William Shakespeare on film


April 23rd sees celebration to mark the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare. He is certainly England’s most famous and celebrated writer and there have been numerous adaptation of his plays. These range from one-reel minimal adaptations in the early years of cinema to substantial and lengthy features. Park Circus have with their usual promptness joined in the act with a list of films available for theatrical screenings. Helpfully they also list whether these are available in 2K or 4K digital versions. Note though, there have been cases in the past where a feature DCP is actually from a DVD or Blu-Ray uploaded into the format.

Writers on film adaptations have offered models for discussion. One set of categories has been offered by the writer by Geoffrey Wagner:

Transposition, ‘in which a novel is given directly on the screen with a minimum of apparent interference.’

Commentary, ‘where an original is taken and with purposively or inadvertently altered in some respect … when there has been a different intention on the part of the filmmaker, rather than infidelity or outright violence.’

Analogy, ‘which must represent a fairly considerable departure for the sake of making another work of art.’

Examples of all three variants can be found below.

All Night Long UK 1962, in black and white and 1.66:1 ratio.

Basil Dearden repositions ‘Othello’ in London’s jazz scene of the 1960s. Featuring Dave Brubeck, Charles Mingus and more. Available in 2K.

I really rate this film and the jazz performances are excellent.

Othello USA 1995, in colour and standard widescreen

Laurence Fishburne breaks new ground as the first African American actor to star in a major studio adaptation of ‘Othello’. Available in 2K.

Fishburne is very effective. The adaptation makes frequent cuts to the text but sticks to the play. The accents are variable.

Hamlet  USA 1996, in colour and originally 70mm.

Kenneth Branagh’s unabridged epic now available on DCP.

Impressive though it also uses ‘star names’ for supporting cameos which is a little distracting.

Hamlet  UK 1948, in black and white and Academy ratio.

Laurence Olivier performs drama’s most famous role.

Impressive and this is Olivier’s metier. John Huntley recalled that the voice of the ghost at the opening was ingeniously recorded with a microphone dropped into a cistern as the words were voiced through the studio piping.

Henry V Olivier

Henry V / The Chronicle History of King Henry the Fift with His Battell Fought at Agincourt in France UK 944, in Technicolor and Academy ratio.

Olivier heads once more unto the breach.

Splendid and imaginative. Among its many fine qualities are the cinematography by Robert Krasker and Jack Hillyard and the music of William Walton.

Henry V UK 1989, in Technicolor and standard widescreen.

Kenneth Branagh’s directorial debut, restored in 2K.

A worthy alternative to the Olivier version. Also graced by fine cinematography by Kenneth MacMillan and music by Patrick Doyle.

Theatre of Blood  UK 1973, in deluxe colour and 1.66:1 ratio.

Vincent Price’s Shakespearean actor adds murder to his repertoire, now on DCP.

Price is hammy but great and there is the added attraction of Diana Rigg. I rather think Shakespeare would have enjoyed this. The film offers gruesome variations of ‘Julius Caesar’, ‘King Lear’, ‘The Merchant of Venice’, ‘Othello’, ‘Richard III’ and Titus Andronicus.

Romeo and Juliet UK/Italy 1968, in Technicolor and 1.66:1 ratio. [There was a 70mm version and there are different lengths, the longest was 149 minutes].

4K restoration of Zeffirelli’s classic adaptation.

This works well, John McEnery as Mercutio is the most Shakespearean but it does capture youthful passion.

West Side Story USA 1961, in Technicolor and originally 70mm.

‘Romeo and Juliet’ gets a New York update.

This is one of the great transformations of a play. The choreography by Jerome Robbins is stunning as is the main music by Leonard Bernstein. The romantic couple are not really adequate but there is Russ Tamblyn, Rita Moreno and George Chakiris to compensate.

Richard III UK 1955, in Technicolor and 1.66:1 ratio.

Olivier’s crowning performance as the man who would be king.

Again Olivier provides a definitive interpretation. More music by William Walton and noir cinematography by Otto Heller.

Richard III UK 1995, in Technicolor and 2.35:1 widescreen

Ian McKellen is Shakespeare’s most notorious villain, 2K restoration.

McKellen provides a bravura re-interpretation as a fascist leader in the 1930s.

