Shakespeare, 450 Years Later: The 10 Essential Screen Adaptations

Stanley Tucci stars as Puck © 1999 - Fox Searchlight Pictures - All Rights Reserved

Ah, 450.

Seems like just yesterday we were measuring our place in the socio-economic hierarchy by the width of our neck-ruffs.

By now, you would think old Billy Shakespeare had spent the wealth of his influence upon world culture. You would presume no matter how intricate the imagery, no matter how universal the themes, his work would have been washed, dried, and donated so many times that few original interpretations would be left to explore.

Quite the opposite, as a globalized media has given seemingly infinite life to new Shakespearean cinema, stage productions, and even the occasional webseries. On this, his 450th name day (or so we assume -- contemporary English tradition saw Baptism occur three days after birth, and we know that baby Will took the plunge on April 26th), we pay homage to this fairly notable writer with a compendium of his ten essential works on screen:

"A Midsummer Night's Dream" (1999)
Michael Hoffman's joyous jaunt through the marvel and magic of the Athenian Forest is quite a lovely interpretation of Shakespeare's most cherished comedy. Boasting a varied cast of pre-fame studs (Christian Bale, Dominic West), old pros (Michelle Pfeiffer, Kevin Kline) and others (Calista Flockhart), the awesomeness of this film lies in its subtlety, as the actors wisely trust the words to do the work for them.

"Chimes at Midnight" (1966)
Orson Welles's often overlooked 1966 tour de force of nearly every history play (well, okay, none of the Henry VIs -- but I don't hear you complaining) packed into just two hours remains a film for the die-hard Shakespeare fan. Many viewers may find his modest period settings and reliance on language to be dry as a bone, but Welles's singular concentration on the relationship between Falstaff and a young Henry V is some of the greatest dramatic scholarship of the 20th century.

"Much Ado About Nothing" (1993)
In the past year, two camps seem to have sprung up: those loyal to the exuberant beauty and bafoonery of Kenneth Branagh's 1993 version, and those more in line with last year's restrained monochrome from Joss Whedon. I'm giving it to Branagh, not on the basis of superior filmmaking or casting, but on his own performance as Benedick -- a role he was born to play.

"Titus" (1999)
On the heels of her success with the Broadway stage production of "The Lion King" Julie Taymor bequeathed to us this fascinating jewel of a film. Combined with Anthony Hopkins potent yet tragically vulnerable work as the wronged and vengeful Roman warrior, "Titus" makes sense of Shakespeare's early and flawed text, relying on visual spectacle where words won't do.

"Throne of Blood" (1957)
Many words could describe Akira Kurosawa's samurai depiction of Macbeth, but "awesome" might be most efficient. While he takes huge liberties with the text (for example, Taketoki Washizu -- M's stand-in -- is taken down by a mutinous army during the finale), Kurosawa's film comes at the apex of his directorial innovation, delivering a furious tale of death and desire in Expressionistic shades of black and white.

"Richard Burton's Hamlet" (1964)
Though not strictly a film interpretation, this documented version of Burton's legendary 1964 performance on Broadway is remarkable simply because the stage version loses little of director John Gielgud's original electricity. This, combined with a startlingly clear narrative anchored by Burton's impossible control of the language, makes a "Hamlet" exciting enough for new fans yet palpable for seasoned vets.

"Julius Caesar" (1953)
Joseph L. Mankiewicz's vision of chaos in the Roman Empire finds Marlon Brando at the helm, exhibiting the first injection of American acting style into the words of the bard. Perhaps more telling is the involvement of producer John Houseman, who would later head the Drama Department at Juilliard before winning an Oscar of his own for his performance in "The Paper Chase."

"King Lear"(2008)
Ian McKellen's guidance under Trevor Nunn makes this made-for-British-TV a classic in performance study. Re-envisioned within a fading Slavic Empire, McKellen's portrayal of impending senility marks a master in full command of his powers.

"Henry V" (1944)
We would be remiss not to include a Laurence Olivier on our list, as he's largely responsible for popularizing Shakespeare on film. The declamatory style of his Henry V, along with its insanely perfect cultural genesis (a love letter to the British forces during World War II) beget a film both rousing and ravishing, as it was filmed in the early days of Technicolor.

"Romeo and Juliet" (1968)
Similarly to "Much Ado," the star-cross'd lovers tend to polarize fans, who often cite DiCaprio and Danes are superior paramours. But Franco Zeffirelli's sumptuous scenery, sweeping score, and truncated text underscore a popular method of translating Shakespeare to the screen: sometimes a few words must go to the chopping block in order to keep the kids in their seats.

To 450 More!

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