West Side Story (1961)
While Shakespeare has been condensed, re-imagined and performed without words by brave directors over the years, few have made the bold move to reframe his essential love story to be about gang warfare and then set it to show tunes. West Side Story restructured Romeo and Juliet’s teenage love tale turned tragic; instead of families feuding because they’re stubborn and, I don’t know, rich, rival gangs clash over issues of race, class and nationalist pride.
The tension between the Montagues and Capulets was largely unexplored by the bard, merely quantified when Tybalt sneers at Benvolio, “Peace. I hate the word, as I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee.” But for West Side Story, the feud is more complicated. The Jets and Sharks are in competition with one another for power, jobs and even the ground they stand on. Combined with the now-classic Latin-tinged soundtrack, the film is a thoughtful adaptation that remains nuanced and relevant to this day. – Katie Bolton
Richard III (1995)
Yes, I love the wonderful, eloquent diction of Shakespeare’s plays and admire his ability to string together soliloquies with multiple, deep meanings. More than anything, though, I love Shakespeare for his intense dedication to character and his liberal use of violence. There are numerous film adaptations that bring this violence and fervor to life, but Richard Loncraine’s Richard III is the finest.
Set in 1930s Britain, Sir Ian McKellen plays Richard, a malicious dictator hoping to gain control of the throne and expand the power of his fascist regime. Loncraine’s adaptation is stylish, sadistic and garnished with wonderful set pieces, but the main draw is the performance from McKellen as the spiteful, magnetic Richard. Bringing Shakespeare’s words to life, he delivers every line with a sinister snarl that will undoubtedly scare and intimidate the shit out of you. Equal parts Hitler, Tony Montana, Mr. Blonde and Drill Sergeant Hartman, Richard is every bit the conniving, menacing, yet vulnerable character he is in Shakespeare’s text. Richard III is great for many reasons (thematic depth, cultural poignancy, gorgeous cinematography), but McKellen’s larger-than-life performance single-handedly demands that this film be considered amongst the finest Shakespeare adaptations of all-time. – Kyle Fowle
Scotland, PA (2001)
I’ve never really understood how Scotland, PA wasn’t a hit. I suspect it has something to do with the sudden disinterest in modernized Shakespeare adaptations by the public at large. Billy Morrissette’s one and only directorial feature came at the tail end of a magical time when modern twists on the Bard were seemingly everywhere. But I assure you, Scotland, PA is better than all of the films that appeared in the wake of Baz Luhrman’s 1996 breakthrough Romeo + Juliet by quite a wide margin.
The primary reason for this is that Scotland, PA does not utilize its change in scenery and time for stylish reasons but for tonal ones. A surprisingly faithful twist on the Scottish Play, Scotland, PA moves its “McBeth” clan to 1970’s America and the kingdom of fast food. Every aspect of the famed tragedy remains in place but a simple change in tone brings out the comedy of the situation.
As the hopeful rulers of a chain of McBeth restaurants, the fiendish couple racks up just as high a body count as their namesakes. People die in fryers. Christopher Walken plays McDuff as a paranoid, vegetarian detective. In other words, it’s just as fucked up as the original text, but far easier to laugh at. – Nick Hanover
Tromeo and Juliet (1995)
Many cite Baz Luhrman’s mid-’90s adaptation of the immortal Romeo and Juliet as the quintessential modern Shakespeare remake. I respectfully disagree. One year prior, the world of a no-holds-Bard was already thrust into our imaginations with the infinitely more satisfying Tromeo and Juliet. From Troma Studios, the good people who previously brought us the Comedy of Errors remake Class of Nuke ‘Em High 3: The Good, The Bad and the Subhumanoid, comes the only Shakespeare adaptation tastefully narrated by Motorhead’s Lemmy Kilmister. Written by James Gunn (Slither, Super), it fully captures the alternative culture of New York City circa 1995 while remaining in true iambic pentameter, making the source material feel as transgressive and cutting-edge as when it debuted 400 years prior. – Chaz Kangas
The Taming of the Shrew (1967)
If the names “Zeffirelli” and “Shakespeare” call to mind visions of that dreamy, hopelessly romantic and ethereal 1968 version of Romeo and Juliet viewed in high school English classes nationwide, well, first of all, good for you. You paid attention.
