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What is your favourite Shakespeare adaptation?

In anticipation of Shakespeare celebrations next year, we asked Oxford University Press and Oxford University staff members to choose their favourite Shakespeare adaptation. From classic to contemporary, the obscure to the infamous, we’ve collected a whole range of faithful and quirky translations from play text to film. Did your favourite film or television programme make the list?

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“I’ve just rewatched with great pleasure Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight (1966), which combines Henry IV parts 1 and 2, Merry Wives, bits of Henry V, and Holinshed’s chronicles. It reimagines the plays as the story of Falstaff rather than of Prince Hal, and a nostalgic Falstaff who represents a lost golden age of Merrie England. The montage of the Battle of Shrewsbury is justly famous, but I also loved the wideangle sequence of the forest in which the Gad’s Hill robbery takes place. Purists will find Welles’ reshapings annoying, but I enjoyed its intelligence. Making Falstaff the unnamed drunk who is pardoned by a magnanimous Henry V goes some way to healing the breach between the old man and his protégé.”
— Emma Smith, Professor of Shakespeare Studies, Hertford College Oxford and adviser for Illuminating Shakespeare

“One of my all-time favorite Shakespeare adaptations is Scotland, PA – a darkly comedic retelling of Macbeth that takes place in a 1970s suburb. Really all you need to know is that Macbeth is recast as a fast food worker with an overly ambitious wife, and Christopher Walken plays Macduff.”
Lauren Hill, Assistant Marketing Manager, Trade Books

“My favourite Shakespeare film adaptation would have to be The Lion King (based on the story of Hamlet). As soon as I saw it as a child I was in love with the music, the characters, and the story, and although the ending is a little ‘Disney-fied’ compared to Shakespeare’s original, which I fell in love with as an adult, it still remains a movie that will bring a smile to my face.”
— Hannah Charters, Associate Marketing Manager, Online Products

“I tend to love great films and terrible films fairly equally, and can’t decide where She’s The Man falls on this scale. It’s an adaptation of Twelfth Night so loose that Shakespeare’s name isn’t mentioned anywhere on the DVD, and the writers’ borrowings pretty much begin and end with naming people and things (Channing Tatum = Duke Orsino; a pet tarantula = Malvolio). Yet I can’t help loving the way it modernises Twelfth Night’s tropes into one woman’s stand against the chauvinism of college football. Ok, it’s terrible, but I still love it.”
— Simon Thomas, Marketing Executive, Oxford Dictionaries

“For me, nothing can really match Kenneth Branagh’s slightly bonkers adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing. Set in beautiful Italian countryside, Branagh’s Benedick and Emma Thompson’s Beatrice hold their battle of wits alongside a stellar and occasionally hilarious cast – Denzel Washington and Keanu Reeves as the brothers Don, a young Robert Sean Leonard, and Brian Blessed being Brian Blessed – and a couple of musical numbers, just because. It’s joyous, silly, and never fails to make me laugh out loud.”
— Helena Palmer, Marketing Assistant, Academic

“My favourite adaption has to be Baz Lurhmann’s Romeo + Juliet. It came out when I was 15 and, by chance, studying the play at school. I think I was the perfect age to enjoy the MTV-style fast-cut cinematography and I ended up going to see it about six times in a few weeks. I also had the posters, the soundtracks (both of them), and was just generally obsessed with it at the time. Watching it again now, I think it’s beginning to look a little bit ‘of its time,’ but I’ll always have an affection for it, for nostalgic reasons if nothing else.”
— Kirsty Doole, Senior Publicity Manager

“My favourite Shakespeare film adaptation was Laurence Olivier’s King Lear, shown on the BBC in 1983. I was 12, and it marked the moment Shakespeare actually started to come to life for me. I had seen one or two productions in college gardens in Oxford, and had played Puck in a school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, launching a brief school career of being routinely cast as sprites or wizened old men. But somehow the iambic pentameter and the ‘hey nonny nonny’ always stepped between me and the suspension of disbelief. This adaptation – and its wonderful cast – changed all that, in its terrible grandeur, surrendering the structure to rage and frustration, scheming and grief. While gore is terribly de rigueur these days, the gouging out of Gloucester’s eyes truly haunted me awhile.”
— Sophie Goldsworthy, Editorial Director, Academic & Trade

“Akira Kurosawa’s adaptation of Macbeth, Throne of Blood, relocates the story from Scotland to Japan, re-presenting Macbeth’s bloody ambition within the context of a feudal Japanese samurai society. Kurosawa’s famed skill for conveying power dynamics through choreography and framing made Macbeth a perfect match for the director. Through Macbeth’s relationship with his wife, an unforgettable take on Lady Macbeth, he also incorporated interesting consideration of gender. Kurosawa’s reimagining continues to be an influence on global cinema, as we will surely see when Justin Kurzel’s new version starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard is released later this year.”
— Rachel Brook, Marketing Assistant, Institutional Marketing

“Given that decent high school dramedies have always been a rarity, the loose Shakespeare adaptation 10 Things I Hate About You comes across as a real flash in the pan. Adapting the plot of The Taming of the Shrew to a high school in Tacoma, Washington? Casting two Hollywood newcomers as the leads (Heath Ledger and Julia Stiles, for the uninitiated)? Discarding even a whiff of a Shakespeare allusion in the title? Heath Ledger’s bravura performance of Frankie Valli’s ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You’? A date with white suits and water balloons filled with paint? It’s all so oddball, and yet it works.”
— Taylor Coe, Marketing Coordinator, Oxford Dictionaries

