Shakespeare on Screen: how film brings The Bard into the here and now

18 Apr 2016 BY James Clarke

5 mins
The Tempest (2010)
The Tempest (2010)

In 2013 I had the welcome opportunity to direct and produce a short film for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust's Education department. I worked with a group of young people in Birmingham to revisit The Tempest, a play chosen by the youngsters themselves from a shortlist, with its mash-up of high fantasy and reality proving very appealing. This fulfilling project reminded me of just how Shakespeare's plays can morph, seemingly infinitely. His works are like a Transformer robot: contemporary relevance in the disguise of an Elizabethan play.

Since the silent film era, Shakespeare's take on power and powerlessness, romance and revenge, family and enemy, and tragedy and hope have all been vividly rendered by movies. Let's look at a few of them.

One of the earliest and highest profile Shakespeare adaptations is the 1935 Hollywood adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream. The film makes full use of Hollywood studio resources to build a fantasy world, conjuring menace and whimsy. In 1999 another American live action film adaptation of the play was released, and as recently as last year the play made its presence known in the animated fantasy film Strange Magic

Staying in the realms of the fantastic, one of the most iconic Shakespeare film adaptations is the science fiction movie Forbidden Planet (1956), which is adapted from The Tempest, and sees Ariel take the form of Robby the Robot and Prospero becoming Dr. Morbius. The film was very popular but, when originally released, MGM made no mention of the Shakespeare link, thinking his name was too old-world for such a new world adventure. By contrast, Julie Taymor's intense adaptation of The Tempest (2011), presents us with a Prospera (portrayed by Helen Mirren) rather than a Prospero, and conveys well how the play is partly about colonialism.

Shakespeare's war stories, with their drama and conflict, work perfectly in the medium of film. Henry V has been adapted in two dazzling examples. Laurence Olivier's Henry V (1944) is touched with British World War 2 sensibilities and jingoism; in contrast Kenneth Branagh's Henry V (1989) offers a more subdued presentation of the source material. Compare and contrast each film's presentation of Henry's St Crispin's Day speech to get the measure of this difference. Then, too, consider the long tracking shot across the fallen in Branagh's adaptation. 

Shakespeare's tragedies have also endured as rich material for film adaptations, and the mid 1990s saw two which were widely celebrated: Richard III, starring Sir Ian McKellen, which set the story in an imagined British fascist state, and Baz Luhrmann's visually arresting Romeo + Juliet, set in a modern American environment. Luhrmann's film trades on images and awareness of gang culture, synthesizing varied visual and musical styles, and the sequence in which Romeo and Juliet fall in love reminds us just how much costume design can be used to vividly express character.

Shakespeare's most famous play is arguably Hamlet - however, because of its length, it has been less frequently adapted for cinema than his other plays. Laurence Olivier's version of 1948 is considered a benchmark; two other notable versions are the Franco Zeffirelli film starring Mel Gibson (1990) and the Kenneth Branagh version from 1996. Where the Zeffirelli adaptation cut much from source material, Branagh's uses an uncut text. And lets not forget that the title of Hitchcock's North by Northwest (1959) was taken from a line in Hamlet.

Cinema can excel as storytelling without recourse to dialogue; it's interesting to see how movies meet Shakespeare and push the visual possibility. This emphasis is highlighted in two Japanese adaptations: Macbeth as Throne of Blood (apparently T. S. Eliot's favourite film) and King Lear as Ran. Both of these films apply tragedy to the samurai tradition.

Shakespeare scholar Jonathan Bate has explained how part of the playwright's enduring appeal is rooted in the fact that Shakespeare lived and worked on the cusp of the medieval and modern worlds, at the moment when globalisation was beginning. Our current cultural moment is certainly global. One of the incredible qualities of cinema is its universality. As such, film as a medium is perfect for bringing Shakespeare into the here and now, reminding us of the shadow and of the light that comprises the human condition.

Explore more exciting Shakespeare titles with our Into Film Recommends podcast below, or login to SoundCloud to download the podcast and listen on the go.

The Into Film Recommends Podcast Series is also available on iTunes.

James Clarke

James Clarke, Freelance writer

James Clarke is a freelance writer who has taught Film Studies at universities, written and produced a series of films for the British Council, and directed a series of short films adapting Shakespeare’s plays for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

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