25 of the best Shakespeare film adaptations

Published 9:30 pm Monday, April 18, 2022


25 of the best Shakespeare film adaptations

Shakespeare is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest English language writers of all time. His beautiful language, portrayals of human nature, and mastery of writing dirty jokes have all landed him an iconic place in the literary canon. It seems a natural consequence, then, that artists should want to translate Shakespeare’s works into other mediums, including artwork, novelizations, and a seemingly infinite number of screen adaptations.

But which of these adaptations is the most successful at bringing Shakespeare’s genius to a broader audience? How can movies compare to the Bard’s original texts themselves? In honor of the anniversary of Shakespeare’s death on April 23, 1616, Stacker sought to answer these questions by compiling the 25 best Shakespeare film adaptations. Films were pulled from Shakespeare’s writing credits on IMDb, filtered into only full-length movie adaptations (not filmed stage productions). Films had to have at least 1,000 votes and a 7.0 IMDb user rating to be considered. Data is updated as of April 2022.

From a contemporary adaptation that garnered Denzel Washington an Academy Award nomination to a ’60s picture that wasn’t available for at-home viewing for almost 50 years, read on to see which Shakespeare movie adaptations made the cut.

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Laurence Olivier in a scene from “Henry V"

Two Cities Films

Henry V (1944)

– Director: Laurence Olivier
– IMDb user rating: 7.0
– Metascore: data not available
– Runtime: 137 minutes

“Henry V” is often considered a great patriotic story for Britain as it chronicles the nation’s victory over France at the Battle of Agincourt during the Hundred Years’ War; Shakespeare’s portrayal of the British army’s ability to best a much larger French force presents both the glories and atrocities of war. Director Laurence Olivier, who also stars in the film, focused on the positives in his 1944 adaptation, designed to rouse patriotic spirit near the end of World War II, and was successful both commercially and critically.

Ronald Colman and Philip Loeb in a scene from "A Double Life"

Kanin Productions

A Double Life (1947)

– Director: George Cukor
– IMDb user rating: 7.0
– Metascore: data not available
– Runtime: 104 minutes

“A Double Life” is also a retelling of “Othello,” although this noir film puts a metatextual spin on the play. It tells the story of Anthony John (Ronald Colman), an actor infamous for getting too into character for his roles, who is cast opposite his ex-wife, Brita (Signe Hasso), in a stage production of “Othello.” Colman won an Academy Award for his role, and composer Miklós Rózsa won an Academy Award for the film’s original soundtrack.

Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons, Eileen Herlie, and Basil Sydney in a scene from "Hamlet"

Two Cities Films

Hamlet (1948)

– Director: Laurence Olivier
– IMDb user rating: 7.6
– Metascore: 82
– Runtime: 154 minutes

This 1948 version of “Hamlet” is the first sound film version of this play, which is directed and produced by Laurence Olivier, who also stars. Olivier’s screenplay followed the overall arc and setting of the original text, but cut a significant amount of dialogue as well as two minor characters, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (luckily, they get their own play later down the list). Olivier won the Academy Award for his acting, making him the only actor to ever do so in a Shakespearean role. “Hamlet” was also the first non-American film to win Best Picture.

Orson Welles and Jeanette Nolan in a scene from "Macbeth"

Mercury Productions

Macbeth (1948)

– Director: Orson Welles
– IMDb user rating: 7.4
– Metascore: data not available
– Runtime: 107 minutes

Orson Welles, best known for authoring “The War of the Worlds” and “Citizen Kane,” adapted the screenplay for, produced, directed, and starred in Republic Pictures’ 1948 adaptation of “Macbeth.” The film was shot on a small budget using leftover sets from the Westerns that Republic Pictures usually produced and failed to deliver in competition with Laurence Olivier’s “Hamlet,” released the same year. Its reception has grown with time, however, after it was restored and reissued, it is now considered “eccentric and haunting.”

Marlon Brando, Douglass Dumbrille, and Douglass Watson in a scene from "Julius Caesar"

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)

Julius Caesar (1953)

– Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
– IMDb user rating: 7.3
– Metascore: data not available
– Runtime: 120 minutes

In 1953, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer adapted Shakespeare’s classic tragedy of the Roman politician killed by his fellow senators before he can take too much power for the big, colorful screen. The film was highly regarded critically and marked a shift in reputation for Marlon Brando, who starred as Caesar.

