With Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing due to hit our cinema screens this summer, we’ve looked at a few of the best Shakespeare films – from classic, black and white screen adaptations to edgier modern takes.
So, if you’re taking your A Level English Literature put the books down for a moment and enjoy an easier way to study Shakespeare…
Romeo + Juliet, Baz Lurhmann, 1996
Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet is a modern (note the plus sign in the name) music-filled romp through the bard’s biggest box office hit. The film that launched Leonardo DiCaprio – not to mention a wide-eyed Claire Danes – into international stardom, it mixes Shakespearian dialogue with modern outfits, swaps Verona for Miami, introduces ecstasy and elevators (both of which would surely have been frowned upon in Renaissance Italy…) and messes about with the plot at times. But it’s no less fun for it. Altogether now… “Love me, love me – say that you love me”.
Much Ado About Nothing, Kenneth Branagh, 1993
Kenneth Branagh, Emma Thompson, Denzel Washington and a host of other big names against a backdrop of smouldering Tuscan landscapes… What could be better? Answer: not much. This Shakespeare film adaptation (directed by Branagh himself) leaves out much of the stage-y posturing in favour of a slightly more naturalistic acting style while still playing it fairly straight by the play, with all its twists and turns.
Romeo & Juliet, Franco Zeffirelli, 1968
Another Romeo & Juliet. And a very different one at that. Classically Shakespeare – it’s all very ‘actorly’, was shot on location in Italy, features a lot of stage-style costumes (right down to the codpieces and jerkins, and features two teenaged actors in the roles of the star-crossed lovers (as well as a very young Michael York as Tybalt). But it’s also very beautiful. At any rate, Radiohead's Thom Yorke admits to being sufficiently inspired by it to write the "Exit Music (For a Film)" for Baz Lurhmann's 1996 production. Zeffirelli also made a critically acclaimed version of The Taming of the Shrew with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.
My Own Private Idaho, Gus Van Sant, 1991
Doesn’t sound like a Shakespeare play, right? Well, it’s not strictly. It’s more an adaptation, really, with director Gus Van Sant very loosely basing it on Henry IV, parts I and II, and Henry V (i.e. pinching the dramatic parts he liked and leaving out the less easy to digest bits). Still, with a young Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix playing the leads (a couple of hustlers) and some dramatic shots of the bare Idaho landscape, it’s well worth digging out – in the name of ‘revision’, of course.
Othello, Orson Welles, 1952
The film that nearly never got made. Three years in the making, it encountered serious budget problems (shooting often had to stop while the director and star dashed off to appear in a film to drum up more funds) wardrobe and casting difficulties (including no less than three recastings of Desdemona), several different cuts knocking about out there… it’s fair to say that Orson Welles’ Othello had its problems. The end result, though, is brilliant. The locations vary from Italy to Morocco – including a stunning opening scene shot on the sea-facing walls of Essaouira’s medina – and the film features plenty of typically impressive visual compositions and striking black and white photography.
Shakespeare in Love, John Madden, 1998
OK, so this last film is a bit of a cheat. A departure from the rest of our picks, it’s not strictly a film based on one of the bard’s plays, but rather a film about Shakespeare himself. Regardless, it’s a lot of fun – largely as a result of a cracking cast, with Joseph Fiennes (Shakespeare), Gwyneth Paltrow (the ‘in Love’ part), and a host of British character actors – from Simon Callow and Tom Wilkinson to Martin Clunes and Judy Dench – making the whole thing race along and not feel remotely like a dull Elizabethan costume drama.
These are a few of our favourite Shakespeare films, but what are yours? Let us know below…
Looking to get your teeth into some Shakespeare? Enrol in one of our A Level English Literature courses.Alternatively, check out our pick of a few of the best films about school.