The Bard has gone through many adaptations (and mutilations) of his works in the past few centuries. Below, in no order other than alphabetical, are some of the more creative and interesting “adaptations” of his works that are worth checking out.
Chimes at Midnight (1965)
Directed by Orson Welles
Starring Orson Welles as Falstaff
A film based on several plays actually (Richard II, Henry IV Pts. 1 and 2, Henry V, The Merry Wives of Windsor), this film is hard to find in the US but worth checking out. Orson Welles plays a formidable yet charismatic Falstaff who celebrates and mourns his relationship with his protege and friend Prince Hal (later to become the fiery Henry V).
Me and Orson Welles (2008)
Directed by Richard Linklater
Starring Zac Efron and Claire Danes
Me and Orson Welles goes behind the scenes of Orson Welles’ production of Julius Caesar. Not strictly an adaptation of Shakespeare, this film nevertheless provides a loving (and surprisingly accurate) view of this famous production. Zac Efron proves he is more than a teen heartthrob in his role as a starstruck teenager who quickly grows up in the shadow of the intimidating presence that is Orson Welles.
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
An “adaptation” of King Lear that uses practically none of Shakespeare’s language, much less English, Ran is nevertheless very recognizably King Lear. Kurosawa manages to convey the jealousy, fratricidal hatred, self-loathing, humiliation and redemption that are all present in the original play.
Slings and Arrows (2003-2006)
Actually a TV series rather than a stand-alone feature film, Slings and Arrows is a must for Shakespeare aficionados as well as anyone else interested in compelling television. The series takes place at a Canadian theater company and each season follows the production of one of Shakespeare’s plays (Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear) while also containing many subplots of backstage romance, tangles with bureaucracy and other intrigues. The play is littered with fantastic performances from Paul Gross’ theater director Geoffrey who starts seeing his teacher’s ghost while he’s trying to produce Hamlet to Rachel McAdams as an aspiring young actress. Her few seconds of Ophelia are far superior to any Ophelia seen on screen.
Directed by Julie Taymor
Starring Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange
A ridiculous version of a ridiculous play, the over-the-top nature of this play is captured quite well by Taymor in her elaborate production values and directorial flourishes. The deliciously campy performance of Jessica Lange is a fun highlight as well. Long before Quentin Tarantino, Shakespeare realized the cathartic entertainment of a revenge torture fantasy, which is what Titus Andronicus is.
Chimes at Midnight
Chimes at Midnight was a Spanish-Swiss production, hence the Spanish title on the poster. While the film received mostly positive reviews, it saw only limited release in the United States. Orson Welles said later that it was his favorite film.
Me and Orson Welles
Zac Efron’s character is fictional, but many aspects of the story and production are accurate to the time. The film mentions Welles’ bold and controversial move to eliminate the “To be or not to be” soliloquy from his production of Hamlet because he felt it had no place in the narrative flow of the play.
Ran is actually one of several film adaptations of Shakespeare that Kurosawa did. He also adapted Hamlet (The Bad Sleep Well) and Macbeth (Throne of Blood).
Slings and Arrows
Each season of this Canadian TV series focuses on a single Shakespeare play with many elements of the play reflected in the lives of the various people involved in production. Most comically, the intended director of Macbeth, in the series, does not believe in the so-called “Macbeth curse” and promptly injures herself as she starts to defy the superstition.
Titus Andronicus features a girl who has her tongue and arms chopped off and young men being baked into meat pies. Taymor manages to capture the ridiculous nature of the play through anachronisms and stylistic flourishes.