Top image: Still, My Own Private Ohio, (1991) © Fine Line Features
Today marks the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare. Arguably the most influential and renowned playwright to ever put quill to paper, the Bard wrote over 35 plays and 154 sonnets, inventing a plethora of genres, words and phrases along the way.
Four centuries later, Stratford-upon-Avon’s most-loved son is still impacting culture today. Need proof? Just take a look at some of the most successful films from the past century and you’ll find Will’s influence across the board. The majority of our most acclaimed actors, directors and writers have been involved in adapting Shakespeare classics to the big screen at some point in their careers – it’s a rite of passage.
Here, we lock down five iconic Shakespeare big screen adaptations, from a leather-jacket clad Keanu Reeves to Heath Ledger belting out, Can’t Take My Eyes Off You; grab the popcorn and hit play.
My Own Private Idaho (1991) dir. Gus Van Sant
We’re pretty sure that when Shakespeare was penning Henry IV and Henry V (the play that gave us the epic insult, “Thine face is not worth sunburning”) he wasn’t thinking that – over 350 years down the line – the drama would be translated into River Pheonix getting a blowjob in a hotel room (although, Shakespeare’s sexuality is often questioned, so maybe a similar image wasn’t too far from the front of his mind).
However, that is how Gus Vant Sant’s loose adaptation, the 1991 film My Own Private Idaho, begins. Delving deeper, the narrative traces the story of two young street hustlers: Mike Waters (Phoenix), a sensitive narcoleptic who dreams of the mother who abandoned him, and Scott Favor (Keanu Reeves), the wayward son of the mayor of Portland and the object of Mike’s desire. Together, these two journey along the grungy streets and open highways of the Pacific Northwest in search of a place they can call home, both physically and metaphorically.
A tale of friendship, open roads, unrequited love and uncertain futures, My Own Private Idaho confirmed Van Sant as a major talent with an authentic, confident voice.
Romeo + Juliet (1996) dir. baz luhrmann
“Two households both alike in dignity in fair Verona/Where we lay our scene/From ancient grudge break to new mutiny/Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean/From forth the fatal loins of these two foes/A pair of star crossed lovers take their life”
Shakespeare penned these enduring lines back in 16th Century England, setting the scene for his ultimate tragic lovebirds, Romeo and Juliet. Fast forward four decades to 1996, when Baz Luhrmann flipped the play on its head, transporting the Montagues and Capulets to sun-kissed Mexico, complete with skinheads, Hawaiian shirts, drag queens, designer pistols and a young, floppy haired Leonardo DiCaprio – igniting teenage crushes worldwide.
An amalgamation of pop cultural references, Luhrmann’s update riffs on Shakespeare’s seminal love story with sensory vibrancy and a dark kinetic sexiness that underpins the witty script – as well as defining The Cardigans’ Lovefool as the soundtrack of 90s wooing.
Hamlet (2000) dir. Michael Almereyda
Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet shifts Shakespeare’s regal setting to today’s corporate world, where Claudius (Kyle MacLachlan) has risen to the top of the Denmark Corporation. But it isn’t long before he gets the chop. Literally.
Cue Hamlet, Claudius’ son. Played by Ethan Hawke, Almereyda’s protagonist is your standard mopey Manhattan experimental filmmaker in love with an East Village Ophelia (Julia Stiles). So now.
Against striking visuals and intelligent writing, this adaptation perfectly treads the line between emulating and adapting a classic, retaining all the thriller twists and turns of the original. Plus, there’s a Bill Murray cameo in there too – always the sign of a good film.
Macbeth (2015) dir. Justin Kurzel
Last year saw Michael Fassbender’s highly-anticipated turn as Shakespeare’s future king of Scotland in Director Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth film adaptation, and he did so with rugged aplomb.
Kurzel’s interpretation taps into those aspects of human psychology which are difficult to accept, themes Shakespeare himself was so fascinated by, delving into the inner psyche and exploring our darkest impulses.
Marion Cotillard’s Lady Macbeth is no longer the driving force behind the bloody deeds, more a crushed partner in crime. Grief-stricken by the death of her child her mental state unravels into a vulnerable state of despair whilst she watches her husband unfold into anguished sadism.
The story of Macbeth has been told numerous times before, yet this adaptation manages to add a fresh spin to the tale, and it’s quite the epic. You can almost taste that smokey Highland mist.
10 things I hate about you (1999) dir. Gil Junger
There’s a flimsy line between cheesy teen romp and coming-of-age classic, and far too many films end up falling into the former category (looking at you, Not Another Teen Movie and She’s All That). 10 things I hate about you manages to place itself in the latter category with tongue-in-cheek execution.
The Breakfast Club equivalent for the 90s-born generation, director Gil Junger pulls together a cast that now, seventeen years later (yes, that makes us feel old too), is chock-a-block with Oscar winners and some of the most sought after names in the business: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Julia Stiles and the late Heath Ledger.
Don’t claim you don’t like the film just to be ‘cool’, we know you don’t. “Not even close, not even a little bit, not even at all.”