“Julie Taymor’s Titus Andronicus (1999) was a standout for me. A rarely performed and certainly not much lauded play due to its perceived failure as a tragedy and textual inconsistencies, it knocked me for six when studying it at university. There is an unbelievable level of violence and hatred, with warring families tearing themselves apart by seeking revenge. It could give The Godfather trilogy a run for its money. Taymor’s adaptation was bold, intertwining the traditional and the modern to make it accessible to a twenty-first century audience, and perhaps most memorably it employed toys and tomato ketchup in one of the most interesting openers to a film that I’ve seen for some time.”
— Hannah McGuffie, Senior Marketing Manager, Academic

“I adore Akira Kurosawa’s Ran (1985), an epic adaptation of King Lear set in the Sengoku (warring states) period of feudal Japan. King Lear, or in this version the warlord Hidetora Ichimonji, intends to divide his kingdom among his three sons, explaining his decision through the artful symbolism of three bound arrows—stronger together than apart. His youngest son, Saburo, the Cordelia of the film, breaks the arrows across his knee and bluntly protests the folly of this vision. Hidetora banishes him for his insolence, and thus Ran (chaos) begins. Its incredible performances, vibrant costumes, and lavish set design are forever seared in my memory.”
— Megan McPherson, Marketing Associate, Institutional Marketing

“I think Rupert Goold’s telefilm version of Richard II screened by the BBC as part of the Hollow Crown season stands as one of the most revelatory adaptations of Shakespeare I’ve seen. I’ve seen Fiona Shaw, Eddie Redmayne, and David Tennant, play the role on stage, but seeing Ben Whishaw actually sit down on a beach to ‘tell sad stories of the death of kings’ really brings the story alive. Here is a king more concerned with pomp than justice, and symbolism than ruling, and that the struggle we are seeing is as much about what it takes to be a good king, as between Richard and his cousin Bollingbroke. David Suchet and Patrick Stewart are fantastic as the King’s uncles, two of the most humane parts to be found in the history plays.”
— Joseph Kennedy, OUP Bookshop

“I like the BBC’s Shakespeare ReTold adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing because it retains a lot of the original dialogue while still managing to modernize and update the story, even changing the plot and the ending. I thought that really demonstrated how although modern culture means that stories often end a bit differently, Shakespeare’s characters and language are still relevant today.”
— Celine Aenlle-Rocha, Marketing Assistant, Music

“My favourite Shakespeare film adaptation is Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet. This is because it’s set in the wonderful grounds of Blenheim Palace (so if you live around Oxford it’s easy to visit and then pretend you’re in Elsinore), the late Robin Williams is hilarious as Osric, as is Billy Crystal as a Gravedigger, and Charlton Heston delivers a thundering speech as the Player King. It also contains some scary looking eyes from Brian Blessed and Jack Lemmon slavishly reciting blank verse. At over 4 hours long includes pretty much the whole play so is excellent value for money!”
— Chris Wogan, Marketing Manager, Commercial Law

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What’s your favourite film or television adaptation? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Featured image: Red cinema seats. (c) habrda via iStock.

Recent Comments

  1. Kenneth Hope

    This is easy for me: Trevor Nunn’s film of Twelfth Night (1996) with Helena Bonham Carter, Imogen Stubbs, Ben Kingsley, Nigel Hawthorne, Richard E. Grant… When I taught the Humanities I found Shakespeare’s tragedies pretty comfortable in the classroom, but the comedies made for treacherous ground until this film appeared. Students really enjoyed it, and I could watch it every semester with pleasure.

  2. Dr Kate Titus

    Brannagh’s Henry V — my most favorite movie of all time & it’s curious that no one else name it! Segments were used in a class at Harvard, Brannagh makes Shakespeare’s English contemporary & memorable, & he brings immediacy & power & to the famous speeches. Also, the musical scoring was superb. And, of course, there’s Emma Thompson, Derek Jacobi & the rest of the cast. Best Henry V ever.

  3. Dick Davis

    The Russian Hamlet (1964), directed by Kozintsev and with Innokenty Smoktunovsky as Hamlet. Fabulous direction (both brutal in its starkness and and romantic in its extravagance), a wonderful lead performance (for me the only convincing Hamlet on film), a tormented puppet of an Ophelia to break your heart, and a hair-raising score by Shostakovitch. All other Hamlets pale beside it.

  4. Patrick Hart

    I’d recommend _Cesare deve morire_, the Taviani brothers’ adaptation, of sorts, of _Julius Caesar_. It won the Golden Bear at Berlin in 2012, and is centred on a production of Shakespeare’s play by the inmates of Rebibbia prison in Rome, many of whom have (or had) connections with the mafia or camorra. Part documentary, part adaptation, part mediated theatre – it’s an intriguing work I’m still thinking about.

  5. Robert Kaye

    I agree 100% w/ Dr. Kate Titus! “Henry V” was extraordinary! A life-changing film for me. She’s right on the mark re: Brannagh, Jacobi, Thompson and also let’s not forget to mention Ian Holm. The score was brilliant as well. I’m also a huge fan of “Anonymous.”

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