10 Shakespeare Film Adaptations You Haven’t Seen

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There is perhaps no greater deathaversary to celebrate than the 400th of William Shakespeare, whose plays, such as Hamlet, raised questions about the mysteries of death. Celebrations have already commenced across the globe, honoring the Bard’s best works. There are countless stage and screen adaptations of the playwright’s oeuvre, but we’re highlighting some of the underappreciated and little-known movies inspired by the English writer.

Tromeo and Juliet

The Bard with Troma-levels of sex, violence, and grotesquerie. Motörhead’s Lemmy narrates Shakespeare’s tale about the star-crossed lovers from opposite sides of the track — here, a tattoo artist and a pampered rich girl. From the New York Times:

Tromeo and Juliet, directed by Lloyd Kaufman from a screenplay he wrote with James Gunn, is to Hollywood B-movies what Mad magazine is to comic books. Although many times more explicit than what Hollywood is permitted to show, there is something goofily exhilarating in the spectacle of all the staple images of teen-age sex and slasher movies transformed into farce.

Hamlet Goes Business

Aki Kaurismäki’s 1987 noir-ish, satirical retelling of Hamlet features Pirkka-Pekka Petelius as a bratty Prince of Denmark. From the Digital Fix:

What other director would take on a modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s greatest play and have Hamlet actually chomping down on a big chunk of ham in his first scene? Who else would depict Hamlet as a scheming manipulator inheriting a multinational corporation that intends to go into the business of manufacturing rubber ducks? Who else could be so irreverent of the source material, yet remain relatively faithful the underlying themes and structure, while at the same time making a credible interpretation and updating of the material to fit his own outlook? Well, if he can do it with Dostoevsky, Kaurismäki can certainly do it with Shakespeare.

Romeo, Juliet and Darkness

Love amongst the Nazi occupation in 1942 Prague. From Electric Sheep Magazine:

Hanka, a Jewish girl, escapes the transports to Theresienstadt by hiding in the attic of a large apartment block. Hanka is helped by Pavel, an 18-year-old boy who uses his mother’s attic storeroom as a darkroom. Pavel brings her food, drink and books and his daily visits become her only contact with the outside world. Predictably, the two teenagers fall in love until Hanka is discovered by the mistress of a Nazi officer living in the house. While echoes of Anne Frank are present within the story, Romeo, Juliet and Darkness is not a wartime thriller but a love story set in the midst of the fear and violence of occupation.

Ran

Kurosawa’s final epic was the most expensive Japanese film ever produced at that time. From Roger Ebert:

Akira Kurosawa’s Ran is inspired by King Lear, but may be as much about Kurosawa’s life as Shakespeare’s play. Seeing it again in a fine new 35mm print, I realized the action doesn’t center on the old man, but has a fearful energy of its own, through which he wanders. Kurosawa has not told the story of a great man whose sin of pride drives him mad, but the story of a man who has waged war all his life, hopes to impose peace in his old age and unleashes even greater turmoil. There are parallels not only with kings but also with filmmakers, who like royalty must enforce their vision in a world seething with jealousy, finance, intrigue, vanity and greed.

King Lear

Marat/Sade director Peter Brook’s adaptation of King Lear, starring esteemed English actor Paul Scofield. From Reeling Back:

Brook is expert in the look of madness. He takes less interest in how people get that way, with the result that his staging of King Lear is a streamlined dash to the third act, and the old king’s wanderings on the stormy heath.

That Most Important Thing: Love

Possession‘s Andrzej Żuławski directs Romy Schneider and Klaus Kinski. From Slant:

No less than Shakespeare’s Richard III, which figures prominently in the film as a Kurosawa-inspired production starring Nadine as Lady Anne and Klaus Kinski’s über-thespian Karl-Heinz Zimmer as Richard, That Most Important Thing: Love itself deals with the tyranny of biology. Beauty and vitality are distributed with blatant injustice: Nadine is growing older only as she begins to know herself for the first time, Jacques’s hunger of love is only matched by his impotence, while the movie’s paragon of prowess and bland male beauty, Servais, seems despondent amid all the crass orgies he’s hired to cover and sell.

Shakespeare-Wallah

From TCM:

In the words of director James Ivory, “wallah” is a Hindi term that means someone who is identified with something specific: a tradesman, a salesman, an expert or practitioner. And in one sense, the travelling theatrical troupe of Shakespeare-Wallah (1965) is peddling Shakespeare, village-to-village if not quite door-to-door, in post-colonial India. James Ivory’s 1965 film, his second feature, is directly inspired by (if not quite based on) the diaries kept by actor Geoffrey Kendal of the experiences of the Shakespeariana theater company, a traveling troupe of English, Irish and Indian actors led by the British born Kendal and his wife, Laura Liddell, during 1947, the year India achieved independence.

The Taming of the Shrew

The first sound film adaptation of the Shakespeare play of the same name. From Talking Pictures:

This early film version presents the play as a screwball comedy in the manner of Howard Hawks later His Girl Friday but without the rapid-fire dialogue. The 1929 version lasts only a little over an hour but is full of high energy and fun, if not much Shakespeare. Ms. Pickford was said to be dissatisfied with her performance as Katherine and to me she doesn’t look shrewish enough but she is a charming presence and Fairbanks is a boisterous Petruchio who does perfect justice to his domineering character.

Ophélia

From French New Wave icon Claude Chabrol. A review from the New York Times:

There are moments that will reward some students of Chabrol, such as the theme of individuals feeling guilty when they’re innocent. The elegant camera-work lifts the woodland episodes above the general banality, and the formal meal scenes contain some of Mr. Chabrol’s choicer observations of people chewing and swallowing while their pleasure in food is spoiled by the anger in the air. And there are a couple of nice thugs.

Macbeth

From Film Comment on director Werner Schroeter, who fuses opera and literature for this 1971 adaptation:

Schroeter’s stylized, performance-centered aesthetic draws on opera, pop music, stage melodrama, contemporary dance theater, and cabaret. His films consist of overt allegories and fables driven by the Romantic impulse, distilling moments of desire, loss, and death in all-consuming emotion. The central figure in Schroeter’s films is always the outsider — the mad person, the foreigner — and his major theme is ineffable longing for passionate love and artistic creativity.