The Tragedy of Macbeth UK 1971, in Technicolor and 2.35:1 ratio

Polanski’s brutal interpretation, restored in 4K.

One of the most violent rendering of the play: and typical of Roman Polanski, even down to the music by the Third Ear Band.

King Lear UK 1971, in black and white and 1.66:1 ratio.

Peter Brook’s uncompromising take on Lear’s descent into madness.

Impressive Danish landscapes and Paul Schofield in the lead.


My Own Private Idaho USA 1991, in colour and standard widescreen.

 Gus Van Sant’s street hustlers travel through the history plays.

Combining the two parts of ‘Henry IV’ and ‘Henry V’ with freedom and with settings in the contemporary USA and Italy. River Phoenix is excellent and one can imagine Shakespeare loving the suggestions made by the film.

Most of the above films could also be screened from 35mm prints if enlightened distributors and exhibitors so wished. And there are other fine variants of the Bard’s work.

Akira Kurosawa made several adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays, available in subtitled versions.

Throne of Blood / Kumonosu-jô 1957, in black and white and in Academy ratio. The film has a bravura performance by Mifune Toshirô as ‘Macbeth’ and is filmed in the style of Noh Theatre. Possibly the most original treatment of a classic Shakespeare play.

The Bad Sleep Well / Warui yatsu hodo yoku nemuru 1960, in black and white and Tohoscope. [The Japanese version  is longer, 151 as against 132 minutes]. The film can be read as a version of ‘Hamlet’ and develops its own inexorable sense of the tragic.

Ran 1985, in colour and standard widescreen. Based on ‘King Lear’ this is an epic film with lustrous visuals and an ironic treatment of the characters.

Orson Welles is another filmmaker who repeatedly revisited Shakespeare’s work. Note, that in most cases there are either different length versions or truncated versions.

Macbeth 1948, in black and white and Academy ratio. Welles does wonders with a small budget and some serious trimming of the play.

The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice 1952, black and white and in Academy ratio. This is noir or expressionist Shakespeare. Welles’ Othello is matched by Micheál MacLiammóir’s Iago. The production, involving five cinematographers, four editors, two designers and two composers, was itself a legendary odyssey.

Falstaff: Chimes at Midnight 1965, in black and white and 1.66:1 ratio. Taken from ‘Henry IV Parts 1 and 2’, ‘Henry V’ and the ‘Merry Wives of Windsor’. This is one of the great treatments of a Shakespearean character. Essential viewing for Shakespeare and the cinema.

Grigori Kozintsev is another great interpreter of the Bard, these are in Russian with subtitled versions..

Hamlet 1964, in black and white and Sovscope. This has a terrific lead in Innokentiy Smoktunovskiy and a major contribution to the script by Boris Pasternak.

The Soviet 'King Lear'

The Soviet ‘King Lear’

King Lear / Korol Lir 1971, in black and white and Sovscope with subtitles. Magnificent with the settings providing the desolation which is at the centre of the play. Again with scripting by Boris Pasternak and a score by Dimitri Shostakovich.

Then there is the William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet USA 1996, in colour and 2.35:1. Many imaginative and contemporary touches, but also frequently camp. Luhrmann, unlike Shakespeare [except in ‘Titus Andronicus’] never knows when to stop.

Omkara India 2006 in colour and 2.35:1 and with subtitles. This is a Hindi language version of ‘Othello’. This is the Bard with real panache. The translation to the subcontinent is really intelligent.

The Merchant of Venice USA 2004, in De Luxe colour and 2.35:1. Al Pacino is splendid as the much debated Shylock. The performance captures the contradiction at the heart of the famous play.

Then if you want something a little lighter in tone.

The Taming of the Shrew USA 1967, in Technicolor and 2.35:1. [Also screened in 70mm]. Shakespeare comes off well, Richard Burton is excellent but Elizabeth Taylor walks off with the honours.

Hollywood's musical of 'The Taming of the Shrew'

Hollywood’s musical of ‘The Taming of the Shrew’

Kiss Me Kate USA 1953, in Ansco Color and both 3D and ‘flat screen’, [which does not help technically]. ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ again and Ann Miller is splendid, Cole Porter is tuneful and the film has the mantra for this whole post – ‘Brush up your Shakespeare!”. Be warned, there are probably another 400 film versions.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.