With this month marking the anniversaries of both 10 Things I Hate About You and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it’s worthwhile to look at the cinematic adaptations of the Bard we love. Some of these are literal adaptations, some loose modern takes, but they’re all ways to get a little bit of literary culture that won’t put you to sleep.
I’m a nut when it comes to Shakespearean adaptations. I try to see every interpretation that’s out there and judge them all….as lovingly as I can. Yeah, it takes a lot for me to hate one of these. I do have A TON of honorable mentions that almost made my list, from literally seeing Oscar Isaac perform Hamlet (it wasn’t cinematic so I can’t count it) to Sam Worthington’s only decent role in the Australian interpretation of Macbeth, 10 Things I Hate About You (which I know will make multiple lists), the aforementioned Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (thanks, Kim!), and The Lion King.
William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (1996)
For better or worse this was many a ’90s kids first entry into the world of Shakespeare and Baz Luhrmann certainly gave us a spectacle to behold. I watched this movie so many times I can still recite the first 20 or so minutes of it verbatim. (It’s a fun party trick, ask me to do it sometime. “Two households, both alike in dignity….”) Sure, Leo and Claire Danes don’t know how to properly recite dialogue and it shows; their breath control and comma placements are all over the board. But Luhrmann showed the beauty of the love story and the horror of its violence in a way that’s just breathtaking to see. This is the most ’90s interpretation, but I love every frame of it.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1999)
I feel like I’m the only one who remembers this movie and it’s a damn travesty because it’s delightful. This is one of my favorite rom-coms the Bard wrote that deals in mistaken identities, fantasy elements, and so much weirdness. The cast in this version is nothing short of stacked by 1999 standards. Michelle Pfeiffer and Rupert Everett play the squabbling faerie gods. Stanley Tucci plays Puck himself! Babies Christian Bale and Dominic West play the men at the center of the romantic square that’s involved. Kevin Kline wears a donkey head. Bicycles! It’s all so cute!
Kiss Me Kate (1953)
10 Things I Hate About You is the go-to version of The Taming of the Shrew, but for pure Old Hollywood weirdness you gotta go with George Sidney’s 3-D musical interpretation, Kiss Me Kate. The movie is about a divorced couple making a Broadway version of Taming of the Shrew entitled Kiss Me Kate while simultaneously acting out the Bard’s story in their own lives. (It’ll make you cross-eyed if you think about it too much.) Like Midsummer this movie has everything: a tap-dancing Ann Milling singing about looking for Dick (I’m not kidding!), Howard Keel spanking Kathryn Grayson, gangsters, and the straighest Cole Porter you’ll ever see. It’s also got a bouncing Tommy Rall and some amazing songs. And did I mention 3-D because this movie loves throwing things at the screen. Shakespeare wasn’t THAT innovative!
I remember when O came out that we weren’t allowed to watch it in school because, post-Columbine, it involved kids with guns in a school setting. I have a soft spot for this modern-day, high school interpretation of Othello, mainly because of how it posits the original tale as the ultimate toxic relationship. It’s got every ’90s actor you could imagine, many who had already done takes on Shakespeare. The racial dynamics are a bit…spotty, but it’s still inventive.
Forbidden Planet (1956)
I’m not sure why the 1950s was all about doing Shakespeare adaptations, but I love how they just went for the most outside the box way of telling these stories. The Tempest is a play that could easily be misogynist if placed in the wrong hands and Forbidden Planet is certainly creepy. Walter Pidgeon plays the mad doctor living on a lonely alien planet with his daughter, played by Anne Francis. Sure, she falls for the first guy who shows interest in her, but her relationship with papa is odd, to say the least. But I love how this movie looks. It’s such a fun sci-fi take on the Bard.
I love Shakespeare, and I quite enjoy when people get inventive with his work. Those attempts aren’t always great or even watchable. But sometimes they are pure wondrous delight.
10 Things I Hate About You (1999)
There are a lot of great performances from Heath Ledger, but by far his most charming is as Patrick Verona, trying to win the heart of Julia Stiles’ Kat Stratford in this adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew. Shakespeare’s story is, admittedly, problematic in the 21st century. But Kat is a woman who lives life on her own terms, and Patrick works to win her over, not because he’s getting paid, but because he genuinely likes all the qualities others use to deem her prickly and unapproachable. If he can help himself to some of a dumb, rich asshole’s cash, why not? Plus, this movie is hilarious and endlessly quotable.
William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (1996)
I find the tale of these star-crossed lovers to be very silly and melodramatic. In fact, I have long held the theory that it was always intended to be a comedy and not a tragedy. But as a big fan of Baz Luhrmann and his unique style, coupled with 90s Leo, this is a movie that was made for me. It’s beautiful and enchanting, and Paul Rudd dances like a dorky white dude. What’s not to love?
She’s the Man (2006)
How did a movie featuring shirtless Channing Tatum end up so totally underrated? Amanda Bynes takes on Twelfth Night as a high school soccer player who disguises herself as her brother and takes his place at his prep school because she just wants to be part of a competitive team. But then trouble starts when she falls in love with the aforementioned shirtless Tatum, who doesn’t know her true identity. Chaos, awkwardness, and drama follow, but Bynes is so charming and funny that the result is a delight.
