Top 10 Shakespeare Movie Adaptations
Written by Ashleigh Gardner
August 2, 2016
Because his stories are the most popular in English literature and theatre, Shakespeare’s plays get made into films every few years, but there are some that stand out above the rest. Below is a list of the top 10 contemporary adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays from 1990 onward. Grab some popcorn, sit down, and enjoy a night with The Bard.
10. Cymbeline (2015)
A modern telling of Cymbeline, the 2014 adaptation revolves around a drug kingpin, Cymbeline, and his efforts to control the chaos surrounding him when a biker gang and dirty cops threaten his criminal empire. A visceral, brutal, and gritty adaptation that rivals Titus Andronicus in its depiction of violence, but an apt update in light of current problems associated with the drug trade in America. If you’re a fan of Sons of Anarchy, you’ll love this film. Starring Ethan Hawke, Ed Harris, Dakota Johnson, Anton Yelchin, Milla Jovovich, and Penn Badgley.
9. As You Like It (2007)
Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of As You Like It is set in 19th Century Japan where English traders lived and worked. The film establishes a backstory for Duke Frederick’s hatred and usurpation of his brother’s position, whereas the original play does not. Branagh’s film has been criticized for its location lacking relevance to the original script, but the film succeeds in delivering fun, enjoyable scenes with Rosalind, Celia, and Touchstone. If you like comedic period pieces like Pride and Prejudice or any Jane Austen book, you’ll appreciate this movie. Starring Bryce Dallas Howard, Romola Garai, David Oyelowo, Kevin Kline, Alfred Molina, and Janet McTeer.
8. A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1999)
A Victorian-era take on Shakespeare with a hilarious cast, this adaptation is a beautiful and equally fun romp through the forest. By far, this is one of the best and most relatable versions of Midsummer, as it features scenes not included in the original script that help to flesh out Shakespeare’s characters a bit more fully. One of the best parts of the film is Kevin Kline and Sam Rockwell attempting, somewhat poorly, to put on a play for the duke. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is equally as heartfelt as Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing (listed #4 here) and as magical as Branagh’s As You Like It. Starring Calista Flockhart, Anna Friel, Christian Bale, Dominic West, Kevin Kline, Stanley Tucci, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Sam Rockwell.
7. Titus (1999)
Julie Taymor’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s most bloody play (a total of 14 deaths) opens with a boy playing with his tin soldiers at a 1950s style diner. What begins as an innocent scene transforms into an intense and violent ceremony which begins Shakespeare’s revenge play. As with all of Taymor’s work, Titus is a feast for the eyes. The film’s costumes are influenced by contemporary, Victorian and Edwardian, and ancient clothing styles, so every character stands out from the others. If you love Julie Taymor or films that feature stunning visuals, get your hands on this adaptation. Starring Anthony Hopkins, Jessica Lange, Alan Cumming, Colm Feore, Laura Frasier, and Harry Lennix.
6. Romeo + Juliet (1996)
Set in Venice Beach, California, this Baz Luhrmann adaptation of Shakespeare’s most famous play celebrates the star-crossed lovers with vibrant Hollywood-esque flair. Extravagance, playful comedy, soaring emotions, and beautiful scenery characterize this classic 90s adaptation. If you’re a fan of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Beautiful Creatures, or The Hunger Games trilogy, you’ll love Romeo + Juliet. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Claire Danes, Brian Dennehy, John Leguizamo, Harold Perrineau, and Pete Postlethwaite.
5. Macbeth (2015)
Like many other films in this list, Macbeth features scenes in which the audience is given a bit more story than we’re given in Shakespeare’s original script. Though artistic liberties with the script are sometimes frowned upon, this film adaptation gracefully includes them (and bases them on lines spoken by Lady Macbeth). Macbeth is a gorgeous and frightening film that features costumes seemingly from the pages of Vogue. A film for fans of pieces like The Tudors, The Borgias, The Witch and Game of Thrones, this Shakespeare adaptation will leave you speechless. Starring Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Paddy Considine, Sean Harris, and David Thewlis.
4. Much Ado About Nothing (2012)
Shot in black and white and placed in a contemporary 2010s setting, Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing is a pop culture dream, both for fans of Shakespeare and for fans of Joss Whedon’s current and past projects (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Firefly, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Angel). In this version, Don Pedro and Don John’s political titles are kept the same, but their roles are more along the lines of American government officials — officials who have arrived at a dear friend’s house to stay for a prolonged amount of time in celebration of the end of political upheaval. The love story of Shakespeare’s original text is explained and updated through scenes without dialogue, and many of the minor roles are merged to simplify character involvement and plot. If you like sexy romantic comedies (with original songs by Jed Whedon), you’ll love Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing. Starring Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Clark Gregg, Fran Kranz, Jillian Morgese, Nathan Fillion, Sean Maher, and Reed Diamond.
3. Hamlet (2009)
Another contemporary take on a Shakespearean tale, this harrowing BBC television adaptation uses modern dress and a contemporary political backdrop to tell the tragic tale of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. The film uses the same cast as the 2008 Royal Shakespeare Company stage production. Like the stage version, the entire on-screen play takes place within the walls of a dark, foreboding building. Set designer Robert Jones was inspired by mirrors and how they reveal to the viewer a reflection of themselves. But what happens when the mirror cracks? Starring David Tennant, Sir Patrick Stewart, Penny Downie, Mariah Gale, Peter de Jersey, Oliver Ford Davies, and Edward Bennett.
2. Coriolanus (2011)
One of Shakespeare’s lesser-performed plays, Coriolanus is about a Roman general who seeks a government position after his many successes in battle…and the government officials who seek to oppose his rule. The 2011 adaptation takes place in its original location — Rome — but updates the time period to present-day Rome where riots are in progress and citizens’ civil rights are in danger. What could be called a bloodier Julius Caesar, Coriolanus is the Shakespearean adaptation for any fan of the Halo or Call of Duty video games. Starring Ralph Fiennes, Gerard Butler, Vanessa Redgrave, Brian Cox, Jessica Chastain.
1. Richard III (1995)
You’ve seen Ian McKellen as Gandalf and Magneto, but his portrayal of Richard III in an alternate fascist 1930s Britain is truly (and effectively) terrifying. Drawing from World War II politics, the 1995 adaptation aligns Richard III with the political attitude of the Nazi party, using costumes, weaponry, and symbols reminiscent of the Third Reich to solidify his antagonistic position. Purely good characters wear and use costumes and weapons that more closely align with Allied forces. A striking take on politics, war, and corrupt government, Richard III is a film for any fan of historical and political intrigue. Starring Sir Ian McKellen, Annette Bening, Jim Broadbent, Robert Downey Jr., Maggie Smith, and Kristin Scott Thomas.
HONORABLE MENTION – Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead (1990)
A sort of “spin-off” of Hamlet, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead is based on the play written by Tom Stoppard, first performed in 1966 and published in 1967. Hamlet’s friends from school, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, are sent for by Claudius and Gertrude, and must find out why Hamlet’s being so crazy. The film presents the rest of the Hamlet script often as a bothersome interruption in scenes where Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are preoccupied with talking about existentialism, physics, art, and storytelling. A quirky and silly film, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead ends in the same way Hamlet does, but goes about it in a refreshingly comical way. Starring Tim Roth, Gary Oldman, Richard Dreyfuss, and Iain Glen.