Today: February 25, 2024

Shakespeare Movies

This year, the Globe Theatre throws open its doors to all-comers with 37 Shakespeare plays performed in 37 different languages. Fortunately, though, you don’t have to be a theatre buff to enjoy the Bard.

year, the Globe Theatre throws open its doors to all-comers with 37 Shakespeare
plays performed in 37 different languages. Fortunately, though, you don’t have
to be a theatre buff to enjoy the Bard.

When Baz
Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet
(Main Picture) became a box office smash, one baffled Hollywood
exec reportedly said “We really need to do lunch with this Shakespeare guy”.
Proving that, even if you’ve never seen a play in your life, you’re probably
familiar with Shakespeare’s timeless tales. And, as the Globe To Globe Festival (Click HERE for more info)
shows, many of the best adaptations aren’t even British! Yes, while we
Brits can be rightly be proud that the world’s best playwright was born in this
green and pleasant land, other nations have been quick to adopt our noble son
as their own. From the sublime to the surreal, from the curious to the cult,
Paula Hammond takes a look at ten of the top overseas takes on Shakespeare’s
wonderful world.

(1985) Directed by Akira Kurosawa

Based on King
, Ran relocates Shakespeare’s tale of blood and betrayal to feudal
Japan where chaos ensues as the once-powerful Ichimonji leader, Hidetora,
decides to abdicate power to his three sons. Rightly regarded as a masterpiece,
Ran blends Noh Theatre traditions with the tricks and techniques of a filmmaker
at the height of his powers. Award-winning costume design, breathtaking
cinematography, a bold use of colour and a Mahler-esque score all combine to
bring spine tingling horror back to a tale which was in danger of becoming
stale by over familiarity. Quite simply, ravishing.

(1964) Directed by Grigori Kozintsev

Kozintsev’s Hamlet is little known outside
Russia, but rightly regarded as the definitive version of the Bard’s tragic
tale. That oversight can now be corrected thanks to Mr Bongo’s superb DVD
release. Translated by Boris Pasternak,
with a score by Dmitri Shostakovich,
the film features Innokentiy
, who Laurence Olivier
considered to be the definitive Hamlet. The full play lasts four hours, so a
two hour plus film had to choose its material carefully. Kozintsev chose to
abandon much of the political machinations which characterised Oliver’s Hamlet,
and focus instead on the prince’s turmoil. Smoktunovsky gives the performance
of a lifetime – playing the courteous courtier, never alone, but ever alone,
with his inner torment. Visually, too, the film is an absolute triumph and the
scene where the ghost appears and bids his son to “Revenge his foul and most
unnatural murder” will set your flesh crawling.

Of Blood (1957) Directed by Akira Kurosawa

“Look upon the ruins of the castle of delusion
haunted only now by the spirits” so opens Kurosawa’s epic take on Macbeth. Shakespeare’s tale of power,
death and the supernatural sit so well into Kurusawa’s carefully crafted world,
that it’s easy to imagine that Japan might have provided Shakespeare with the
original source material. Sets built on the bleak, mist-cloaked slopes of Mount
Fuji, create a suitably eerie and ominous tone which slowly escalates into a
finale of “carnage born of consuming desire”.

(1990) Directed by Franco Zeffirelli

Zeffirelli makes what has been called “sensual”
Shakespeare, which combines truncated text with full-bodied visuals. And
although his 1968 Romeo & Juliet is
a highly regarded piece of eye candy, his Hamlet shouldn’t be too lightly
dismissed. Before Mel Gibson’s very
public meltdown, he was one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars and Zeffirelli
used Gibson’s Mad Max persona to great effect. The result is something of a
juggling act, but it succeeded, at the time, in doing what ‘serious’
Shakespearian adaptations never had – making a popularist film that remained
true to its source.

Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (1996) Directed by Baz Luhrmann

Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom made Ballroom Dancing sexy. Moulin Rouge! brought Bollywood to Hollywood. So we shouldn’t have
been surprised when his pop video take on Romeo + Juliet was a smash hit.
Recognising that it’s Shakespeare’s poetic and powerful language that makes his
work so compelling, Luhrmann resisted the urge to tamper. Instead, he retained
the rhyming couplets and used fast cuts, sharp suits, and stunning visuals to
bring the tale of the doomed lovers to a whole new generation of fans. Inspired
and innovative stuff.

Planet (1956) Directed by Fred M. Wilcox

Fred Wilcox’s Directing career didn’t set the
world on fire, but his take on The
has yet to be bettered. Solid performances, effects that still
stand the test of time and a groundbreaking
electronic score (not, as often cited, created by a Theremin) make
Forbidden Planet a classic of the genre. As a firm fan of crowd-pleasing
effects, this is one Shakespearian adaptation which would certainly have had
the Bard’s seal of approval. Exit Stage Left, pursued by monsters from the Id.

Own Private Idaho (1991) Directed by Gus Van Sant

Loosely based on Shakespeare’s Henry IV and Henry V, My Own Private is
now mostly remembered as the film which showcased the talents of River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves. Ironically some execs at New Line, who backed the
film, were not in favour of the Shakespearian scenes, preferring to focus in on
the tale of the two protagonists as they drift and graft their way through
life. And they may have a had a point. The standout performances of Phoenix and
Reeves are arguably the best roles the two actors have ever have. However,
foreign distributors knew that Shakespeare’s name was bigger than Van Sant’s
and argued for the cut which was eventually released. The result is disjointed
but beautifully so.

Lear, (1971) Directed by Grigori Kozintsev

Although Kozintsev was one of Russia’s most
highly regarded Directors, it was his superlative adaptations of Shakespeare
which really sealed his reputation. Once again, Kozintsev used a translation by novelist Boris Pasternak and a
stirring score by composer Shostakovich to hang his epic tale on. But it’s Jüri Järvet masterful turn as the mad
king which grips and tears at the heart. Sparse, bare sets add to the ferocious
intensity of this rarely seen gem.

and Juliet (1996) Directed by Lloyd Kaufman

Shakespeare’s tales weren’t new. He simply
recycled well-known stories and gave them a new – albeit – genius spin.
Hollywood has done much the same over the years, morphing the source material
into 1001 good, bad and very bad films. Where you place Tromeo And Juliet on
that scale is entirely up to you. Softcore sex, mutilation and bad acting don’t
make for a great film, but they don’t necessarily make a bad one either. Set
your bad taste-ometer to max. Tromeo And Juliet is pure Troma madness with a
dash of Shakespeare on the side. Purists will hate it but it spawned a whole
generation of Shakespeare fans. If you ever wished that Shakespeare wasn’t so
bloomin’ highbrow this could be the answer to your prayers.

Action Hero (1993) Directed by John McTiernan

Who says Schwarzenegger will never play the
Dane? This mindless bit of fluff boasts one scene which surely deserved a
sequel all on its own. “You killed my father. Big mistake!” The rest is

Paula Hammond - Features Editor

Paula Hammond is a full-time, freelance journalist. She regularly writes for more magazines than is healthy and has over 25 books to her credit. When not frantically scribbling, she can be found indulging her passions for film, theatre, cult TV, sci-fi and real ale. If you should spot her in the pub, after five rounds rapid, she’ll be the one in the corner mumbling Ghostbusters quotes and waiting for the transporter to lock on to her signal… Email:

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