The Lion King (1994)
Truly the best adaptation of Hamlet is Disney’s The Lion King. Scar is the ultimate Disney villain, what with the fratricide and all. The voice cast is iconic, the animation is beautiful, and can we talk about those perfect Elton John lyrics? Top tier Disney animation meets top tier Shakespeare. It’s an ideal combination.
West Bank Story (2005)
This Oscar-winning short film is funny and sweet and clever. Obviously, it’s based on West Side Story which is based on Romeo & Juliet, but this time it moves the story to Israel’s contested West Bank and sets the romance between an Israeli soldier and a Palestinian cashier at her family’s falafel restaurant. The reason it works is that it’s funny, just like Shakespeare intended.
A totally unsurprising fact about me: I’m a Shakespeare snob. For a long time, I wouldn’t even countenance a film that adapted Shakespeare’s plot without the language, but I’ve grown up since then. Still, there’s nothing I love more than actors and directors who really embrace Shakespearean dialogue, and who find new and interesting ways to adapt probably the world’s most versatile playwright.
There are a few films I couldn’t include on here, so honorable mention goes to Julie Taymor’s Titus, Zeffirelli’s The Taming of the Shrew, the entirety of The Hollow Crown, and the version of Othello starring Denzel Washington and Tom Hiddleston that currently exists in my head.
Much Ado About Nothing (1993)
Kenneth Branagh’s version of Much Ado is a great cinematic Shakespeare starter—it’s funny and light and sun-soaked; it has great actors having an absolute blast at an Italian villa; it has Keanu Reeves just acting his little heart out and failing so badly, and Emma Thompson at her Shakespearean badass best. Really, one of the happiest, funniest, most enjoyable and accessible Shakespeare films ever made.
Chimes at Midnight (1965)
Orson Welles did several Shakespeare films, with mixed results. His Othello is…problematic, but then so are most versions of Othello that don’t actually cast a black man in the lead. Welles’s Macbeth is just weird, although an interesting attempt. His best Shakespeare is Chimes at Midnight, a condensed version of part of the Henriad (that’s both parts of Henry IV and Henry V) with a bit of Merry Wives of Windsor and Richard II thrown in for good measure. Welles is Falstaff, because of course he is, and dominates his scenes, but he gives plenty of space for the other actors, including John Gielgud as Henry IV and Jeanne Moreau as Doll, and for his truly unique visual and linguistic take on Shakespeare. Chimes at Midnight is simply a work of art.
Throne of Blood (1957)
Coincidentally, it was Toshiro Mifune’s birthday on April 1, so this fits right in. Like Welles, Kurosawa did a few Shakespeare adaptations, but his interpretation of Macbeth is by far my favorite. Moving Macbeth to feudal Japan, with heavy stylization and one terrifying turn from Isuzu Yamada as Lady Macbeth, Throne of Blood is a perfect example of how to make a foreign-language, transposed version of Shakespeare work without abandoning a single iota of the Bard’s meaning.
Scotland, PA (2001)
So, I like Macbeth. And what if Macbeth, but set in a run-down burger joint, with a bunch of stoners as the Witches, and Christopher Walken as Officer Macduff? RIGHT?
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1969)
This is a bit of a weird one, because it’s really more of a TV movie, or loose stage adaptation. There are some strange choices made – I’m not sure why Ian Holm appears to be on meth during much of his performance – but it’s also probably the only time we ever get to see Helen Mirren, Diana Rigg, and Judi Dench all on the same screen. We also get Rigg shouting things at Mirren like, “Get you gone, you dwarf, You minimus of hindering knotgrass made, You bead, you acorn!” Like, just sit back and let their voices wash over you. These are the finest actresses of their generation.
10 Things I Hate About You (1999)
10 Things I Hate About You is one of my all-time favorite teen movies. The film comes from The Taming of the Shrew and manages to tell the fantastic story through a modern lens. Everything about this story, from the script to the performances, gel incredibly well and still feel contemporary (even though it is now 20 years old). I fell in love with Julia Stiles in this movie as she (and character Kat Stratford) became not only my feminist idol, but one of my earliest girl crushes.
West Side Story (1961)
Yes, it has problems. However, I will not hear Natalie Wood besmirched. She is one of my queens. This movie is a beautifully made, modernized retelling of Romeo and Juliet. The music is flawless, the acting is powerful, and this is still a classic musical worthy of watching even now.
One of the most faithful adaptations on my list, this is also one of my favorite versions of Hamlet. Laurence Olivier’s performance truly is second-to-none. The work is essentially a filmed stage performance and hasn’t aged all that well, but it is refreshing to see the immortal actor’s work preserved for posterity.
Much Ado About Nothing (2012)
It’s not cool to like Joss Whedon anymore, but I can’t help it. This ultra tiny version of the Shakespeare play was directed by the popular television creator and filmed over a number of days, using his own house as the setting. The tone is classic Whedon with a cast who truly gel well together. Yes, I’m still in love with Fran Kranz as Claudio.
Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (1990)
Gary Oldman+Tim Roth= Yes pllllease. The story is a fascinating reexamination of the classic and familiar story of Hamlet, choosing to examine it through a different perspective. The starring performances are truly amazing, showing two talented actors in the early stages of their careers. It’s an interesting comedic take on the classic story, and its definitely worthy of a watch for fans of the Bard.