Shakespeare in Film: Accessible Adaptations for Modern Audiences

People are often surprised when I suggest that they watch a Shakespeare play before reading it.  I know I was an English major in college, and am therefore supposed to believe that the book is always better than the movie, etc., etc.  But with Shakespeare especially, it can be really difficult to visualize the text if you aren’t used to reading Early Modern plays–or plays in general.

Shakespeare’s stage directions are so vague (or usually non-existent) that the texts can support a number of different interpretations.  Every production is a little bit different, which is one of the reasons why I love Shakespeare; I love seeing what different directors and actors can interpret the same words and create something unique.  I don’t like it when adapters change words or throw in weird gimmicks (Romeo and Juliet . . . with Aliens!) or make decisions that clearly have no basis in the text.  But I am fine with modern dress, playing with settings and time periods in a non-ridiculous way, etc.

This list includes plays that I think are good adaptations and particularly accessible to people who aren’t necessarily Shakespeare nerds like me.  (Of course, they are also accessible to Shakespeare nerds.)

Hamlet (2009)
Director: Gregory Doran
MPAA Rating: Not Rated (it’s a filmed stage production)
Running Time: 180 min.
The stage to film transition is a little rough, but David Tennant’s Hamlet is really relatable.  Purists will note that the order of scenes is slightly altered in the middle (Act 2, Scene 4 and Act 3, Scene 1).  I think it’s worth it for “Now I am alone,” but you’ll have to see what you think.  If you’re not too familiar with Hamlet you won’t even notice.

Henry V (1989)
Director: Kenneth Branagh
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 137 min.
Branagh uses the film medium well for the war action, but still uses plenty of the text.  If you’re familiar with Shakespeare’s histories, you’ll notice that Branagh adds in some “flashbacks” to Henry IV Parts One and Two to explain the Falstaff back story.  If you are not familiar with the histories, you will be grateful for this. . . .

Merchant of Venice (2004)
Director: Michael Radford
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 138 min.
This is a tricky play to perform because of the blatant anti-Semitism, but Michael Radford does a good job of working around and reinterpreting it without actually changing the text.  He cuts lines kind of selectively to help tweak the meaning in a few places, but he doesn’t substitute in different words.  He also tries to be historically accurate to Renaissance Venice.

Much Ado About Nothing (1993)
Director: Kenneth Branagh
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 111 min.
One of the best film adaptations of a Shakespeare play ever made.  Branagh cuts about 40% of the text, but I’m okay with it.  The story is easy to follow and the characters and comedy really come to life, and it is the length of a normal movie–a challenge in Shakespeare adaptation.

Othello (1994)
Director: Oliver Parker
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 123 min.
Kind of intense, and Desdemona gets on my nerves, but this is a fairly traditional interpretation of Othello, made in a feature film mold.

Richard III (1995)
Director: Richard Loncraine
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 104 min.
This film takes a lot of liberties.  I almost didn’t put it on this list, not because I don’t like it, but because it’s definitely on the artsy end of this spectrum.  The plot is transplanted to pre-WWII England, which works very well given the themes of power and rebellion, thrones changing hands in unorthodox ways, etc.  I have one complaint with the film because they combine two significant characters into one: Richard’s mother and Margaret, the mother of Henry VI (who Richard killed).  In the play, there is a lot of significant dialogue between Margaret and the soon-to-be-ex-Queen Elizabeth (who Richard will also depose).  Loncraine gives these lines to Richard’s mother, which changes the dynamic significantly.  Of course, the combined role is played by Maggie Smith, so I can’t complain about it too much.  Just be aware, if you’re not familiar with Richard III, that this is a significant change.

Twelfth Night (1996)
Director: Trevor Nunn
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 134 min.
HUGE DISCLAIMER: This film starts with about five minutes of back story with fake Shakespearean verse as a voice over.  WORST IDEA EVER!  It is atrocious and completely unnecessary (it basically tells you that there are twins and they are in a shipwreck, which you can clearly see from the action on the screen).  But aside from these horrible moments at the beginning, the rest of the film is a very traditional interpretation that brings out the blend of comic and tragic elements in the play beautifully.  There is some minor re-ordering in the way Nunn fits the scenes together, but it is relatively insignificant.  This is one of my favorite Shakespeare films; I just fast forward through the first five minutes. . . .

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