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The 10 Best Faithful Shakespeare Adaptations on Film

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This week, Roman Polanski’s scorching 1971 adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth makes its Blu-ray debut (thanks, once again, to the fine folks at the Criterion Collection). It’s a terrific movie; and noteworthy as being a Shakespeare adaptation that is mostly done “straight” — i.e., basically as written, rather than relocated to outer space or a high school or the mob underworld or anything crazy like that. In fact, it seems more difficult to just do the play, without all the bells and whistles. Here are a few savvy filmmakers who’ve pulled it off.

Roman Polanski’s Macbeth

Co-produced, oddly enough, with the Playboy organization (no major studio would sign on to finance it), this adaptation of “the Scottish play” was Roman Polanski’s first feature after the murder of his wife and friends by the Manson Family in 1969. That crime runs as subtext throughout the film, which significantly foregrounds the blood and violence, providing some disturbing echoes of the crimes (some perhaps accidental, some certainly not). But it’s a faithful adaptation, strikingly grimy and relentlessly grim, with some remarkable photography and visceral, scary staging. And Polanksi’s decision to use the soliloquies as voice-over wasn’t entirely new, but it is strikingly effective, allowing him to go in tight and treat the story almost as a psychological thriller.

Franco Zeffirelli’s Hamlet

Believe it or not, there was a time when Mel Gibson doing Shakespeare was a hard sell not because he’s a racist, tabloid horror show, but merely because he was an action star. Yet director Zeffirelli, an old hand at making modern connections to the Bard’s work (he cast Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in The Taming of the Shrew) saw Gibson’s almost-suicide scene in the first Lethal Weapon as a wordless take on “To be or not to be,” and cast him in this 1990 adaptation. Gibson is surprisingly effective in the role — but his best moments come when he faces off with Glenn Close’s Gertrude, who volleys their “Come, come, you answer with an idle tongue”/ “Go, go, you question with a wicked tongue” scene like a masterful tennis partner.

Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet

Of course, for all of the good reviews Gibson’s Hamlet garnered, he couldn’t touch the role’s gold standard. Laurence Olivier adapted, produced, directed, and starred in the classic 1948 adaptation, which cut the text to the bone (the four-plus-hour play is knocked down to 155 minutes, and loses Rosencrantz and Guildenstern) but stayed true to the spirit and period of the play, while masterfully playing up the Oedipal angle. For his trouble, Olivier won the Academy Award for Best Picture — the first British production to do so.

Laurence Olivier’s Henry V

Hamlet came four years after another Shakespearean triumph for the brilliant actor/director — his adaptation of Henry V, which placed the play within a Globe Theatre framework and stayed true to its initial period while simultaneously making an effective piece of morale boosting for Britain, then in the thick of the Second World War. It won Olivier a special achievement Oscar, and was the first high-profile Shakespeare film adaptation to prove popular with both audiences and critics.

Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V

Comparisons to Olivier had attached themselves to Kenneth Branagh from the very beginning of his career on stage, screen, and television — and the actor seemed determined to court them head-on when he forged his filmmaking debut with this 1989 version of the Shakespeare (and Olivier) classic. Though faithful to the text and the period, Branagh played up the mud and chainmail, giving the picture an earthy intensity and some decidedly modern grit.

Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing

On the other hand, Branagh’s 1993 take on the Bard’s lighthearted comedy has a decidedly jauntier feel, bolstered by a gorgeous cast and sun-kissed Italian locations. Seldom have Benedick and Beatrice sparred as engagingly and erotically as Branagh and then-wife Emma Thompson, and there’s real charm in the coupling of gee-whiz ingénues Robert Sean Leonard and a lovely newcomer named Kate Beckinsale. Some criticized the Beetlejuice-ish supporting turn of Michael Keaton as Dogberry, but the lowdown comic spirit of his scenes is just about right for the groundlings-targeted comic relief; that said, Keanu Reeves remains the comic highlight, albeit unintentionally.

Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet

Previous film versions of Romeo and Juliet starred 35-year-old Paul Panzer and 22-year-old Florence Lawrence (in 1908) and 43-year-old Leslie Howard and 34-year-old Norma Shearer (in 1936). In 1968, Zeffirelli got the wild idea of casting actual teenagers in the roles of the star-crossed lovers, creating a classic adaptation that not only preserved the spirit of the original text, but connected the story to decades of teen audiences who could certainly relate to its end-of-the-world love story, as well as battling the unreasonable wishes of closed-minded parents. (And its flashes of nudity certainly made it more popular than the usual classroom fare.)

Orson Welles’ Othello

This 1952 effort was one of the Citizen Kane director’s most famously Scotch-taped productions, shot in bits and pieces over something like three years. The piecemeal shooting and low budget (Welles mostly financed it himself, contributing his salaries for acting in films like The Third Man) led to some creative problem-solving — most famously, he moved the murder of Rodrigo to a Turkish bath when the costumes didn’t arrive on time — and he slashed the running time nearly in half. But his moody photography and engaging, high-energy style proved an ideal match for the play.

Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Julius Caesar

Director Mankiewicz and actor Marlon Brando’s collaboration on Caesar was an ideal give-and-take for both men: the white-hot Brando (who’d already banked two Oscar nominations for his first three films) made his financially dicey picture both bankable and commercial, while appearing in a Shakespeare film — alongside the distinguished likes of James Mason and John Gielgud — lent an air of classical respectability to an actor some still dismissed as a Method-mad mumbler. And both profited from the arrangement, with the film showing a healthy profit and the actor proving his skill and versatility with what remains an electrifying performance in a first-rate adaptation.

Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight

Chimes might stretch our definition of “straight adaptation” a bit: after all, the film (also known as Falstaff) doesn’t come from any single work, but is instead a mash-up of the Falstaff scenes from Richard II, Henry IV (parts one and two), Henry V, and The Merry Wives of Windsor. Yet in his transpositions, revisions, and combinations, Welles perhaps gets closer to the true spirit of the author — and the character, which he was born to play — than more conventional texts. Welles doesn’t alter the setting, nor does he add a single word not written by Shakespeare. But in sifting through the text and viewing it through this new prism, he discovers a new approach to it that is infinitely more interesting and enlightening.