18 Shakespeare Film Adaptations, Ranked From Worst To Best
I’m a pretty big nerd when it comes to Shakespeare, no matter how crazy his plays can get. I have my mom’s college copy of The Riverside Shakespeare on my bookshelf, and I sometimes take it out for a bit of light reading from time to time. This “light reading” usually turns into solo performances of my favorite Shakespearean monologues. Who hasn’t done a Lady M speech or two when insomnia strikes at 3 a.m.? Just me? Okay then, never mind...
The problem with reading Shakespeare is that it’s not meant to be read — it’s meant to be performed. There’s a reason why so many high schoolers dread the day they have to plod through Hamlet. They’re struggling to read words that are supposed to be spoken (shout out to all those awesome English teachers who forced us to do reader's theater for Shakespeare — you all are true stars).
For those who want to truly enjoy Shakespeare, but 1) aren't actors and 2) can't go to the Globe every night to see a show, there are movies based on Shakespeare's plays. By watching them, we can enjoy the works the way they were meant to be enjoyed — though, sadly, if we’re not watching the plays live we can’t yell at the actors like the peasants of the past. Darn.
In addition to making Shakespeare’s plays more accessible, film adaptations also show just how amazing his work really was. These stories are still relevant today, even when translated into different countries, time periods, or settings. And there are a lot of Shakespeare films out there. If you don’t even know where to begin, here’s a ranking to help you get started. To watch or not to watch, that is the question…
18. The Taming of the Shrew (1967)
Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton star as Kate and Petruchio in this version of Taming of the Shrew. They have great chemistry, but Elizabeth Taylor's very serious delivery of Kate's final speech knocks the film down several notches for me (other actresses have given the speech a more sarcastic, wink-wink tone, playing up the comedy and staying true to Kate's spirit and strong character). Also, the taglines for this movie were gross.
17. Romeo and Juliet (2013)
This adaptation is pretty and sparkly and glamorous. It also changes Shakespeare's words. Yes, Romeo and Juliet has been adapted many times and subsequently changed around, but in this version, most of the lines are the same. So why change just some of them??? It was branded as Romeo and Juliet for "the next generation," but there are some writers whose words are timeless no matter your age. Shakespeare is one of them.
16. Hamlet (1948)
Laurence Olivier directed this version of Hamlet. He also played Hamlet. He also made a ton of changes to the script, cutting out entire characters, and had Eileen Herlie playing Hamlet's mother Gertrude even though she was eleven years younger than Olivier. So... there are a lot of things going on in this version.
15. Hamlet (1990)
Zeffirelli, an icon of the Shakespeare world, directed this version of Hamlet. It has a star-studded cast (Mel Gibson plays Hamlet, Glenn Close plays Gertrude, Helena Bonham Carter is Ophelia) and definitely plays up the vibes between Hamlet and Gertrude. You mostly remember this one, though, because Cher talks about it in Clueless .
14. Titus (1999)
Julie Taymor, another Shakespeare film icon, directed this adaptation of Titus Andronicus. Most would agree it's very well done, but I think most would also agree that the subject matter would stop you from rewatching it over and over. And it will also stop you from ever eating pie again.
13. A Midsummer Night's Dream (1968)
Judi Dench plays Titania in this adaptation, and she should just be a queen forever because she's a star. Overall, though, the quick pace and lack of laughs make this version less memorable.
12. Othello (1995)
Though it adds a few scenes that aren't in the play (and you can tell how I feel about unnecessary additions or subtractions of Shakespeare's work), this is a solid adaptation of Othello. Laurence Fishburne is excellent in the titular role, and iconic Shakespeare actor Kenneth Branagh is great as usual in the role of Iago.
11. Romeo + Juliet (1996)
Baz Luhrmann. Leo DiCaprio. Claire Danes. You probably watched this modernized version of Romeo and Juliet a lot during your teenage years. It's worth going back for Mercutio, who's the real star.
10. Much Ado About Nothing (2012)
Joss Whedon's black and white adaptation of this classic Shakespeare comedy is the perfect film to watch on a calm summer night. It's set in modern times, but retains Shakespeare's original script, and even has original music for two songs Shakespeare wrote into the play. If you're a Whedon fan, you won't be disappointed.
9. Macbeth (2015)
Emotional and visually beautiful, this adaptation of one of Shakespeare's most well-known works is definitely worth a watch. And it stars Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, in case you needed more encouragement to watch it.
8. The Tempest (2010)
Prospero becomes Prospera in this Julie Taymor-directed adaptation of The Tempest, starring Helen Mirren. It's visually stunning, like all Taymor's projects, and the twist keeps the story fresh and interesting. This is one of Shakespeare's more bizarre tales, but if anyone can handle telling it, it's Taymor.
7. Richard III (1995)
This adaptation is set in 1930s Britain. It stars Ian McKellen. It's extremely well done. Go watch it.
6. 10 Things I Hate About You (1999)
The Taming of the Shrew gets remade into a '90s teen movie, and it's fantastic. The lines may be different, but the spirit of the original play is there. And if you listen closely, you'll hear one "I burn, I pine, I perish."
5. Hamlet (1996)
Kenneth Branagh knows Shakespeare, which is why his version of Hamlet is my favorite. He shines as the titular role, and the star-studded cast even includes the talented Kate Winslet as Ophelia. It's visually stunning, unabridged, and just all around extremely well done.
4. She's The Man (2006)
Teen movies mix well with Shakespeare, apparently. Twelfth Night becomes She's the Man in this modern adaptation. Amanda Bynes is hilarious as the soccer-playing, feminist Viola — I like cheese, and I like this movie.
3. Shakespeare In Love (1998)
I'm cheating by putting this movie on here, because it's not ~really~ an adaptation — it's an imagining of Shakespeare's inspiration for Twelfth Night. But it also kind of retells Twelfth Night and Romeo and Juliet. It's equal parts funny and tragic and romantic, and I think Shakespeare would approve.
2. Romeo and Juliet (1968)
You had to watch this in high school, and you couldn't get over how much Romeo looked like Zac Efron. Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet will always be iconic.
1. Much Ado About Nothing (1993)
What can I say, I love Kenneth Branagh. In my mind, his beautiful adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing is the perfect Shakespeare film. It's funny and bittersweet. Emma Thompson and Branagh have the perfect banter. The whole thing is shot in Tuscany, and it's just so beautiful that it will make you want to sit on a hillside reading sonnets forever.
Images: Columbia Pictures (3), Relativity Media (1), Universal-International (1), Warner Bros. (1), Fox Searchlight Pictures (1), CBS (1), 20th Century Fox (1), Lionsgate (1), The Weinstein Company (1), Walt Disney Studios (1), United Artists (1), Buena Vista Pictures (1), DreamWorks Pictures (1), Miramax Films (2), Paramount Pictures (1), The Samuel Goldwyn Company (1)