Now forget all that and hop backwards just a wee bit to 1967 – the year that Zeffirelli launched another, far less tender yet gloriously entertaining Shakespearean adaptation starring the famously violent celebrity duo of the day, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.
Zeffirelli’s The Taming of the Shrew is not even remotely great Shakespeare; it is a raucous, bawdy, truncated and über-Technicolor Taylor versus Burton vehicle that nevertheless puts most contemporary attempts at pop-Shakespeare to shame. Of course, if you hanker after classy, BBC-esque, word-for-word recreations of the bard’s greatest hits, this one’s probably not for you. It takes a knowledge of the language and poetry of the play, and then a willingness to let it all go and relish the ways in which a stunningly buxom and royally pissed-off Elizabeth Taylor and her then-husband Burton slap, smack and roll their way throughout Zeffirelli’s sumptuous set pieces, to truly enjoy this film. That said, if you like a little silly and a lot of sexy with your Shakespeare, you’ll probably dig Taylor’s turn as the feisty Kate, Burton’s drunken, determined Petruchio, and everything else about this best of the “bad” adaptations ever made. – by Lauren Westerfield
To me, “taking on an auspicious project” signifies something like cataloging my CD collection, making a complete meal without use of a microwave or reading a lengthy essay involving literary theory. And then there’s Kenneth Branagh. His auspicious project of the year 1996 was, oh, something about adapting, directing and starring in the first ever unabridged film version of Hamlet for chrissakes, the play to end all plays. Branagh’s vision was suitably grandiose: he cast all kinds of high-brow A-listers (from Julie Christie to Kate Winslet to Jack Lemmon), Victorianized the scope of the art direction (sumptuous, color-saturated costuming at the forefront) and shot the entire thing in 70mm (the last production of its kind) – all of this with a total budget of $18 million.
The results are bewildering in the best of ways. A bleach-blonde Branagh smolders anew as Hamlet while then-newcomer Winslet plays the fair Ophelia to drowning depths and peak perfection. Visually and artistically breathtaking, the black and white marble parquet floor of Elsinore Castle alone deserves some kind of award for best chessboard motif ever. Though lauded as a success by critics, Branagh’s Hamlet failed to rake in the box office dollars, earning a paltry $5 million domestically. Lesson learned: Branagh is back in the director’s chair with the soon-to-be-released superhero flick Thor. Budget? $150 million. Results? Too soon to tell, but me, I’m sticking with The Bard. – Stacey Pavlick
My Own Private Idaho (1991)
Although they’re not Shakespeare’s most famous works (not even his most famous historical works), the tales of Prince Hal/Henry V growing from young wastrel to conquering king at the expense of his youthful comrades have their own poignancy. Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho tackles the story in an unusual way, by transposing Hal’s story with that of a narcoleptic street hustler (River Phoenix) struggling with his identity. The Hal substitute, Scott (Keanu Reeves), is the slumming son of Portland, OR’s mayor, basically turning tricks to bide time until his trust fund matures. As the friendship between the two turns inside and out, Van Sant drops whole scenes of iambic pentameter into a storyline of abuse and teenage recklessness, essentially juxtaposing and merging two plots into one. It’s a fascinating combination of modernity and the classic, a true example of the universality of the Bard’s storytelling. – Nathan Kamal
Shakespeare was no pussy when it came to bloodshed, yet most film adaptations of his plays skimp on the gore, deferring to stage violence where the actor clutches his bloodless chest and exclaims, “O, I am slain!” In her 1999 adaptation of Titus Andronicus, director Julie Taymor fills the screen with glorious rivets of crimson. Starring Anthony Hopkins as the titular Roman general, Taymor matches Shakespeare at his most bloody, creating a fantasia of severed limbs and wild sex. Never has Jessica Lange been sexier as the sinister Tamora, Queen of the Goths, who plots revenge against Andronicus and his family. Taymor dresses the film in bright colors and extravagant set pieces, miles away from the cold, damp moors and castles of the better known adaptations. – David Harris
Romeo + Juliet (1996)
Whoever came up with the idea of a teen-friendly version of Romeo and Juliet was a genius. The tale of two young lovers who kill themselves because they can’t be together is already hardwired into our culture and idiom, but the concept is so hormonal and histrionic that it begs to be exploited and marketed to the same teenagers prone to shrieking “but we’re in love!!” at their parents at the slightest provocation.
