Are these the 10 best Shakespeare screen adaptations?

Macbeth, starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, joins Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet and Orson Welles’s Chimes at Midnight in my top 10 films based on the Stratford playwright’s works

Promoting its review of the new movie version of Macbeth, the Daily Telegraph asked, on its front page: “Has Shakespeare ever been better on the big screen?”

Such a question is clearly intended to provoke a response, and the gist of mine, revealed in the personal Top 10 below, would be: yes, but not very often. In the arbitrary rules to which such surveys are prone, I have decided that a play can only be represented once (which turns out to be especially foul and unfair for Macbeth) and that directors are restricted to a single entry, in order to prevent the list being dominated by multiple cinematic Bardists such as Kenneth Branagh, Julie Taymor, Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier, although the last has the bigger problem of having been omitted completely.

Macbeth (2015)

I appreciate that this decision is controversial but my conclusion, after literally re-viewing the work, is that Olivier’s filmed Shakespeares have suffered from either changes in taste – which now rightly questions white actors making up for Othello – or by a subsequent superior piece: Branagh, though sometimes criticised for shadowing Olivier’s career, overshadowed him with movies of both Hamlet and Henry V.

The endurance of Shakespeare in theatre is mainly attributable to the magnificence of his language and the talent-defining roles offered to performers. But while the latter factor also applies to the cinematic versions – the desire of actors to record great stage roles is one reason that the shows have been filmed so often – the poetic speech can become problematic on screen, with the success of movie versions greatly depending on how they deal with the verse and soliloquies.

Conversely, though, the playwright’s structural decisions anticipated by three centuries many standard elements of film’s visual grammar – such as cross-cutting and location-hopping – and the Stratford dramatist’s frequent use of 17th-century special effects, such as ghosts and magic, has become progressively more appealing to a medium which, through digital technology, is ever more suited to illusion.

After which prologue, comes the countdown.

10. The Tempest (2010)

Among the visualisations of the island-exiled magician Prospero, I struggled to separate two finalists. In his magnificently wacky 1979 punk version, Derek Jarman applied casting (poet Heathcote Williams, singer Toyah Willcox) and soundtrack (Stormy Weather) unlikely to be found at the National Theatre, at least at that time. In contrast, Taymor made only one radical alteration for the 2010 version – Prospero becoming Prospera, played by Helen Mirren – otherwise offering a classically well-spoken and artily filmed account of the play which showcases Mirren’s vocal colours and Taymor’s visual panache and places it above the director’s other Shakespeare-based works, Titus (1999) and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2014).

9. Othello (2001)

With the screen portrayals of the persecuted moor of Venice by Olivier (1965), Welles (1952) and Anthony Hopkins (1981), all disqualified by my law against cosmetic assistance, the bench-mark for naturalistic Othellos was Laurence Fishburne, opposite Kenneth Branagh as the scheming lieutenant Iago, in Oliver Parker’s Othello (1995). But, while that is the strongest account of the recognised text, the themes and implications of the play are most powerfully expressed for me in two modern-day updates both first seen in 2001: the Hollywood teen-flick O, which shifts the action to a high-school basketball team, and an adaptation made for ITV television under the original title, scripted by Andrew Davies. In the latter, Commander Othello is the first black leader of the London police force and Iago the frustrated deputy who connives against the boss and his wife, Desdemona. Powerfully acted by Eamonn Walker, Christopher Eccleston and Keeley Hawes, this is the Othello that most makes the play live for today.

8. Julius Caesar (1953)

US actors often draw a blank with iambic pentameters (with the recent exception of Kevin Spacey on stage) but Marlon Brando, in the days when he was still taking acting seriously, is an impressive Mark Antony in Joseph Mankiewicz’s vision of the Shakespeare work that has always spoken powerfully to the US, thanks to that country’s history of assassinations. A bonus is that the cast also includes John Gielgud as Cassius and James Mason as Brutus.

