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.
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