Seven Films That Do Shakespeare Right

1. Titus (1999; directed by Julie Taymor)

Titus Andronicus, one of Shakespeare’s most overlooked plays, comes to lurid, gory glory in this late nineties adaptation. Gang rape, incest, and mutilation mark Titus as one of the downright nastiest Shakespearean works. Throw in a Thyestean banquet, and you’ve got the makings of a nightmare. The villain Aaron is on par with Iago as one of the bard’s greatest baddies.

This trailer makes the movie seem way cheesier than it really is. Trust me.

2. Romeo + Juliet (1996; directed by Baz Luhrmann)

Baz Lurhmann’s take on the ultimate boy-meets-girl story dazzles viewers in a cacophony of glitter and fireworks that captures the sheer silliness of adolescence–the real theme of Romeo and Juliet. Despite a myriad of critical naysayers, I believe Lurhmann’s hypercolor vision far superior to Zeffirelli’s 1968 version (“the one with the boobies”) so often thrust on high school kids. I actually used this version when I used to teach 9th graders. They loved it. I love it too, particularly John Leguizamo’s standout turn as Tybalt.

The first 10 minutes are excellent, if you don’t recall.

3. Macbeth (1972; directed by Roman Polanski)

Another one I show to my students. Polanski’s Macbeth is one of my favorite films, Shakespeare aside. Filmed relatively shortly after Polanski’s wife Sharon Tate was horrifically stabbed to death by the Manson family, Macbeth captures a forbidding spirit of bloody doom, sexual violence, and inescapable guilt. Beautifully shot and superbly acted, every other attempt has paled in comparison.

4. Looking for Richard (1996; directed by Al Pacino)

Wow. What a film. Pacino leads a group of thespians who try to reclaim Shakespeare “from the academics,” as one actor puts it. There’s a problem though: they’re not really sure how Richard III should go. This film captures the pre-production process for a staging of one of Shakespeare’s greatest history plays, revealing a fascinating aspect of adaptation.

This clip sums it up much better than I could:

5. Ran (1985; directed by Akira Kurosawa)

Kurosawa’s take on King Lear proves that the work of one master can be translated into something new and marvelous when placed in the hands of another master. Ran transfers the Lear story to a feudal Japan rife with warring samurai. Ran is at once an epic action film as well as a philosophic meditation on aging, a commentary on gender roles as well as a study on familial duty and love. Again, a Biblioklept fave.

This is one of the best scenes in the film, or any film, really:

6. Henry V (1989; directed by Kenneth Branagh)

Branagh has given the world more filmed adaptations of Shakespeare than would seem possible for someone to do in one lifetime, and the man is still relatively young. That said, at times his work can be stodgy, if not downright plodding. Henry V is not for everyone. This is a very, very long film, and although the battle scenes are exciting, those unfamiliar with the play will no doubt have a hard time following it–particularly the scenes in French which lack subtitles. Still, if you’re studying the Henry tetralogy, or Shakespeare’s English histories in general, then there really isn’t a better supplement. In some ways Henry V is one of the most textually faithful adaptations of a Shakespeare play I can recall. Fans of Braveheart should also note that Mel “Sugartits” Gibson essentially ripped-off large sections of Henry V when crafting that turgid turd.

A famous speech:

7. Prospero’s Books (1991; directed by Peter Greenaway)

One of the Biblioklept’s favorite directors Peter Greenaway (8 1/2 Women; The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover) adapted one of the Biblioklept’s favorite plays, The Tempest, into a very weird, very surreal film called Prospero’s Books. As the title suggests, this is a movie very much about the act of writing itself (a theme Greenaway also explored in his unfortunate fiasco The Pillow Book); more poignant however are the themes of forgiveness and the letting go of the desire for revenge–aspects central to the original play.

Unfortunately, for some reason Prospero’s Books is still not available in DVD, and I have located no news of plans for that to happen any time soon. So, until that time, taste a little sample:

5 thoughts on “Seven Films That Do Shakespeare Right”

  1. Romeo and Juliet is definitely a risk taker in its genre. It changes the way we view the fatal young love affair forever! And John Leguizamo was just the right pick in his role in Tybalt. A lethal performance, definitely. John Leguizamo stars as another villainous character in The Kill Point, premiering on Sunday, July 22 at 9 pm at Spike TV. He stars as the leader of a team of American Iraqi-War veterans that find themselves in the middle of a hostage situation after a failed bank robbery attempt. Definitely a performance to watch out for! So check out http://www.killpoint.spiketv.com for more info. I know this because I work with spike TV.

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  2. You might hate me for even suggesting this, but last years Bollywood rendition of Othello, called Omkara, is an excellent Shakespeare flick. Very well executed with a modern Indian context. Starring the dark and dreamy Ajay Devgan. You can get it on netflix.

    Ok, that’s the end of my Bwood plug.

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  3. Kara, there’s NOTHING that I hate more than people suggesting Bollywood adaptations of Shakespearean tragedies on my blog. Nothing!
    Seriously though, this doesn’t look like it has a big crazy dance scene or anything like that in it–does it?
    Also, while we’re on the subject of Othello, I should point out three quick things:
    1. The 1995 version with Morpheus was great.
    2. The teen re-vamp ‘O’ was horrible.
    3. There is a weird version in the middle of ‘Orlando’ that works really well. The best part is when Orlando (Tilda Swinton), who has been watching it turns to the camera and says with a smile “Great play.”

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    1. I saw it ages ago, back in college, but I don’t really remember it too well to be honest. I’m a big fan of Ran, though, which I’ve seen a few times since I first saw it (in, uh, college).

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