The Bard Cinema: Our Favorite Shakespeare Film Adaptations
Macbeth, also know as The Tragedy Macbeth, is a film of blood, dirt, and tragic catharsis. In 1969, Roman Polanski was in a tailspin of grief after the brutal slaying of his wife Sharon Tate and their unborn child. What followed was a maelstrom of tabloid rags and false starts (Downhill Racer, Papillon, The Day of the Dolphin); after the cataclysmic loss and media gossip, Polanski took his grief, anger, and turmoil and found solace in what would be one his masterpieces, as well as one of the best Shakespeare adaptations with his 1971 version of Macbeth.
Remarkably faithful as it is cinematic, Polanski proves to be the most innovative revisionist since Welles’ famed trio of Shakespeare films. He employs wide angles, sweeping camera movements, contemporary score, and his penchant for ethereal authenticity and an understanding of the fantastic. No one’s going to make any speeches while clutching their chest, they’ll instead be mangled with maces, hung with chains, skewered, and beheaded. Polanski’s struggling with the ghosts of his recent past, the spectre of Banquo is what dismays the advantageous Macbeth the most, and the blood-stained rooms and slaughtered families aren’t relegated to the shadows but shown in plain sight. Art director and screenwriter Kenneth Tynan inquired why Polanski was insistent on layering so much blood on the scene of the murdered Macduff family, he replied, “You didn’t see my house in California last summer." There are dark forces at work here, and at the risk of sounding like a shallow opportunist, Polanski did more than confront his demons, he beat the shit out of them and gave us sound and fury.
- Alex Miller
Kenneth Branagh is no stranger to the Bard, as the actor/director cut his teeth with stage productions and feature film adaptations of the playwright’s work. Beginning in 1989 with his Oscar-nominated Henry V, up until 2006’s As You Like It, the name Branagh has become synonymous with Shakespeare to an entire generation. I first saw his 1996 masterpiece, Hamlet, over a week and a half period in my high school English class when my teacher at the time decided to show us the film on a two-part VHS set.
Being my first exposure to the play, Branagh's Hamlet stuck with me through the years, and it's still my favorite Shakespeare picture. Featuring a cast that pulls from every era of Hollywood, with Jack Lemmon, Charlton Heston, Derek Jacobi, and even Robin Williams making appearances, Branagh brings an epic scope to the proceedings, which is enhanced by his decision to shoot the film in 65mm (projected at 70mm), bringing a richness to the picture with a detail oriented sweeping camera. It's also the first adaptation of the play that utilized the entirety of Shakespeare's text, resulting in a, at first glance, daunting four-hour runtime. Happily, this is Shakespeare after all, and the four hours fly by thanks to the performances and screenplay. It's an essential picture and, above all, a faithful one, the rare adaptation that lifts the original source material.
- Matt Curione
Akira Kurosawa's films have gone everywhere from being small-scale dramas to epics, like Seven Samurai. But of the many filmmakers out there who understood Shakespeare enough to translate him so well onto the big screen, he was the only one who managed to get every little story detail right, as shown in Throne of Blood and Ran. In the King Lear adaptation of Ran, Kurosawa's storytelling shares so many theatrical qualities that best serve Shakespeare's writing; the scale of the production also serves Shakespeare's plays. Whether it's from the sets or the costumes, mixed together with a haunting score by Toru Takemitsu, it is easy to feel chaos lingering all throughout (the Japanese title Ran means "chaos" in English). It's not about the scale of the battles for Kurosawa, it's about the spectacle of watching this tragic downfall. Kurosawa's final epic not only remains one of his best films, but it is truly a film that Shakespeare himself would have been proud of.
- Jaime Rebanal
Tromeo and Juliet (1996)
"Two households, different as dried plums and pears, in fair Manhattan, where we lay our scene.”
Those looking for a traditional Shakespeare adaptation may as well turn back now. From the opening shot of a hanged rat adorned with a sign reading “MONTY Q SUCKS” coupled with narration from Lemmy (of the House of Motörhead), it’s clear this ain’t your mama’s Romeo and Juliet. Written by James Gunn (well before Guardians of the Galaxy) and directed by Lloyd Kaufman, Tromeo and Juliet takes Shakespeare’s beloved tragedy, and stuffs it with all the gore, sex, and depravity that one would expect from Troma Entertainment. In this version, hopeless romantic Tromeo Que (son of disgraced pornographer Monty Que) falls in love with Juliet Capulet (daughter of the wealthy Cappy Capulet), but their love is forbidden. You see, there’s been bad blood between the Ques and Capulets ever since Cappy Capulet blackmailed Monty Que out of his share of a successful porn studio. Plus, Juliet is already betrothed to the local meat tycoon, London Arbuckle. So Tromeo and Juliet plan to get married in secret, and that’s when all hell breaks loose. Throw in some lesbian sex, a mutant monster cow penis, a Toxic Avenger cameo, and a pinch of iambic pentameter, and you’ve basically got Tromeo and Juliet. It’s the sort of vile, irreverent, punk rock adaptation that could only come from Troma, and it’s absolutely fantastic.
- Dan Colón
Chimes at Midnight (1965)
Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight, though not a direct adaptation of Shakespeare — stitching together Henry IV, Henry V, and Richard II — is a gorgeous, distinctly Wellesian tribute to the Falstaff of Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays. Welles animates “this huge hill of flesh” to spectacular effect, not just through his roving, expressive eyes, but also through his exaggerated, noir-ish camera angles. Nearly the entire film — or at least, so it feels — is shot from a deep, low angle casting our eyes up at Welles’ Falstaff, making his enormity more pronounced. And, like Touch of Evil, here too Welles uses slicing, angular bars of light to great effect. In many ways, this very pronounced lighting has much the same effect as the low angle shots: exaggeration to an extreme.
