Monday, June 3, 2013

My Answer to the Most Recent Criticwire Survey: Best Shakespeare Adaptation

I actually did a top 10 list of Shakespeare adaptations a few years ago ( – and I do not think my answer has changed since then despite having seen two that would easily make the top 10 since then – Orson Welles’ 1965 masterpiece Chimes at Midnight, which took parts from several Shakespeare plays to make Falstaff the main character, which is brilliant and original, and Ralph Fiennes excellent Coriolanus, a brilliant adaptation of a lesser known play (much of the rest of this post will just be a summary of that earlier one now). For non-traditional adaptations, I think you have some brilliant ones by Kurosawa – particularly Ran (1985) – his King Lear, and Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho (1991) – his Henry IV. Al Pacino’s wonderfully strange Looking for Richard (1996) is also a must see. Traditional adaptations that I love include Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Julius Caesar (1953), Orson Welles’ Othello (1952) and MacBeth (1948), and Roman Polanski’s Macbeth (1971) is even better. Laurence Oliver’s Henry V (1945) – but not his Oscar winning Hamlet (1948), not to mention Branagh’s Henry V (1989). And then there are the ones in the middle – using Shakespeare’s language, but placing the action somewhere else – like Richard Loncraine’s Richard III (1995) or Julie Taymor Titus (1999).

But for me, my favorite Shakespeare adaptation has to be Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet (1996). Yes, Kurosawa’s Ran is a better film, but it’s not a better Shakespeare adaptation (and that makes sense to me, so hopefully it does to you as well). Branagh’s epic film is one of the only “complete” adaptations of a Shakespeare play – all four hours of the play make their way to the screen. The film is impeccably cast – even Branagh in the lead, even though he’s too old, is brilliant. The supporting cast – especially Kate Winslet (THE definitive cinematic Ophelia), Julie Christie, Derek Jacobi and Richard Briers- make up for a few ill-advised cameos (Billy Crystal? Robin Williams?). The film is also brilliantly directly by Branagh – as far from a filmed play as one can imagine, and is actually quite daring in parts.
And these are just the tip of the iceberg – there are lots more that I haven’t even had the space to mention.

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