7. Chimes at Midnight (1965)

Although vulnerable to a stewards’ inquiry from purists on the grounds that it is not a Shakespeare play as such, Orson Welles’s anthology of scenes from four plays featuring Sir John Falstaff, with himself as the gluttonous knight, achieves the unlikely paradox of being a scholarly romp. It just edges, in the specialised category of history play mashups, The Hollow Crown (2012), the BBC’s medley of the Henries and Richards, with Simon Russell Beale a tremendous Falstaff.

6. Coriolanus (2011)

The recent popularity of filmed Shakespeare has been encouraged by the prevalence of English classic actors who also have Hollywood heft: Branagh, Mirren, Ian McKellen and, in this case, Ralph Fiennes, who chose to make his movie-directing debut by filming himself in a version of a play (WS’s second-best Roman political tragedy after Julius Caesar) in which he had appeared on stage. Cannily adapted by screenwriter John Logan, this Coriolanus, set in a present-day Italian state, is spoken with great clarity by a cast that also includes Vanessa Redgrave, and the battles are viscerally thrilling, with the presence of Gerard Butler from the 300 franchise acknowledging that the more combative plays in the canon may draw in some action-movie 15-24 audiences.

5. Macbeth (2015)

In answer to the Telegraph question: not, in my opinion, the best filmed Shakespeare ever, but impressively straight in at No 5 on release. While the war sequences nod vigorously (as with No 6) to the blood-thirsty younger audience, director Justin Kurzel also intelligently develops themes in the text of bereavement, trauma and faith, although relocating several interior scenes outdoors in order to show off the Scottish landscape. Michael Fassbender’s Macbeth achieves the perfect combination of clout and doubt, while Marion Cotillard is clear and moving despite the decision to downgrade the role of Lady Macbeth, possibly from a misguided fear of perpetuating a stereotype of the controlling wife. Though last to the party, this account easily takes the prize from the Orson Welles version of 1948 and Roman Polanski’s splatter-movie adaptation of 1971.

4. 10 Things I Hate About You (1999)

Super-purists might object to the inclusion of projects that replace the original text and even the title with contemporary language. This Gil Junger romcom, though, is a brilliantly original re-imagining of The Taming of The Shrew, as Heath Ledger’s Patrick Verona reluctantly woos the Kat Stratford of Julia Stiles in a story that miraculously transfers to a US high school the courtship conventions and contests of the original.

3. Hamlet (1996)

Teachers and students of A-level English must annually give thanks to Branagh for a screen Hamlet that is unusually complete (justifying its four-hour length) and delivers narrative and language with immaculate classical clarity, not least in the director’s own handsome, haunted performance in the title role. Able to call in favours from all parts of the showbiz spectrum, Branagh casts actors you might expect (Derek Jacobi, Judi Dench) alongside many you wouldn’t: Jack Lemmon, Robin Williams, Ken Dodd. The great US novelist John Updike credited this film with inspiring his Elsinore-sequel novel, Gertrude and Claudius.

2. Romeo and Juliet (1996)

Among productions that modernise the setting but preserve the original words, Joss Whedon’s low-budget Much Ado About Nothing (2012) is easily beaten in the final runoff by Baz Luhrmann’s invigorating shifting of the story of the Montagues and Capulets to the gang wars of Venice Beach, California. It can be argued that the Australian director had the advantages of a recognisable cinematic genre (teen tragedy) and the example of West Side Story, but his consistent finding of plausible modern interpretations for both story and speech manages to be simultaneously radical and respectful.

1. King Lear (1971)

The biggest loser from the stipulation that each play is represented only once is Akira Kurosawa, whose 1985 film Ran enthrallingly exported King Lear to the world of Japanese warlords. However, the clear victor in this category – and the whole competition – is Peter Brook’s magnificent black-and-white film adaptation of his 1962 RSC staging, with Paul Scofield as the king whose regime is ended by Daughtergate. Nine years closer to Lear’s likely real age than when he played the role on stage at 40, Scofield brings a musicality and depth of meaning to every line and also scores points between the words with scorched or scorching glances and grimaces. Fassbender, in the new Macbeth, looks to have learned from Scofield’s stillness and chilly diction.


Mark Lawson

The GuardianTramp

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