It also helps that Baz Luhrmann is behind the camera, whose frenetic style and madcap energy gives to Shakespeare’s Elizabethan prose a much-needed shot of Pop Art juice. It also speaks to the value of interpretation: this is a story that’s been done dozens of times before, both on stage and in film, and Luhrmann has cast it in a light that’s not only fresh, but iconic in its own right.
They should’ve called this one Romeo + Juliet = Success. – Danny Djeljosevic
Shakespeare’s moody Dane, who probably runs neck and neck with the doomed teenage lovers from Verona for the designation of the Bard’s most famous character, naturally invites creative interpretations of his story. When even those who have only a passing familiarity with the original work can still take a decent crack at the “to be or not to be” soliloquy, dressing the tale up in new duds actually seems somewhat advisable. Director Michael Almereyda did just that with his 2000 film adaptation, recasting the troubled youth as the scion of a modern-day corporate CEO who is thrown deep into gloom when his uncle essentially perpetrates a murderous hostile takeover.
The translation works marvelously, and not just the bloodiest duplicity of Shakespeare’s imaginings fits corporate America like a gilded glove. Almereyda doesn’t merely rely on the novelty of his concept; he finds ways to use it as a tool to burrow into the classic work. He doesn’t necessary wrench fresh insights from it, but he adds energy to Hamlet through the sleekness and headlong creativity of his approach, especially as the unaltered Shakespearean dialogue runs up against modern conceits and technology. In the title role, Ethan Hawke is representative of the movie’s unique chemistry. He makes the centuries-old words sound contemporary and natural while also respecting the storied resonance that caused them to endure in the first place. – Dan Seeger
Works by the Bard have been produced in such outlandish and inventive fashions as a “voodoo” version of Macbeth set in Haiti, or a modern day Romeo and Juliet complete with pistols as daggers and swords. Of all his writings, MacBeth is my favorite, and Roman Polanski’s 1971 adaptation best does the madness of the Thane of Scotland justice.
Polanksi’s MacBeth features Jon Finch as the eponymous character, played much more brutal and unflinching than is usual. Finch ably conveys the power and bloodlust in MacBeth’s eyes; his portrayal is frightening and monstrous. Polanski infuses the film with a gory sensibility: scenes that happen off-screen in the original text, like King Duncan’s murder, are played out with an unwavering eye. Polanski made this film in the wake of his wife’s slaying by the Manson family, and it has been hypothesized that his mindset for the following years was blood-soaked and unstable. While to me the play always indicated MacBeth was a mostly innocent participant coerced to action, Polanski’s version really gets into the meat of what he truly wanted from his position. It’s tough to watch, bloody as hell, but completely captivating stuff. – Rafael Gaitan
Looking For Richard (1996)
The main barrier to appreciating Shakespeare is that you’re supposed to – and nobody likes being told what to do. Years of being forced to cram Signet Classics versions A Midsummer’s Night Dream the night before the assignment’s due have turned the beautiful words of the Bard into bitter pills for millions of high school students worldwide. Al Pacino understands this basic fact and in Looking For Richard, he tries to get to the core of just what’s great and – from a populist standpoint – not-so-great about the man, by dissecting one of his most-performed plays. Pacino not only stars in but also directs this thorough examination of Richard III, enlisting some of his A-list friends to join in the docudrama hybrid fun.
He brings us backstage with him as he and his crew put the play under the microscope, coming at it from all angles to pin down every tiny inflection and scintilla of meaning. Sprinkled throughout are dramatically filmed scenes, deftly acted by Winona Ryder, Vanessa Redgrave, James Earl Jones, Alec Baldwin, Kevin Spacey and others. And to top it all off, Pacino hits the streets to find out the public’s take on things.
Looking For Richard was Pacino’s directorial debut. Right out of the gates he delivers, serving up an intriguing and at times funny look at what makes the globe’s most beloved, revered and (let’s face it) most CliffsNoted author tick. – Shannon Gramas