Shakespeare’s writings are so vast and numerous that variations on the stories will always be popping up at some point or another. And one niche of these stories takes them away from the stage and into film format. Across the years, there have been many film adaptations – some more daring than others, some inspired and some rather forgettable. The purpose of this article is not to look at the very best ones but to offer some good options for a watch – for various reasons.
Julius Caesar (1953)
One of the classics when it comes to Shakespeare adaptations – Julius Caesar. This 1953 project wasn’t exactly daring, but that was never its aim – it instead is a straightforward but very vivid telling of the Shakespeare classic. Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the brother of Citizen Kane director Mank, and starring a very young, promising actor by the name of Marlon Brando.
Considered by many to be Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece, Ran was the most expensive Japanese film ever made at the time of release – and it was also quite long, clocking in at almost three hours. An adaptation of King Lear set in a Japanese context, it shows just how well such a project can translate to a different environment if done by a master of his craft.
How do you adapt one of the most famous plays in the world without sacrificing any of its essence? You put the whole thing in – without cutting a single word. Kenneth Branagh, who really contributed towards a renewal of interest in Shakespeare’s works in the late 90s, decided to shoot the whole thing – resulting in a four-hour film. It’s not the easiest watch, but it’s a project that should be cherished because, in a world of diminishing attention spans, it’s very unlikely it will ever be repeated.
Romeo + Juliet (1996)
Baz Luhrmann has been known for his high focus on stylish cinematography, approach and costumes, and that is readily apparent in Romeo + Juliet. Set in ‘Verona Beach’, a sort of cross between Mexico City and Miami, the film vividly captures the family violence that serves as the backdrop for the Shakespeare classic. With Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes as the main actors, this project cements the fact that 1996 was a great year for Shakespeare adaptations.
This was, well, quite a bold approach to a Shakespeare adaptation – mixing traditional Roman costumes with motorcycles and also incorporating electronic and rock music into one of Shakespeare’s early works. It’s a very interesting directorial debut for Julie Taymor, one that includes some outstanding performances from Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange, among others.
The most recent one on the list, while it’s debatable whether or not it’s the best Macbeth adaptation over the decades. However, this film starring Marion Cotillard and Michael Fassbender is very faithful to the original in setting and language and really excels in terms of cinematography. It’s a real treat to watch, and it’s something modern audiences would likely be most familiar with.