Streaming Shakespeare: 10 best modern movie adaptations
Ivan Radford | On 26, Apr 2020Reading time: 7 mins
When it comes to the Bard, a little bit of iambic pentameter can go a long way for modern audiences. Over the decades, though, there has been no end of versions that have brought Shakespeare’s work into contemporary settings to make it more accessible. Some have stuck closely to the source text, some have eschewed it entirely to take the themes and plot in new directions. From musical extravaganzas to high school rom-coms, we round up the best modern Shakespeare adaptations for the big screen:
Romeo + Juliet (1996)
Baz Luhrmann’s update of Shakespeare’s iconic tragedy, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes is a jaw-dropping, open-hearted masterpiece. Transporting the action to Verona Beach, California, its star-crossed tale of lovers falling for each other against the backdrop of a gang war is as timeless as ever – but shot through with a whole wave of energy. Ingenious touches like turning a ringing bell into a petrol station sign, or using “swords” as a brand of firearm, back up Luhrmann’s typically extravagant sets and opulent set pieces – from a vibrant mansion party to a neon-lit church. Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes are beautifully naive as the young couple, with Harold Perrineau’s Mercutio, John Leguizamo’s Tybalt and Pete Postlethwaite’s Father Laurence providing scene-stealing support.
West Side Story (1963)
Before Baz Luhrmann came Steven Sondheim, as Romeo and Julie gets the musical treatment. Here, Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer play the star-crossed lovers in 1950s New York, caught between two warring gangs. From the whip-smart direction and choreography and the script’s understanding of immigration in America to the ear-worming songs, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s is a treat guaranteed to get your fingers clicking, right from the opening, inspired number.
Richard III (1995)
Richard Loncraine’s Richard III remains among a small group of movies that dare to do something different with Shakespeare – in this case, throw in everything from Nazis and tanks to Robert Downey Jr. and trips to the bathroom. It’s an unconventional approach that culminates in an explosive showdown around Bankside Power Station, before it became the Tate Modern, and while the eerily alien yet recognisable backdrop of Third Reich-style flags demands your attention, it’s testament to Ian McKellen that it’s impossible to take your eyes off his intense, unpleasant performance as the calculating, murdering king.
Ralph Fiennes joins the list of actors who have directed themselves in a Shakespeare film with this blistering take on Shakespeare’s oft-overlooked play. “A place calling itself Rome” is how John Logan’s script introduces the modern setting, shoving Shakespeare’s political drama into the middle of a war-torn republic. Saving Private Ryan-style sequences litter the movie, but find an identity of their own in the opening assault on Corioles, as guns give way to a one-on-one knife fight between General Caius Martius (Fiennes) and his sworn enemy, Aufidius (Gerard Butler). Soon enough, Caius has earned his title Coriolanus in battle, only to be betrayed by the politicians back home and banished from the city. And so Coriolanus does the only sensible thing: joins forces with Aufidius to wreak revenge. This is a loud take on the text, a chance for Fiennes to let rip with shouting and crazed soliloquies – before jumping through a window. And it works, bringing a visual intensity to the cast’s searing performances, including Brian Cox and Vanessa Redgrave.
Alongside Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth is arguably Shakespeare’s most popular play. It’s also the most interestingly adapted for the screen, with both Roman Polanski and Akira Kurosawa cementing their entirely different interpretations in cinematic history. This new version, starring Michael Fassbender, has a lot, therefore, to live up to, but it stands shoulder to shoulder with the great adaptations, turning The Bard’s tale of ambition and prophecy into a scorching story of family and conflict. This is Shakespeare’s Macbeth – but every inch of it is Justin Kurzel’s. That much is evident from the very first frame, which presents us with a scene that isn’t even in the play: the burial of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s deceased child. It’s a striking revision of the original text, completely transforming the way we read the future king’s grasp for power. Kurzel gives us a Macbeth fuelled by a longing for legacy. That emotional weight grounds the entire production; with its greys, browns and muddy greens, everything is mired in the grim weight of parental loss. Haunting, dark and hypnotic, you’ve never seen Shakespeare like this.
10 Things I Hate About You (1999)
10 Things I Hate About You won over hordes of teenagers with its wry realisation that The Taming of the Shrew’s gender politics and inequality are issues dealt with every day in high school. Not only a memorable Shakespeare adaptation but also a definitive high school movie in its own right, Gil Junger’s knowing update has enough laughs to keep you entertained, even without the original dialogue – and, thanks to a standout sequence involving a marching band, gave the world a chance to fall in love with Heath Ledger’s singing voice. All together now: “I love you, baby, and if it’s quite alright, I need you, baby…”
Much Ado About Nothing (2012)
Joss Whedon’s take on Shakespeare’s winning romantic comedy is a sparkling, bubbly affair. That’s mostly thanks to the fact that it’s filmed all in his own home, with a group of actors who regularly went over to his for readings. The result fizzes with natural chemistry and familiarity between every performer, while Whedonverse regulars Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker get the chance to shine in lead roles – Acker, by giving her speech about gender stereotypes a real punch, and Denisof, by bringing a laugh-out-loud physical comedy to any time he’s in the background of the scene.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1999)
Stanley Tucci as a smouldering, playful Puck. Kevin Kline as a scene-stealing Bottom, investing his fool with both hysterical clumsiness and an unexpected pathos. Michael Hoffman’s Italy-set version of Shakespeare’s most whimsical comedy is studded with a gob-smacking cast, with Calista Flockhart, Anna Friel, Christian Bale and Dominic West playing the central quartet of lovers, and even Sam Rockwell turning up in the background as one of Bottom’s fellow players. That alone is reason enough to watch, with a nifty use of bicycles and a lush production design the icing on the cake.
Ethan Hawke brings a downbeat vibe to this compelling version of Shakespeare’s most famous play. Relocated to contemporary New York, his Hamlet is the heir to the Denmark Corporation, with Kyle MacLachlan as his brother, Claudius, taking over the company by hitching up with Hamlet’s mother, the grieving widow Gertrude. Hamlet vows to take revenge, but Hawke balances that determination with an earnest procrastination that ramps up the psychological tension, while the script’s clever use of modern technology (planes and laptops both feature) adds to the convincing realism.
Currently unavailable on VOD in the UK.
She’s the Man (2006)
Another modern-day comedy that takes liberties with the original play, this romantic comedy is a charming affair, as we follow Viola (Amanda Bynes), who disguises herself as her twin brother Sebastian (James Kirk) to join the high school boys’ soccer team – while falling for star forward Duke (Channing Tatum).
The Lion King (1994)
A bonus mention goes to The Lion King, aka. Hamlet but with animals. It’s arguably Disney’s finest animation – and that’s despite the fact that it reworks the tragedy’s ending to become something happy and family-friendly. What’s not to like?