And in the centerpiece of the film, a clamorous battle of knights on horseback and otherworldly fog, Welles uses this expressionist lighting and angularity to its greatest potential. The brief snippets of clashing steel and wounded, exsanguinating soldiers creates a brilliantly jarring sense of incomprehensible violence. The surprising brutality of it all, even fifty years on, makes the sequence somehow fresh. It feels unexpected, despite the forecasting of the event.
- Aaron Hendrix
Much Ado About Nothing (2012)
My experience with Shakespeare in school was an in-one-ear-out-the-other scenario. I could enjoy the structure and the twists but I could never wrap my head around the olde-timey, flowery dialogue. That's why I was so shocked that I came away from Joss Whedon's version of Much Ado About Nothing with nothing but a feeling of pure joy. I went in on a whim after a disappointing trip to the indie theatre, a journey that I take only about once a year due to distance. I knew next to nothing (I've still never read the source material), but I was still reeling from seeing Sofia Coppola's underwhelming The Bling Ring and needed something, anything to take my mind off of it, so desperate that I walked into a black and white adaptation of something I couldn't have cared less about. I could barely understand any of what was happening, but I didn't care for one simple reason: Alexis Denisof. The whole film had a caution to the wind vibe that excited me, but it was Denisof's performance in particular tickled me just right. The actor, as Benedick, was goofy and unrestrained, brilliantly performing physical comedy that I didn't need any context of to be entertained.
- Marcus Irving
Indian filmmaker/composer Vishal Bhardwaj directed three adaptations of Shakespearean tragedies: Maqbool based on Macbeth, Haider from Hamlet, and the best of the three, Omkara based on Othello. Omkara transplants Othello to Meerut in Uttar Pradesh, northern India. Bhardwaj explores Shakespeare’s themes of sexual jealousy, paranoia, manipulation, and temptation; here, Othello the Moor becomes the dark-skinned, half-caste Omkara. The power dynamics of colorism in India becomes a major topic in Omkara. The adaptation retains much of Shakespeare’s dialogue spoken in Hindi and the dialect of Khariboli. Omkara features Bhardwaj’s sophisticated direction and earthy musical compositions, complimented by striking camerawork. The film just brims with authenticity, urgency, and fire. At the time, Omkara was controversial for its profanity and mature dialogue, but the film is more powerful for not caving to Indian censors.
The real stroke of genius, however, is the casting. Bhardwaj’s cast offer pitch perfect performances, and bring their own star personas to their roles. Ajay Devgan, the dark-skinned 90s action hero (Othello); Kareena Kapoor, fair-skinned heiress to the powerful Kapoor film dynasty (Desdemona); Saif Ali Khan fighting for his place in the A-list (Iago); the up-and-comer Vivek Oberoi (Cassio); Konkona Sensharma the fringe indie actress (Emilia); and Bipasha Basu, the charming, self-assured sex symbol (Bianca). Veteran Indian character actor Naseeruddin Shah gets the Duke of Venice role, and debutant Deepak Dobriyal plays the jilted Roderigo. Bhardwaj brings all these personalities into one movie and slyly directs them into utter chaos. Shakespeare’s themes fit seamlessly into Bollywood, as seen in Bhardwaj’s trilogy and Goliyon ki Raasleela Ram-Leela, Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s vibrant take on Romeo and Juliet. Vishal Bhardwaj’s take on this tragedy is beautifully made, honoring the Shakespearean spirit under the Bollywood veneer.
- Manish Mathur
Romeo + Juliet (1996)
Shakespeare is often put on a pedestal. His work is held in reverence and considered the highest of highbrow entertainment. Historians argue that Shakespeare's plays were written to appeal to the lowest of low brow audiences. Audience participation in Shakespeare's day may have included people spitting at the actors. So, when The Bard's work is put under a less reverent lens, you find humor and raunchiness even in his most tragic plays. When Baz Luhrmann brought Romeo + Juliet to theaters in November of 1996, it was his understanding of Shakespearian humor and wit that raises Romeo + Juliet to the top of the ranks of Bardic film adaptations.
Director Baz Luhrmann leaned in to the pure, ridiculous teenage angst of the story. Let's be real, Romeo + Juliet was our generation's version of Twilight. Luhrmann's visual styling of the film is, to this day, perfect. The derelict, inexact insanity of Luhrmann's Verona is enthralling while his use of neon lights translates perfectly to aesthetics filmmakers in 2017 are striving to achieve. Each scene is dressed in an immaculately haphazard way invoking a simultaneous wealth and post-apocalyptic poverty. So smitten were we with the film's look, Romeo + Juliet was responsible for a resurgence in the popularity of Hawaiian shirts. And as enamored as we were with how it looked, we were obsessed with the movie's soundtrack.
The final retrospective verdict on this slice of 90s heaven is that it holds up. Maybe the fact that I had a Leonardo DiCaprio poster from the movie in my room that I kissed goodnight makes me a biased judge, but when it comes to Shakespeare, when has a declaration ever been made without bias? And so, dear readers, I say, "Good night! Good night! Parting is such sweet sorrow, that I shall say good night till it be Morrow."
- Sarah Buck