Entertainment Movies Best film adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays: From Macbeth to Romeo and Juliet

Best film adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays: From Macbeth to Romeo and Juliet

Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey in Franco Zeffirelli's adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. Photo: Hulton Archive
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It has been reported that Joel Coen’s next project will be an adaptation of Macbeth starring Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand.

One of the Oscar-winning Coen brothers and two Oscar-winning stars take on the Bard of Avon.

Make some shelf space come awards season.

Directors have been mining Shakespeare’s plays since the days of the talkies, with considerable success.

How can you really go wrong with that kind of source material?

Well, generally you can’t – and before its haters raise their hackles, Shakespeare in Love is not a Shakespeare adaptation (what’s more, it’s quite an entertaining romcom).

Portrait of William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616) was an English poet, playwright, and actor, widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world's greatest dramatist.Vintage etching circa late 19th century (1882)
Directors have been mining Shakespeare’s plays since the days of the talkies. Image: Getty

But what are the best of the myriad adaptations of Shakespeare’s most celebrated plays?


The Scottish play has long been superior cinema fodder since it involves warfare, witches, murder, ghosts and insanity.

In 2015, Adelaide boy Justin Kurzel delivered an admirably cold, austere and bloody interpretation starring Michael Fassbender as the doomed regicide and Marion Cotillard as his ‘fiend-like queen.’

Roman Polanski directed his exceedingly bloody version in 1971, shortly after the murder of his wife and unborn child by the Manson family.

Some critics suggested the violence of his Macbeth resulted from Polanski’s projection of the trauma that shattered his family, particularly the gruesome murders of Macduff’s wife and infant son.

Typical of Polanski’s treatment of his leading actresses, he notoriously forced Lady Macbeth (Francesca Annis) to perform her closet scene nude.

But the best cinematic Macbeth is also the strangest.

Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957) recast the story in feudal Japan and artful combines the human and spirit world in the stark, bloody and eerie way of Japanese cinema.

‘When Birnham wood comes to Dunsinane’ it is one of the most unsettling sequences in modern cinema, matched by the image of Toshiro Mifune’s usurper, pierced by a score of arrows, howling wildly as if to alert the spirit world of his coming.

Romeo and Juliet

This enduringly popular tragedy has had some odd iterations, starting with the star-crossed lovers being played by 43-year-old Leslie Howard and 34-year-old Norma Shearer in 1936.

Nicolas Cage, of all people, got his start in Valley Girl (1983), which was a teen comedy updating of the play, right down to Tarantino favourite Michael Bowen as a preppy Tybalt.

Baz Luhrmann directed a typically brash noisy version set at ‘Verona Beach’, where Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes fell foul of their criminal clans’ gang war.

But it’s Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 version that is the greatest.

Gorgeous and seductive in every way, from teenage stars Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey, to the spectacular medieval town of Gubbio standing in for Verona.

Filmed during the fabled ‘Summer of Love’, this was Shakespeare for the disaffected youth movement, and features the most violent and energetic of all the sword brawls between Romeo, Mercutio and Tybalt (a lip-smackingly sinister Michael York).


Hamlet is a challenging tragedy to adapt to film, so it’s astounding that so many directors have got it right.

Even Disney mined the story successfully for The Lion King, with Jeremy Irons’ Scar a villain of truly Shakespearean proportions.

Mel Gibson brought Mad Max’s brooding presence to Elsinore in another energetic Franco Zeffirelli adaptation in 1990.

Kenneth Branagh’s epic, chilly 1996 depiction made demands on the audience, but was an undoubted success.

With Derek Jacobi scene stealing as Claudius, it was also irresistible to those of us who saw Jacobi as the Danish Prince dispose of his treacherous uncle Patrick Stewart in the BBCs 1980 production.

Michael Almereyda’s 2000 adaptation may not be the best but it’s one of the most interesting.

Starring Ethan Hawke as the procrastinating prince and Kyle MacLachlan as Claudius, this Hamlet is set in the cut-throat, hi-tech corporate world of New York.

Strange and compelling in its own right, it is also a fascinating template for HBO’s tragic and brutal family saga Succession.

The Taming of the Shrew

One of the Bard’s most raucous comedies makes perfect cinematic fare with all the shouting and throwing of things.

Like Romeo and Juliet, it suffered initially from absurd early casting (Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford in 1929) and even more absurd writing credits (‘Additional dialogue by Sam Taylor’).

Shakespeare-tragic Zeffirelli struck gold in 1967 by casting paparazzi targets Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor as Petruchio and Kate.

But most people’s favourite adaptation departs from the original language entirely.

10 Things I Hate About You (1999) introduced Heath Ledger and Julia Stiles as the warring lovers, and just as 1995’s Clueless is the favourite cinematic Austen of many, The Taming of the Shrew turned out to be an ideal source for a teen comedy.

Who said Shakespeare was stuffy?