Olivier v. Branagh
What Are the Best Shakespeare Movies?
From Joss Whedon to Orson Welles, you can’t miss these fantastic film versions of the Bard.
As soon as you begin to research the many ways to encounter and experience Shakespeare’s plays, you discover that the problem isn’t finding Shakespeare—the problem is, there’s no escaping him.
According to the Guinness Book of World Records, there are at least 410 films based on plays by Shakespeare. And that’s not including the movies he’s influenced, which the Internet Movie Database lists at 1,140. In the U.S. alone, there are some 135 Shakespeare festivals each summer—17 in California alone.
Music? He rules, from too many popular songs to count to opera (currently at least 26).
And if that’s not enough, there’s an app you can download to your smartphone for free that contains every play and poem (we did this and we’re not sorry).
But for now, let’s stick to movies and television.
We won’t pretend to have seen every single film of a Shakespeare play, much less the television shows that reference his work in one way or another, but here’s a list of our favorites.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935)
Directed by Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle, with James Cagney (Bottom) and Mickey Rooney (Puck). The set was as big as a football field, and supplied all the acreage necessary for theatrical wizard Reinhardt’s baroque vision. The corniness implicit in Warner Brothers’ contract players tackling Shakespeare is sometimes unintentionally hilarious, but more often charming. The star-packed 1999 version is more conventional but also charming.
As You Like It (1992)
Directed by Christine Edzard, with James Fox (Jaques), Emma Croft (Rosalind), Andrew Tiernan (Orlando/Oliver). Arden Forest is an industrial wasteland, which gives you some idea of the liberties taken with the play, which has had large chunks carved out of its text as well. Against that, weigh the dynamic performance of Emma Croft. Rosalind is one of Shakespeare’s most charming female protagonists, and Croft makes you understand completely why Orlando falls for her. You may even be a little jealous.
Chimes at Midnight (1966)
Directed by Orson Welles, who stars as Falstaff, with John Gielgud (Henry IV), Keith Baxter (Hal), Jeanne Moreau (Doll Tearsheet), and Margaret Rutherford (Mistress Quickly). A mash-up of Henry IV parts one and two, Henry V, and The Merry Wives of Windsor, this is arguably not only Welles’s best film but the best film ever made from a Shakespeare play. Do whatever it takes to see it.
Much Ado About Nothing (1993)
Directed by Kenneth Branagh, who stars as Benedict, with Emma Thompson (Beatrice), Denzel Washington (Don Pedro), Robert Sean Leonard (Claudio) and Kate Beckinsale (Hero). It’s fizz from start to finish but high-grade fizz, a movie that’s not just a filmed play but a real movie. The joy in the making is palpable, but better yet, it’s contagious. And since this is not some either/or list, might as well make room for Joss Whedon’s 2012 version, which is altogether different but excellent in its own way.
The Taming of the Shrew (1967)
Directed by Frnco Zefferelli, with Richard Burton (Petruchio) and Elizabeth Taylor (Katherina). Time and circumstance have turned this into one of Shakepeare’s “problem” plays, the problem being that female subservience simply doesn’t play as well it once did. But Taylor gives as good as she gets in this version, and long after the Burtons’ off-screen backstory has faded, their performances keep this utterly zestful. Zefferelli’s Romeo and Juliet (complete with an exquisite Nino Rota score) gets all the attention, but this is a lot more fun.
Twelfth Night (1996)
Directed by Trevor Nunn, with Imogen Stubbs (Viola), Helena Bonham Carter (Olivia), Nigel Hawthorne (Malvolio), and Ben Kingsley (Feste). The only real problem with this version is the same problem plaguing all versions: the cruelty inflicted on Malvolio in the principal subplot throws everything out of whack. But get past that, and what remains is pure delight, with Kingsley’s all-seeing, all-wise clown as the calm center of a storm of mismatched identities and star-crossed love.
