Because, for the vast majority of us, our first encounter with William Shakespeare is in the classroom, interminably dredging over lines for hidden meaning and things we can use in an essay, people tend to view watching his plays as homework.
However, when a movie director gets a proper handle on one of Shakespeare’s plays and gets actors good enough to speak it naturally, there’s not a screenwriter who can match him. Here are ten movies that do wonderful things with Shakespeare plays. There will be no test later.
10. Love’s Labour’s Lost (2000)
Not a perfect adaptation by any means, but one with plenty of ambition. Kenneth Branagh, yet again – he loves a bit of Shakespeare, does Ken – imagines the story of four friends who swear off love as an old Hollywood musical, with a variety of George Gershwin and Cole Porter songs whacked in among all the iambic pentameter. When it works it’s thoroughly charming; when it doesn’t it’s at least trying very hard.
9. Much Ado About Nothing (2012)
Joss Whedon’s follow-up to The Avengers couldn’t have been smaller. It’s a black-and-white version of Much Ado About Nothing, shot in his house and starring various friends from the Whedonverse. And it’s a brisk adaptation that is much funnier than most. Amy Acker is particularly good as Beatrice, pratfalling and wisecracking like a 1940s screwball heroine. Less lavish than Kenneth Branagh's but no less well done. A perfect entry point for people who think they hate Shakespeare.
8. Much Ado About Nothing (1993)
An explosion of loviness, with Kenneth Branagh, Emma Thompson, Kate Beckinsale, Richard Briers, Imelda Staunton and other posh people making up the British side of this comedy of mistaken identities and suppressed affections. On the American side, Michael Keaton is superb as the bumbling Dogberry, while Denzel Washington makes a dashing prince. You suspect that Keanu Reeves, as the villain of the piece, might be there mostly for star power, bless him.
7. 10 Things I Hate About You (1999)
After Romeo + Juliet, transposing Shakespeare to the halls of American high schools became, like, totally a thing. One of the most successful was 10 Things I Hate About You, which doesn’t have any of that confusing Shakespeare language but does have the plot of the horribly titled The Taming of the Shrew. Much of its success is owed to its leads, with Julia Styles determined rather than surly as a girl tricked into a relationship with a slacker played by Heath Ledger, who acts with the enthusiastic charm of a puppy who got at the chocolate.
6. Coriolanus (2012)
Ralph Fienne’s directorial debut is a brooding, bloodthirsty take on the tale of a war hero whose optimism and pride turn to cruelty and bitterness as his rivals and self-regard bring him low. It’s Shakespeare as gun-toting war movie and bristles with violence and glistens with blood. Shakespeare is rarely so manly.
5. West Side Story (1961)
Romeo and Juliet again, but this time turned into a New York musical with two rival street gangs and Tony, a member of the American gang, falling for Maria, the sister of the leader of the Puerto Rican gang. There’s a lot you can make fun of – the rivals gangs and their dance-offs are about as threatening as a charging group of kittens – but the tunes are all exceptionally catchy and imaginatively staged. It does, however, wimp away from the ending of Romeo and Juliet, and perhaps undo the entire point of the play, by having Maria survive and just have a bit of a cry.
4. Hamlet (1996)
There are several arguments for the best screen Hamlet. There’s probably quite a big crowd screaming for the Laurence Olivier 1948 version, which won a Best Picture Oscar but is rather stagey and simplifies the play. There are probably even people fighting the corner for Franco Zeffirelli’s Mel Gibson-starring version. Kenneth Branagh’s take, though, is surely definitive if only for including every word of the play (oddly, Branagh was nominated for a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for not adapting the play). It’s impeccably played by an astonishing cast and rummages in both the political and psychological depths of the play. Also, it looks absolutely stunning.
3. Henry V (1944)
You’ve got to have one Laurence Olivier in any Shakespeare list, so it’s this grand, experimental take on Henry V. Made toward the end of World War II it was intended as a rousing rush of patriotism and support for ‘our boys’, and is very successful as such. The shift between stage and ‘real life’ settings works superbly and there’s no better delivery of the St Crispin’s Day speech.
2. Throne Of Blood (1957)
Using the plot but not the text of Macbeth, Akira Kurosawa relocates the Scottish play to feudal Japan. Toshiru Mifune is on absolutely furious form as the samurai who is told he’ll become a powerful lord and goes on a destructive mission of vengeance and entitlement, spurred on by an ambitious wife. There’s no other Macbeth adaptation that captures the play’s creeping doom.
1. William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (1996)
You won’t find another Shakespeare adaptation that matches Baz Luhrmann’s for bravado and invention. He moves the story of the star-crossed lovers to modern(ish) day Verona Beach, where rival gangs party, shoot at each other (giving all the guns the names of swords, so as not to change the text, is a genius touch) and fall in love dramatically. Unlike most other cinema adaptations of this play, it really gets the sense that these are teenagers, not old dusty relics. And the soundtrack is killer too.