephard plays a truly frightening and moving ghost with no makeup and no special effects. The only weak links are Julia Stiles’ weightless Ophelia and Liev Schreiber’s Laertes. Schreiber’s a great actor, but either he should have toned down his very theatrical performance or Almereyda should have made Laertes a military man, because as it stands, when Laertes charges back in midway through the play wearing normal street clothes and bellowing his lines to the rafters, I have to laugh.
Image King Lear (1983), dir. Michael Elliott. I’m not sure if Patrick Stewart coined this, but he once said that an actor should play King Lear twice — once when they’re strong enough and once when they’re old enough. Granted, Stewart is talking about a pretty elite group of actors out there who have the luxury of playing Lear twice in their careers — I’d love to get a chance to play the role once — but he’s right, and if you happen to stumble across this one in the used VHS bin, give it a look. Olivier muscles his way through the play about six years before he dies, and his advanced age does a lot to take the edge off the typical in-love-with-himself Olivier performance.