A commenter on my last post asks:
For TAC readers (like me) who might like to undertake a Shakespeare-on-dvd project could you please recommend 6 or 8 film adaptations that might make a sound beginning?
Well, sir: it depends what you are looking for.
Are you looking to encounter faithful productions of the plays? Then I’d recommend looking for strong productions that have been filmed. The BBC Shakespeare Collection has the virtue of completeness. The Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario, Canada has recorded a number of their productions on film, with more expected every year. The RSC are filming their productions as well – I’m probably not as up to date as I ought to be on all the fabulous options that are out there if your goal is to encounter the plays in performance and don’t happen to live near a Shakespeare festival.
Or, are you looking to see filmic versions of Shakespeare’s plays? In which case, what you encounter may be more or less faithful to Shakespeare’s language, and is unlikely even to seek to be faithful to either Elizabethan or contemporary theatrical convention, because it’s a different medium. Here, again, there are a huge number of interesting choices.
Are you interested in getting a sense of filmic history? In that case, you should definitely see Olivier’s “Henry V,” which is partly about the transition from stage to screen – and the Max Reinhardt version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” because of its astonishing Golden Age of Hollywood cast – and move on from there through Joseph Mankiewicz’s “Julius Caesar,” Orson Welles’s “Othello,” Zeffirelli’s “Romeo and Juliet,” Julie Taymor’s “Titus,” etc.
Or would you be curious to compare different approaches to the same material? Then pick a play that many directors have tackled – say, compare versions of Hamlet by Olivier, Kozintsev, Zeffirelli, Branagh, Almereyda and, of course, Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas.
There are adaptations that stray far from the original Shakespeare, like Peter Greenaway’s film, “Prospero’s Books” or Al Pacino’s “Looking for Richard.” And there’s a whole world of adaptations that don’t use Shakespeare’s language at all, from “West Side Story” to “Ran” to “Ten Things I Hate About You.”
If you’re looking for a handful of personal favorites, though, here are some of mine:
- “Throne of Blood” – I would say the most compelling version of Macbeth I’ve ever seen; absolutely chilling. The Polanski version is also very worth checking out. And there’s a new “Macbeth” on the way to our shores that I’m very curious about. But Kurosawa’s version is really in a class by itself.
- “The Chimes at Midnight” – just an astonishing film and performance, and a good demonstration that sometimes the best move in adapting Shakespeare is to be absolutely ruthless at making him your own. I prefer it to Welles’s other Shakespeare adaptations, all of which are worth looking into.
- “My Own Private Idaho” – an exceptionally creative film in its use of Shakespeare’s language to elevate a contemporary story; the film was also important to me as I approached my own effort at adapting Shakespeare for the screen.
- “Richard III” – Richard Loncraine’s film is another one that was very important to me in thinking about my own work, and is also huge fun and full of brilliant performances. And it’s also a perfect antidote to “The King’s Speech.”
- “Slings and Arrows” – the Canadian television series is just not to be missed if you have any interest at all in Shakespeare.
And, of course, there are a great many well-regarded films of Shakespeare that I haven’t yet seen.