Film

The 10 Greatest Shakespeare Film Adaptations of All Time

While some want to question his authorship, there is no denying the lasting influence of William Shakespeare. These 10 titles prove that with accolades to spare.

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:

 
#10: The Taming of the Shrew (1967, dir: Franco Zeffirelli)

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.

 
#9: William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet (1996, dir: Baz Luhrmann)
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.

 
#8: Henry V (1989, dir: Kenneth Branagh)
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.

 
#7: Titus (1999, dir: Julie Taymor)
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.

 
#6: Throne of Blood (1957, dir: Akira Kurosawa)
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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In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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