Bard Movies We Love

Reviews by Eleanor M. Farrell

The theme for the upcoming 2002 Mythopoeic Conference -- A Midsummer Night's Dream: Shakespeare and Fantasy -- provides an excellent excuse to explore some of the hundreds of film adaptations of Shakespeare's plays. These range from early silent films boasting "state-of-the-art" special effects to a deluge of offerings from the last decade demonstrating a limitless variety of approaches, settings, textual reconfigurations, and -- yes -- "state-of-the-art" special effects.

A Midsummer Night's Dream, the Mythcon 33 focus play, has been filmed dozens of times, beginning in 1909 with silent versions produced in America, Germany, Italy and France. The BBC made four versions between 1946 and 1981, and other stage productions, such as Adrian Noble's 1996 release of a Royal Shakespeare Company stage production, have been adapted for film. The most widely known versions of the popular Shakespeare fantasy, however, are three feature versions, released about 30 years apart and directed by Max Reinhardt (1935), Peter Hall (1969) and Michael Hoffman (1999). Reinhardt's visual extravaganza, a bid by Warner Brothers to expand the studio's repertoire beyond gangster films, incorporated ballet sequences, spectacular production and costume design, and a cast of popular Hollywood stars from Olivia de Havilland and Dick Powell as lovers Hermia and Lysander to James Cagney's uncharacteristic Bottom, while 13-year-old Mickey Rooney's Puck provided family appeal.

The Royal Shakespeare Company's 1969 film effort took an almost opposite approach, clothing its Athenian lovers in miniskirts and Carnaby Street suits and the Faery royalty in green make-up (and very little else). The film is enhanced by the acting skills of a remarkable cast of now-familiar faces: Diana Rigg, Helen Mirren, Ian Richardson, Judi Dench, David Warner, Ian Holm. Another thirty years, another attempt by Hollywood: a film quite lovely to look at, but once again short of the mark. Director Hoffman's 1890s setting may evoke numerous Merchant-Ivory productions but the mismatched cast and confusion with 1990s sensibilities and personalities is frustrating. Stanley Tucci's turn as Puck is the film's greatest asset, while Kevin Kline overacts his (incomprehensibly expanded) role as Bottom. Michelle Pfeiffer and Rupert Everett are physically perfect as Titania and Oberon but even a scantily-clad Everett can't quite compensate for the mud-wrestling scene between Hermia (Anna Friel) and Helena (Calista Flockart, annoying as ever).

Perhaps the magic of A Midsummer Night's Dream requires a live performance. I've seen several -- including a delightful modern adaptation by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival in the late 1980's -- and look forward to their new production which will be our Saturday evening entertainment centerpiece.

Macbeth is another of the current CSF season's productions, and also one of the more successful plays-to-film. The 1948 Orson Welles production, a low-budget effort shot in 23 days, uses abstract sets, theatrical staging and Welles's incredible voice to create a very original and experimental version (hacked by Republic Studio before its initial release; fortunately a restored version is available on video). Roman Polanski's notoriously bloody 1971 film is also very effective and well-acted by a young British cast. Best of all, however, is Akira Kurosawa's 1957 epic, Throne of Blood, which transfers Shakespeare's story to 15th century Japan, with Toshiro Mifune playing the haunted Macbeth figure, Washizu. Incorporating Noh theatre, a woodwind/percussion score, ominous weather and sparse dialogue, Throne of Blood is evocative and riveting.

Any adequate discussion of Shakespeare plays on film -- not to mention Shakespare-inspired adaptations and extrapolations -- would require an entire book (and there are many good ones available; a brief bibliography is provided below). Here are some capsule reviews of more films (in chronological order of release) worth a rental:

Forbidden Planet (D: Fred McLeod Wilcox, 1956): The Tempest in Space -- a surprisingly well-written science fiction take on Shakespearean themes, with a young Leslie Nielsen and Anne Francis taking the parts of Ferdinand and Miranda. Robby the Robot plays Ariel less woodenly than some more corporeal actors.

West Side Story (D: Robert Wise/Jerome Robbins, 1961): the apex of the American movie musical transfers Romeo and Juliet to New York City, where the Jets and the Sharks fight turf wars with knives and fancy footwork.

Chimes at Midnight (D: Orson Welles, 1966): Orson Welles's Shakespearean masterpiece, weaving excerpts from Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 and Henry V to create a vivid portrait of ShakespeareÕs most popular character, Falstaff.

Ran (D: Akira Kurosawa, 1985): Auteur Kurosawa's revision of a Japanese legend into an adaptation of King Lear -- shot in color as opposed to the moody black and white of Throne of Blood -- is stunning in both its visual beauty and dramatic savagery.

Prospero's Books (D: Peter Greenaway, 1991): not for everybody, but a tour de force from John Gielgud (who provides all of the characters' voices as well as playing Prospero) and Greenaway's creation of and focus on the 24 books furnished from the exiled wizardÕs library is a visual paeon to the written word.

Richard III (D: Richard Loncraine, 1996): Sir Ian McKellen is in top form in this entertaining version, with a 1930s setting that equates Richard's reign with Hitler/Mussolini fascist dictatorships. Production designs are superb, and the supporting cast almost manages to keep up with McKellen's fiendishly complex villain.

William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet (D: Baz Luhrmann, 1996): many people love Franco Zefferelli's romantic 1968 film, but I prefer the outrageousness of Luhrmann's Miami Vice setting, lurid visuals and frenetic music. Both films win points for age-appropriate casting of the tragic lovers (as opposed to the stilted 1936 Hollywood production); Danes and DiCaprio are the better actors.

Shakespeare in Love
(D: John Madden, 1998): The Oscar-winning look at a young Will Shakespeare whose forbidden liaison turns writer's block into Romeo and Juliet. Everybody is good in this film, and Tom Stoppard's witty screenplay tweaks help create a fitting celebration of the Bard's work.


Lynda E. Boose and Richard Burt, eds., Shakespeare: The Movie. London and New York: Routledge, 1997.ISBN 0-415-16585-7.

Stephen M. Buhler, Shakespeare in the Cinema: Ocular Proof. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2002. ISBN 0-7914-5140-2.

Peter Nicholls, The World of Fantastic Films: An Illustrated Survey. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1984.ISBN 0-396-08381-X.

Donald Richie, The Films of Akira Kurosawa. Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1984.ISBN 0-520-05191-2.

Daniel Rosenthal, Shakespeare on Screen. London: Hamlyn, 2000.ISBN 0-600-60115-3.

William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 1999. ISBN 0-06-107356-3.

This article originally appeared in the May 2002 issue of Mythprint.

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