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Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson in a scene from "Richard III"

London Film Productions

Richard III (1955)

– Director: Laurence Olivier
– IMDb user rating: 7.4
– Metascore: 88
– Runtime: 161 minutes

“Richard III” was another major Shakespeare film directed and produced by Laurence Olivier, who also stars as the titular king whose Machiavellian rise to power served as a warning to later leaders. Although this film was not critically acclaimed when it was released, it broke many box-office records in the U.S.; the British Film Institute stated the film “may have done more to popularise Shakespeare than any other single work.”

Anne Francis, Jack Kelly, and Robby the Robot in a scene from "Forbidden Planet"

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)

Forbidden Planet (1956)

– Director: Fred M. Wilcox
– IMDb user rating: 7.5
– Metascore: 80
– Runtime: 98 minutes

When it was released in the ’50s, “Forbidden Planet” pioneered many aspects of science fiction, such as a far-from-Earth setting and faster-than-lightspeed travel. However, the movie was actually heavily inspired by “The Tempest”: in it, a crew of space explorers led by Commander John Adams (Leslie Nielsen, this adaptation’s Ferdinand figure) finds an abandoned planet occupied only by Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon, this adaptation’s Prospero) and his daughter Altaria (Anne Francis, this adaptation’s Miranda).

Toshirô Mifune in a scene from "Throne of Blood"

Toho Company

Throne of Blood (1957)

– Director: Akira Kurosawa
– IMDb user rating: 8.1
– Metascore: data not available
– Runtime: 110 minutes

“Throne of Blood” transposes the drama of “Macbeth” from medieval Europe to feudal Japan. The 1957 Noh-inspired film follows a samurai warrior who, at the urging of his power-hungry wife, murders his lord and usurps his position, only to find that he must rule with an iron (and bloody) fist if he hopes to hold onto his new-found position. Critics loved the film, with Harold Bloom calling it “the most successful film version of ‘Macbeth’” and Time Magazine praising it as “the most brilliant and original attempt ever made to put Shakespeare in pictures.”

Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer in a scene from "West Side Story"

Mirisch Corporation

West Side Story (1961)

– Directors: Jerome Robbins, Robert Wise
– IMDb user rating: 7.6
– Metascore: 86
– Runtime: 153 minutes

“West Side Story,” like the film on the previous slide, retells “Romeo and Juliet,” but in this version, the connection to the source is far looser. This movie is a direct screen adaptation of the 1957 Broadway musical, which tells the story of teenage lovers Maria Nunez (Natalie Wood) and Tony Wyzek (Richard Beymer) separated by gang violence in New York City. “West Side Story” holds the record number of Academy Awards for a movie musical (10, including Best Picture), and has been marked “culturally significant” by the U.S. Library of Congress.

Richard Attenborough, Patrick McGoohan, Paul Harris, Keith Michell, María Velasco, and Allan Ganley in a scene from "All Night Long"

Rank Organisation

All Night Long (1962)

– Director: Basil Dearden
– IMDb user rating: 7.0
– Metascore: data not available
– Runtime: 91 minutes

“All Night Long” adapts Shakespeare’s “Othello,” the tragedy of a general consumed by fictitious jealousy over his young wife, into the London jazz scene of the 1960s. The film is performed with less tragedy than the play’s original text (i.e., nobody is stabbed or suffocated), and far more jazz, including performances by Dave Brubeck and Charles Mingus.

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Orson Welles and Keith Baxter in a scene from "Chimes at Midnight"

Internacional Films

Chimes at Midnight (1965)

– Director: Orson Welles
– IMDb user rating: 7.7
– Metascore: 94
– Runtime: 115 minutes

Somewhat of a mashup of Shakespearean plays, “Chimes at Midnight” combines elements from “Henry IV” (Parts 1 and 2), “Richard II,” “Henry V,” and “The Merry Wives of Windsor.” Director Orson Welles stars as Sir John Falstaff, a recurring Shakespeare character, who shares a close father-son-like relationship with Prince Hal, the future King Henry V. Originally panned by critics, it took years for the movie to get the recognition it deserved, and it wasn’t until 2015 that it was widely available on DVD for audiences in the U.S. and U.K.

Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in a scene from "The Taming of The Shrew"

Columbia Pictures Corporation

The Taming of The Shrew (1967)

– Director: Franco Zeffirelli
– IMDb user rating: 7.1
– Metascore: data not available
– Runtime: 122 minutes

When we said “The Taming of the Shrew” is one of Shakespeare’s most often-performed comedies, we weren’t joking. Director Franco Zeffirelli’s 1967 version is a more classical adaptation than the BBC’s 1980 film, shot in Italy and full of swagger and humor, but it still cuts out significant portions of the original play’s subplots.

Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey in a scene from the 1968 "Romeo and Juliet"

BHE Films

Romeo and Juliet (1968)

– Director: Franco Zeffirelli
– IMDb user rating: 7.6
– Metascore: 69
– Runtime: 138 minutes

Franco Zeffirelli’s adaptation of “Romeo and Juliet” is largely considered to be the most faithful and most engaging adaptation of Shakespeare’s great tragedy—if you watched any film version of the play in your high school English class, it probably was this one (it certainly was for this writer). This film was popular with teenagers because it was the first “Romeo and Juliet” to cast actors actually close in age to the characters in the play; Leonard Whiting (Romeo) was 17 and Olivia Hussey (Juliet) was 16 at the time, as compared to around 18 and 13 in the play, respectively.

Jon Finch in a scene from the 1971 "Macbeth"

Columbia Pictures

Macbeth (1971)

– Director: Roman Polanski
– IMDb user rating: 7.4
– Metascore: data not available
– Runtime: 140 minutes

Director Roman Polanski was inspired to adapt “Macbeth” for the big screen after his wife, actress Sharon Tate, was brutally murdered by the Manson family. The film did poorly at the box office as critics turned up their noses at the gratuitous violence, but its reception has improved over time, landing it a spot on this list.

Mieko Harada in a scene from "Ran"

Greenwich Film Productions

Ran (1985)

– Director: Akira Kurosawa
– IMDb user rating: 8.2
– Metascore: 96
– Runtime: 162 minutes

Director Akira Kurosawa’s third Shakespeare adaptation, “Ran” combines the plot of “King Lear” with the Japanese legend of Mōri Motonari. The epic drama is about a Sengoku-period warlord who abdicates his throne in favor of his three sons, who, in a demented show of appreciation, antagonize their father, eventually driving him to madness. Critics loved the film, generally agreeing that it was “a great, glorious achievement.”

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Kenneth Branagh in a scene from the 1989 "Henry V"

Renaissance Films

Henry V (1989)

– Director: Kenneth Branagh
– IMDb user rating: 7.5
– Metascore: 83
– Runtime: 137 minutes

Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 adaptation of “Henry V” (in which he both directed and starred) is widely considered to be an incredibly successful Shakespeare film; it has a rare 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and won Branagh several awards, including a British Academy Film Award for Best Direction. Unlike Laurence Olivier’s “Henry V,” which is staged on stylized sets, Branagh’s adaptation is gritty and realistic, bringing this classic patriotic story into the modern-day.

River Phoenix in a scene from "My Own Private Idaho"

New Line Cinema

My Own Private Idaho (1991)

– Director: Gus Van Sant
– IMDb user rating: 7.0
– Metascore: 77
– Runtime: 104 minutes

“My Own Private Idaho” is a modern reworking of “Henry IV, Part 1,” “Henry IV, Part 2,” and “Henry V,” focusing on the relationship between Prince Hal (later King Henry V) and his friend Falstaff. In this movie, Henry V is Scott (Keanu Reeves), a young hustler set to inherit his rich father’s fortune, and Falstaff is Mike (River Phoenix), an older friend and hustling mentor who harbors unrequited romantic feelings for Scott.

Ian McKellen in a scene from the 1995 "Richard III" film

Mayfair Entertainment International

Richard III (1995)

– Director: Richard Loncraine
– IMDb user rating: 7.3
– Metascore: data not available
– Runtime: 110 minutes

The 1995 adaptation of “Richard III” transports this history play to 1930s England, positioning Richard as a prince aiming to usurp his brother’s throne and rule as a fascist dictator. The movie features a star-studded cast including Sir Ian McKellen as Richard III, Dame Maggie Smith as the Duchess of York, Nigel Hawthorne as George, Duke of Clarence, and Robert Downey Jr. as Rivers. “Richard III” was widely acclaimed in the British film world; it was nominated for five BAFTAs and won two (best costumes and best production design).

