The 10 best Shakespeare film adaptations
William Shakespeare’s plays have made a lasting impression on the film industry. Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing is the most recent film adaptation to hit the silver screen, but the Bard’s influence can be traced all the way back to the 1950s across a variety of film genres.
The ten films on this list aren’t just straightforward adaptations. These are films that have taken Shakespeare’s iconic plays and transformed them into different genres, updated them to reflect the time they were made, or simply given them a fresh twist to keep the classic plays forever relevant and entertaining.
Forbidden Planet (1956)
What looks like a really bad Star Trek spin-off (with worse special effects than the Gorn) is actually one of the earliest film adaptations of a Shakespearean play. Swap the lonely island for interstellar space, the ship for a space ship, keep Prospero’s invisibility trick and the promise of young love, and the aim of returning to Earth/the throne – and you have The Tempest as a sci-fi film. Bonus fact: this film did the scrolling yellow text opener a good 20 years before Star Wars did.
West Side Story (1961)
Based on the 1957 Broadway musical that’s in turn based on Romeo & Juliet, this toe-tapping, finger-snapping musical ran away with 10 Oscar wins, including Best Picture. It’s still a story about star-crossed lovers, but it’s less about feuding families and more about race and immigration inciting gang wars in America. The American Montagues and the Puerto Rican Capulets lock horns amidst stylish choreography and some seriously good musical numbers, while Tony and Maria fall head-over-heels in love… it can only end in tragedy.
My Own Private Idaho (1991)
Loosely based on the Henry histories (yeah, I haven’t read those either), this indie film from stars a pre-Matrix Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix as two hustlers on a journey of self-discovery. Scott is the young Prince Hal, shirking his responsibilities and defying his father to lead a hedonistic life, while Bob/Falstaff leads him astray. But it’s River Phoenix’s role as the quiet, gay, narcoleptic hustler who falls in love with his best friend that steals our hearts.
Romeo + Juliet (1996)
This is the one. Baz Luhrmann’s gorgeous and extravagantly modernised adaptation of the greatest love story catapulted Shakespeare into Hollywood mainstream. The cast choices are perfect. Young Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes are so innocent and believable as the ill-fated lovers, while Harold Perrineau steals the scene as hot-blooded Mercutio. With hip costumes, the ‘Verona Beach’ setting, guns replacing swords, and a pop-tastic soundtrack (Lovefool – The Cardigans), this is Shakespeare for the MTV generation.
10 Things I Hate About You (1999)
Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation paved the way for teen films to take their inspiration from Shakespeare. This pitch perfect film is the best of the lot. Based on witty The Taming of the Shrew, ill-tempered intellectual feminist Julia Stiles is duped into falling in love with bad boy outcast Heath Ledger – but they’re both softies really underneath all that hard core late 90s alt/grunge exterior. Another cracking soundtrack (Letters to Cleo are ace), a sharply written script, and sparkling chemistry between the two leads – this is one cool film.
A slightly odd one, this. The power struggle is for the head of the Danish Corporation, Hamlet is a film student, and it’s set in a very gloomy New York City. And they all speak in iambic pentameter. It takes a while to get used to, but it’s an interesting interpretation of the tragic play. Ethan Hawke plays a subdued, brooding Hamlet, while little touches like Polaroids, video surveillance, and the ghost of Hamlet’s father appearing on CCTV help place it in the (then) modern day. But it’s Julia Stiles who once again steals the show with her silent but expressive performance as the tragic Ophelia.
Mekhi Pfifer stars as Odin James (OJ), star basketball player and the only African-American student in his high school. Cue racism, envy and deception – all the hallmarks of Othello. Josh Hartnett plays a surprisingly convincing Iago who plants the seed of jealousy and doubt in OJ’s mind about his girlfriend’s fidelity, and what follows is as dark and violent as the original play.
ShakespeaRe-told: Macbeth (2005)
I love this adaptation. It’s my favourite play, and it’s also the first time I saw James McAvoy on screen. BBC hits the nail on the head by moving the action into the kitchen of a three star Michelin restaurant. Sous chef Joe Macbeth (played brilliantly by McAvoy) and his maitre d’ wife Ella (Keeley Hawes as Lady Macbeth) plot to kill owner Duncan, who takes all the credit for Joe’s hard work. It’s a clever adaptation, with all actors on board – including Toby Kebbell and Richard Armitage – putting in fine performances. The best bit? The three witches are transformed into three supernatural binmen.
She’s the Man (2006)
Shakespeare pretty much invented the modern rom-com genre, and adapting Twelfth Night into a high school setting (again) makes perfect sense. Not just another teen film, this is a genuinely laugh-out-loud funny film. Amanda Bynes is on fine form as tomboy Viola, showing off her comedic talents to the full as she pretends to be her twin brother Sebastian so she can play in an all boys’ soccer team. Along the way she falls for soccer hunk Duke, while plastic blonde Olivia falls for Sebastian…except it’s really Viola. See? Fun.
Much Ado About Nothing (2012)
With their love of word play, sparring lovers and bumbling extras, Joss Whedon and Shakespeare is a marriage made in fiction heaven. Filmed in 12 days in Whedon’s own Santa Monica home, it’s a sexy, stylish black and white film littered with familiar faces from Whedon’s various projects. The witty repartee between reluctant lovers Benedick and Beatrice is the heart and soul of the piece – but what makes this adaptation stand out from the rest is how un-Shakespearean and colloquial everyone sounds. The words are intact, but it’s the delivery that counts. It’s one of the truest, funniest (if fan-pleasing at times) modern adaptations of Shakespeare in recent times.
Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing is currently out on Blu-ray and DVD