Cinematic Shakespeare: The Films You Need To See

Growing up, there was no writer better than William Shakespeare. His words, while seeming fancy, were easy to understand and possessed a fantastic rhythm. Read one way, they inspired menace. Read another, delight. As I grew older, I learned that Shakespeare’s plays were written using the words of his audience, but not the aristocrats – the groundlings. Those that stood for the entirety of the show, who paid what they could, who couldn’t read, but knew a great story when they heard it. I think, in many ways, that this is why his stories – universal in theme though they may be – continue to touch people. Shakespeare used everyday language to convey love and hate, peace and rage, hope and despair and, in doing so, crafted stories that continue to be told for centuries.

Recently, I learned of an exhibit at the L.A.-based Pop culture-centered art gallery called 20 Years Later, which focuses on cinema that still remains relevant today. Films like Fargo, Space Jam, From Dusk Til Dawn, Independence Day, and Mars Attacks!, the exhibit features paintings, sculptures, and others creations inspired by these films and others like them. Of the films the exhibit honors, Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of Romeo + Juliet stands out as a film that remains both visually beautiful and musically enchanting. Seeing the artwork Romeo + Juliet inspired got us thinking about other phenomenal film adaptations of William Shakespeare’s work.


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For your consideration, the following six films are a must for any Shakespeare fan.

10 Things I Hate About You (1999)

This Heath Ledger/Julia Stiles classic adapts The Taming of the Shrew to tell the story of young Cameron (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who desires to date Bianca, but can’t until her older sister Kat (Stiles) does. That’s when Cameron hires Patrick Verona (Ledger) to woo Kat until she agrees to date him, so that Cameron has a chance with Bianca. As great an adaptation as this is, there is no better moment than Patrick singing “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” by Frankie Valli and the 4 Seasons to Kat.

Titus (1999)

Considered one of Shakespeare’s most brutal plays, Titus is the story of a returning general of the Roman army who unwittingly finds himself embroiled in treachery most foul for himself and his family. Directed by Julie Taymor (Broadway’s The Lion King) and starring heavy-weights Anthony Hopkins, Jessica Lange, and Alan Cumming – this film is both beautiful and painful to behold. It’s almost guaranteed you will watch most of this through split fingers, but make sure you pay close attention at the end. Brutal though it may be, it’s truly satisfying.

Hamlet (2009)

This BBC TV movie pits David Tennent, in the title role, against Sir Patrick Stewart as Hamlet’s Uncle Claudius. Intended to be a filmed version of the stage production by the Royal Shakespeare Company, this iteration takes place in the modern era with Hamlet seeking his vengeance in English High Society. Tennent and Stewart deliver masterful performances that will spellbind you to your seat. Though some might consider this next tidbit morbid, the infamous scene with Hamlet and the skull of Yorick features a donated skull, not a prop.

The Tempest (2010)

Julie Taymor returns to direct The Tempest putting her theatrical style to excellent use in a story centered on a great magician, Prospero. In her adaptation, Taymor does some gender-bending by placing Helen Mirren in the lead role, now known as Prospera. In a story that deals with the relationships of parents to children and the betrayed with their betrayers, Shakespeare never lets you decide who is right and who is innocent, save that of Prospera’s daughter, Miranda (played by Felicity Jones). Don’t mistake the use of magic as being a tale of wonder, for there are heavy intentions within each spell.

Much Ado About Nothing (2012)

If I were tasked with writing, directing, and editing Marvel’s first epic superhero outing in Marvel’s The Avengers, I’m not sure I’d have the energy to use my time off – let alone my anniversary – to film an adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing in my home with my friends, but then, I’m not Joss Whedon. Much Ado About Nothing is a tale about young lovers, Claudio and Hero, and old flames, Benedick and Beatrice, and all the joys and pitfalls that glorious unions invite. Contrary to previous incarnations of this tale, Whedon’s approach seems to view Benedick and Beatrice’s story as the grounding story upon which all the others revolve. For this interpretation alone, Whedon’s Much Ado is absolutely worth a view. It doesn’t hurt that he’s also pulled together actors from nearly every television show or film his touched – Amy Acker (Angel), Alexis Denisof (Buffy,The Vampire Slayer/Angel/Marvel’s The Avengers), Nathan Fillion (Firefly), Clark Gregg (Marvel’s The Avengers), Reed Diamond (Dollhouse), Fran Kranz (The Cabin In The Woods), Sean Maher (Firefly) and so many more.

Macbeth (2015)

A tale of betrayal and regret, Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s greats, and director Justin Kurzel (Assassin’s Creed) skillfully delivers with deft hands. In the titular role is Michael Fassbender (Frank/Inglourious Basterds), who receives a prophecy from three witches that one day he shall be King of Scotland. Featuring an exquisite cast including Marion Cotillard (Inception) as Lady MacBeth, David Thewlis (Anomalisa) as King Duncan, Jack Reynor (Sing Street) as Malcom, and Paddy Considine (The World’s End) as Banquo, Kurzel takes the often dour tale of Macbeth’s betrayal and inserts a near-Braveheart style feel. Between the cast and the setting, there won’t be a bored seat in the house.

Honorable Mentions to Tom Stoppard’s Shakespeare influenced films Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1990) and Shakespeare In Love (1998).

For those interested, the 20 Years Later exhibit is going on now until Saturday, July 16th at Gallery1988 (West) 7308 Melrose Ave Los Angeles, CA 90046.


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2 replies

  1. Most of these are good choices. I’m more concerned that you ignored any film earlier than the 90s. Considering how many versions and variants of Shakespeare plays have been filmed, that’s a mistake. While Fassbender does make a great Macbeth, now that the 1948 Welles version has been restored, it’s magnificent, and more innovative. MY favorite version is Kurosawa’s 1957 one set in feudal Japan, Throne of Blood.

    How could you leave out the most filmed play of all, the template for every tragic story of young love, Romeo and Juliet? (I realize you gave the “making of” movie Shakespeare in Love an honorable mention.) There are great “authentic” versions like the ’68 Zeffirelli, and wonderful variations including West Side Story, Baz Luhrmann’s kinetic ’96 version with modern gangs, and interesting interpretations like Romanoff and Juliet (1960 – Cold War setting), Romeo Must Die (martial arts), even a comic version from Singapore about the lovers set in a rivalry between adjacent rice stalls (Chicken Rice War, 2000).

    • In this instance, the films began in the 90s because the idea to recommend a few adaptations was born out of Gallery1998’s “20 Years Later” exhibit, of which Luhrmann’s epic “Romeo + Juliet” is part. Just seemed like a good place to start and then move forward, while keeping the list small. Though I hope to see it soon for myself, I also didn’t mention (the latest adaptation by the Kenneth Branagh Theater Company of “Romeo and Juliet” featuring Richard Madden, Lily James, and Derek Jacobi. There was a Fathom Event for it, but couldn’t make it.

      There was also a purposeful intention to avoid duplicate plays, otherwise I would have mentioned the 1953 classic “Kiss Me Kate” or even Branagh’s version of “Much Ado.” You’re absolutely right – there are MANY great adaptations throughout the history of cinema. In this instance, I tried to keep the list both small and with movies I’ve watched myself. It’s been years since I’ve seen the Zeffirelli edition – high school, at least – and I’ve never heard of the “Chicken Rice War.” I’ll have to check that out. Thank you!

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