People who saw the limited 1964 “live broadcast in theaters” version with Richard Burton will all tell you it’s the best, but the versions with Laurence Olivier, Kenneth Branagh, Ethan Hawke, and even Mel Gibson all have their partisans, and each does have something to recommend it. But at the end of the day, Hamlet truly is quintessentially a play, and every screen version wrestles with that fact and comes up a little short. Still, if people did not insist on filming it, we would never have had the chance to see Billy Crystal as the gravedigger.
It may forever be a cursed, unlucky play in the theater world, but in cinema, it is the very soul of luck. Orson Welles’s version is weird as hell but utterly watchable. Roman Polanski’s bloody-minded interpretation matches Shakespeare’s savage vision line for line and shot for shot. Even the strangely muted Michael Fassbender version is absorbing. But the best of all Macbeths is not even written by Shakespeare—we’ll get to that.
Directed by Richard Loncraine, with Ian McKellan. Let’s just stop with Ian McKellan. Not even Olivier’s version comes anywhere close. This is a one-man master class in acting.
Olivier’s version, made during World War II as a sort of high-class propaganda film, and Branagh’s mud and blood interpretation are as different as can be, and both are compelling. If one has the edge, it’s Olivier’s, not for the acting (Branagh is every bit his equal in this role), but for the novel way Olivier begins the film as a stage play and then gradually allows realism to take over until we get to the Battle of Agincourt, which is horrifyingly realistic (only Welles’s battle scene outdoes this), and then gradually retreats back into staginess by the end. Maybe budgetary constraints dictated this strategy (there was a war on, after all), but in this case, necessity was the mother of genius.
TV and movie adaptations, riffs, what you will.
Bart as Hamlet. Need we say more? OK, Homer as the ghost.
Third Rock From the Sun
Harry does the world’s most famous monologue.
The castaways do a truncated Hamlet as a musical. Bonus: guest appearance by Phil Silvers.
Catch My Soul
A stage musical version of Othello, never filmed, alas, and now remembered only for Jerry Lee Lewis as Iago. Given the chance to go back in a time machine and see Burton’s Hamlet or Jerry Lee’s Iago, we’d go for the Killer without thinking twice.
Slings and Arrows
A Canadian series about a struggling Shakespearean repertory theater, this show’s three amazing seasons each revolves around the production of a particular play (Macbeth, Hamlet, and King Lear). So, like Shakespeare in Love (and when did it become chic to sneer at that movie?), each season is about putting on a play, but it is also about the Shakespeare text as well, and the two plots mirror, counterpoint, and eventually explain each other. Shows like this get tagged with those awful truncated titles, like dramady with romcom overtones. Let’s just say this one has considerable range and knows what to do with it.
People with the show swear that every installment derives in some way from Shakespeare. Hey, it’s their show, who are we to argue? Premise for Sons of Anarchy: ditto.
My Darling Clementine
John Ford’s western about Wyatt Earp has an unforgettable scene where a traveling actor (Alan Mowbrey) stumbles through Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy in a barroom full of drunks. When he forgets his lines, Doc Holliday (Victor Mature) leans forward and finishes the speech. And in that handoff, when Shakespeare’s words are taken out of the mouth of an actor and taken up by a spectator in a saloon, something too familiar suddenly comes to life. We hear what Hamlet’s saying because it’s not Hamlet, it’s Doc saying the words—a man living with the death sentence of tuberculosis, which puts him on more than a nodding acquaintance with matters of life and death. And yes, Ford is riding on Shakespeare’s shoulders here, but this is still one of the most transcendent and touching—yet unsentimental—scenes in any movie.
The great Japanese director used Hamlet as some of the source material for The Bad Sleep Well, but in Throne of Blood and Ran, he tackled Macbeth and King Lear head on and wound up with not only two of the best movies ever made from Shakespeare plays but two of the greatest movies ever made. Throne of Blood, in particular, finds a way to be true to Shakespeare without ever using a line of his dialogue, and the result is the absolute best version of this play on screen.