The 25 Best Movies Adapted from The Works of Shakespeare

19. Richard III (1956)

Richard III (1956)

This third of Olivier’s four Shakespeare films somewhat got the shaft at the time it premiered (by a weird arrangement, it was shown on national TV in America on the same night that it opened in theaters!).

Now, it looks the best of the lot to many with its color cinematography which resembles a medieval book of hours and heightened sense of drama, not the least part of which is the performance of the star-director as yet another monster (a deformed, hunchbacked one!) who schemes and murders his way to a throne, with tragic consequences.

Richard III is not a particularly popular pay due to the ultra complex historical events upon which it is based (known as The War of the Roses, of which this was the concluding episode).

Unless the viewer has special knowledge of that era, this version won’t make it clear but Olivier plays on the piece’s horrific emotional content and the supporting cast (John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, Claire Bloom, Cedric Hardwicke and many others)is superb. Oddly enough, TV and video have turned out to be this film’s friends after all.


20. Richard III (1995)


The monstrous royal hunchback of Shakespeare’s play returns, thanks to director Richard Loncraine, in the form of the distinguished classical stage actor Sir Ian McKellan, who ignited his long neglected screen career with his dynamic performance.

This version resets the story in a sort of alternate universe 1930s with the title character analogous to the infamous and evil dictators of that era. As usual with the revised, boiled down Shakespeare films of the modern era there are novel changes (Richard’s armies have machine guns and tanks!) and while there are many usual suspects in the cast (Jim Broadbent, Nigel Hawthorne, Maggie Smith, again, John Wood, etc.) there are also some surprises (Annette Benning, Robert Downey, Jr., Kristin Scott-Thomas).

Like Olivier’s version, this one is full of life and vitality, negating the perception that Richard III is a stuffy play.


21. Chimes at Midnight (1967)

Chimes at Midnight (1967)

This was the third of Welles three Shakespearian films and, if nothing else, it may well contain his finest performance as the larger than life (fill in the joke) Sir John Falstaff, n’er do well companion of naughty Prince Hal until royal duty causes him to be coldly abandoned. One of the Bard’s most popular characters, Falstaff is both a comic and tragic character and one particularly well suited to Welles (many have described him in just those words).

This film followed his basic pattern, an excellent effort despite a pinched budget (Welles had gotten no better at scrounging for money over the years) the film was rather vindictively killed by too powerful New York Times critic Bosley Crowther (who only respected big budget mainstream films).

Only in recent years has it begun to gain a deserved reputation. Many of the star-director’s talented friends (Jeanne Moreau, John Gielgud, Margaret Rutherford, Fernado Rey, narrator Ralph Richardson) worked for literally nothing and a fine young British actor named Keith Baxter gives what should have been a star making performance as Prince Hal. Also, the battle scenes are among the best in cinema history.

Readers may note that there is no play called Chimes at Midnight and this is true. The film is mostly a condensation of Henry IV Parts I & II, with cuttings from Richard II, Henry V, and some lines from The Merry Wives of Windsor and was originally mounted on stage by Welles as the unsuccessful Five Kings. (Note: as this article was being written, it was announced that a previously unknown pristine print from the camera negative has been discovered and full restoration will be implemented.)


22. Julius Caesar (1953)

julius caesar

Another of Shakespeare’s historical plays hits the screen is this well crafted version from Joseph L. Mankiewicz as the noblest Roman of them all, Julius Caesar (Louis Calhern) is assassinated by the conflicted Brutus (James Mason) and crew but avenged by iconoclastic Marc Anthony (Marlon Brando).

This is a big conventional, finely tailored product of the Hollywood system, MGM in this case. The cast also includes the inevitable Gielgud, Edmond O’Brien, Deborah Kerr, Greer Garson, and noir favorite George Macready, among others.

This would always have been a solid version but there is one thing that truly made it exciting: the performance of its star, Brando. Yes, even then he was caricatured as a mumbling, grunting, idiosyncratic actor of the torn tee shirt Method school of acting.

Though many lesser Method performers did fall into line with that description, Brando also knew formal technique and how to combine that with the Method’s emphasis on inner emotional truth. His Marc Anthony was considered a revelation and still looks like a vital new wave interpretation of the Bard’s works.


23. The Taming of the Shrew (1967)

The Taming of the Shrew (1967)

This play concerning a wily fortune hunter finding a way to bring a lovely but ultra volatile woman to heel, only to find true love, was and is one of the playwright’s most popular works. Oddly, it hasn’t seen that much action on the movie screen.

In 1929 Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks made their only joint appearance in an early talkie version which was a complete disaster. Nearly forty years later, another married acting couple, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, took another pass at it, under Zeffirelli’s direction (his first major film) and it all came off much better, though it had limited box office appeal. However, it is lush and lovely and cinematic in the director’s best manner.

Burton, an experienced Shakespearean player, gives an expert performance as Petruchio, while Taylor, with no classical training, gets by more on star appeal but does pull it off. (Their real life relationship had its vituperative moments and the pair had played a dramatic version of that the year before in the big hit Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?).

The film also features fine supporting players such as Michael York, Michael Hordern and Victor Spinetti and is a sunny joy.


24. Ran (1985)

Ran (1985)

Somehow one of the great Shakespeare tragedies, one of the great plays ever, King Lear, has never managed to find a definitive version in the English speaking cinema. (Olivier long wanted to do the play but had to settle for a TV version.)

By far the best film version was this masterpiece from Kurosawa, one of his finest films and a big comeback for him critically and at the box office. If the great director needed one last monument to his genius (he didn’t but one more didn’t hurt) this was it.

Everything from the acting (and actress Nieko Harada gives one of the great performances in a Kurosawa film), sets, color cinematography, and brilliantly staged battle scenes comes together to form a thrilling film.

The story has been altered from an aging king foolishly dividing his kingdom among his two scheming daughters and leaving out his virtuous one to a story of a foolish old ruler unwisely dividing his lands among his evil, war-like sons (Miss Harada plays the ruthless wife of one of the sons). This is one of the great Shakespeare adaptations, period.


25. Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

Branagh, like his idol Olivier, tended to gravitate towards the Bard’s serious works but this film shows that he might have done even better going for the lighter fare, at least from time to time. In this, one of Shakespeare’s best comedies, two young lovers try to match make for an older and more tumultuous pair.

The director-star-adaptor found a golden summery visual style which nicely corresponds to the feeling of the piece. Its a pity Branagh and Emma Thompson, his romantic vis-à-vis here, couldn’t make it together in real life as they strike sparks off each other in a delightful way.

The supporting cast has the usual expert actors, such as Kate Beckinsale, Brian Blessed, Imelda Staunton, and Miss Thompson’s mother, stage actress Phyllida Law but also several surprises such as Denzel Washington, Michael Keaton, Robert Sean Leonard, and, most controversially, Keanu Reeves. Hey, if it were all safe, there’d be no innovation.

Author Bio: Woodson Hughes is a long-time librarian and an even longer time student/fan of film,cinema and movies. He has supervised and been publicist for three different film socieities over the years. He is married to the lovely Natalie Holden-Hughes, his eternal inspiration and wife of nearly four years. You can visit his blog at Stream of Dreams.