Kate Winslet in a scene from "Hamlet"

Castle Rock Entertainment

Hamlet (1996)

– Director: Kenneth Branagh
– IMDb user rating: 7.8
– Metascore: data not available
– Runtime: 242 minutes

Directly preceding Laurence Olivier’s “Hamlet” on this list is Kenneth Branagh’s “Hamlet.” Similar to the Olivier film, Branagh both directed and starred in his adaptation, but unlike Olivier, he did not cut any of the text—the film runs for just over four hours. Branagh did, however, bring the setting into the 19th century in order to give the film greater current political context.

Mel Smith in a scene from "Twelfth Night"

Renaissance Films

Twelfth Night (1996)

– Director: Trevor Nunn
– IMDb user rating: 7.2
– Metascore: data not available
– Runtime: 134 minutes

Trevor Nunn’s 1996 adaptation of “Twelfth Night” doesn’t stray too far from the original comedy about mad romances complicated by gender confusion. Nunn set his film in the late 19th century, filmed on location in Cornwall, and cast several major stars, including Richard E. Grant as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Nigel Hawthorne as Malvolio, and Helena Bonham Carter as Olivia.

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Heath Ledger and Julia Stiles in a scene from "10 Things I Hate About You"

Touchstone Pictures

10 Things I Hate About You (1999)

– Director: Gil Junger
– IMDb user rating: 7.3
– Metascore: 70
– Runtime: 97 minutes

“10 Things I Hate About You” is well-known as a high school romance classic, but its plot is actually a modern, teen-friendly adaptation of “The Taming of the Shrew.” Kat (Julia Stiles) is Shakespeare’s angry Katherine; Bianca (Larisa Oleynik) is her sweet younger sister; delinquent Patrick (Heath Ledger) is Petruchio, the “bad boy” roped into pretending to date Katherine so that new student Cameron (Lucentio, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) can go after Bianca. Kat’s speech at the end of this movie is far more romantic than Katherine’s in the original play.

Anthony Hopkins, Alan Cumming, and Jessica Lange in a scene from "Titus"

Clear Blue Sky Productions

Titus (1999)

– Director: Julie Taymor
– IMDb user rating: 7.1
– Metascore: 57
– Runtime: 162 minutes

The first film adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy “Titus Andronicus,” “Titus” is incredibly faithful to its source material despite using experimental storytelling techniques. The movie, which is largely set in the same time period as the play, follows the drama and retaliations that take place between Titus, a general in the Roman army, and Tamora, his captive and the Queen of the Goths. Although it received mixed reviews from critics, audiences largely loved the film, which stars big names like Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange.

Al Pacino and Allan Corduner in a scene from "The Merchant of Venice"


The Merchant of Venice (2004)

– Director: Michael Radford
– IMDb user rating: 7.0
– Metascore: 63
– Runtime: 131 minutes

This adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s more morbid comedies is the first full-length film version of the play that is not a filming of a stage production. While the setting of this film is true to the play, director Michael Radford narrowed the play’s angle to present Shylock (Al Pacino) as a tragic hero victimized by Venice’s rampant antisemitism.

Amy Acker and Joss Whedon in a scene from "Much Ado About Nothing"

Belwether Pictures

Much Ado About Nothing (2012)

– Director: Joss Whedon
– IMDb user rating: 7.1
– Metascore: 78
– Runtime: 109 minutes

Joss Whedon, better known for his work in superhero movies, directed the 2012 film version of “Much Ado About Nothing”—a comedy best understood when one learns that “nothing,” in Shakespeare’s day, was a slang term for female genitalia. Whedon left the plot and dialogue of the original play primarily unchanged, but set the story in the modern-day and shot the film at his and his wife’s house in Santa Monica, California. Filming took place under two weeks while Whedon was on vacation following the production of “The Avengers.”

Denzel Washington as Macbeth in a scene from "The Tragedy of Macbeth"


The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021)

– Director: Joel Coen
– IMDb user rating: 7.1
– Metascore: 87
– Runtime: 105 minutes

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