[10 February 2012]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
From declarations of undeniable greatness to questions of legitimacy, the literary world continues to be fascinated by one William Shakespeare. The famed playwright remains a historical enigma, a question almost everyone can answer outright, but can’t fully understand completely. While the postmodern age has spent inordinate amounts of time trying to figure out if a failed actor in England really did create some of the most amazing theater pieces ever written, the various medias surrounding the stage have been more than happy to capitalize on their lasting success. There have been more adaptations of Shakespeare work than that of any other writer, living or dead, and while all have not been true to the famous Bard, almost all have been infused (directly or spiritually) by his signature style.
Still, the mythos continues. Just this past year, Roland Emmerich attempted to enter the awards season fray with his disaster-epic free look at the authorship argument, Anonymous. Even John Madden’s jovial, jokey Shakespeare in Love (out now on a brilliant Blu-ray) suggested a different source of inspiration. It even rode its likeable lark status all the way to seven Academy Awards, including one for Best Picture. Yet for many, the story behind these plays is far less important than what is actually happening on the page itself. This has lead to dozens of direct adaptations and perhaps hundreds of influenced approaches. Indeed, we wouldn’t have West Side Story, My Own Private Idaho, or Strange Brew without the ongoing sway of Stratford-upon Avon’s most famous son.
With that in mind, it’s almost impossible to come up with a definitive list of the best Shakespeare adaptations of all time. Some will complain about those works which alter the Bard to the point of near unrecognizability. Others will nitpick one director’s approach over another (usually on the same material) while performance levels can be literally all over the map. Ever seen a high school production of, say, A Midsummer Night’s Dream? You get the idea. Yet, within the myriad of artistic and aesthetic approaches, there is a consistent core of films that always seem to find their way into a mention. While modified a bit here to suit our own tastes, the 10 titles represented do a terrific job of showing off the breadth and depth of the man’s work, beginning with a terrific late ‘60s starring vehicle:
Though many dismiss this movie as minor Shakespeare at best (not the work itself, but the star studded tabloid trading production in general), there is nothing more intriguing than watching a lustful Richard Burton take on the apple of his real life libido, the full and flush Elizabeth Taylor, in the ultimate battle of the sexes. Both are terrific as the nagging Kate and her proposed paramour, Petruchio and while director Zeffirelli took an axe to the play itself, the results speak volumes for star power over staid classicism. While not as popular as the filmmaker’s previous take on the ultimate star-crossed lovers, it is a wonderfully evocative effort.
With MTV still influencing our nation (with the playing of music videos - how odd is that…) and the need for something to supplement the annual adolescent dash to the bookstore for some Cliff’s Notes, Australian auteur Baz Luhrmann came up with this madcap, Miami Vice-esque introduction to the Bard. Lucky enough to have rising teen heartthrob Leonard Dicaprio as one of the leads (though co-star Claire Danes does the definitive work here), the director from Downunder reimagined the puppy love narrative for a Y2K world, and came up with one of the more passionate reimaginings of the material ever.
Bursting onto the scene and eventually almost completely dominating it ever since, Branagh’s brash, more realistic approach to Shakespeare would see the young Brit turn into the writer’s most ardent defender - and unique interpreter. Here, we get the grit and grime of true period piece England, with Branagh behind the lens using all his skill with both actors and approach to create a near-masterpiece. He would go on to offer up even more of the Bard’s work (including at least one completely misguided disaster), Branagh proved that a contemporary viewer could still fall deeply into the wordy worlds created centuries before.
Thanks to her theatrical training and way with visuals, director Julie Taymor seemed a capable choice to bring this eye-popping take on Shakespeare to the screen. Similar to the rousing Richard III by Richard Loncraine, the novice filmmaker places a contemporary spin n the Bard, even without the use of wholly modern methods. There is a compelling mixture of eras here, using everything from ancient Rome to Mussolini’s Fascist regime as inspiration. With brilliant performances from Anthony Hopkins, Jessica Lange, and others, Taymor revealed the real reason Shakespeare has endured for so long. Like the Bible, his writing is open to many meaningful approaches.
Along with Branagh, Zeffirelli, Laurence Olivier, and Orson Welles, no one was better at bringing the blood and guts power of the Bard than Akira Kurosawa. With this take on Macbeth, he confirmed his special status. While taking massive liberties with the script - the setting is moved to feudal Japan, plot points and main characters are reconfigured and redefined - this is still one of the best examples of how Shakespeare can be folded and refitted to any theatrical device or design. As main leading man Toshirō Mifune tears up the screen as the power-mad lead, this version of “the Scottish play” bests all others.
Hamlet is massive. Done right (and without some editorial pruning), a full production can last well over four hours. Enter Branagh, who decided that no one had truly done the definitive version of the melancholy Dane. Dressing everything up in the best cinematic finery and fooling around with both casting (Robin Williams? Jack Lemmon?) and time (we are in a modified Victorian era here), we move away from the more mundane interpretations to a kind of saucy soap opera where…naturally, everyone dies at the end. While some questioned his commitment and need to better previous versions (including a 1990 take with Mel Gibson), the results are resplendent.
After Henry V, Branagh’s reputation was rendered untouchable via this star-studded adaptation of Shakespeare most conventional comedy. Centering around relationships, love, mistaken identity, and gender politics, the picture perfect locale (Italy) and flawless main performances more than make up for a few casting questions (Come on! Keanu Reeves is not that bad…). Rendered easy to follow by Branagh’s desire to turn the often flowery language of the Bard into something more colloquial, the entire experience feels fresh and new. If it weren’t for the unusual turns of phrase, this could easily be a modern and more sophisticated romantic romp.
Laurence Olivier was already a massive Hollywood star when he decided to bring his country’s best known literary export to the big screen. For many, his truncated Hamlet remains the authoritative cinematic statement on the play. Here, however, he takes a nod from his work in Tinseltown, bringing outside sources to the text in order to provide more conflict, and more commercial appeal. It worked, with the British Film Institute arguing that Richard III did more to bring the Bard to the people than any other title before. One look at the saturated Technicolor cinematography and fascinating lead performance by Olivier and you recognize a masterpiece in the making.
While considered by many to be one of the ultimate interpretations of King Lear ever, Kurosawa’s epic look at the downfall of the Inchimonji family was actually based on Japanese history, not the famed English author. In fact, the director claimed no direct knowledge of the play until his preproduction was well underway. Embracing and then allowing Lear to become an organic part of his presentation, the resulting mash-up made for a fascinating, near flawless film. Removing the more vulnerable aspects of main character and turning him into a despot only adds to the level of drama. Though in his mid-‘70s, Kurosawa crafted one of his very best.
Leave it to the man who literally redefined motion pictures to do the same with the English languages most celebrated scribe. Welles had worked within the Shakespeare canon before (his takes on Othello and Macbeth are indeed legend), but he had never done anything quite like this. Editing pieces out of five known plays—Henry IV, Part 1, Henry IV, Part 2, Richard II, Henry V, and The Merry Wives of Windsor—he took the character of Falstaff and turned him into the ultimate expression of the Bard’s aims. Though years away from his groundbreaking Citizen Kane, Welles argued for his continuing artistic integrity here… and time has done little to dampen said opinion. In fact, many believe this 1965 effort to be his true classic.