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All The World's A Sound Stage: The legacy and lasting influence of Shakespeare on film

  • Henry V

Olivier's Henry V


Adrian Wootton, Chief Executive of Film London and the British Film Commission, examines the legacy and influence of Shakespeare on film.

We are commemorating 400 years since the passing of Shakespeare, and for the last 120 of them there has been film, the global medium that arguably has transmitted more of his work into different cultures, contexts, languages and genres than any other art form.

It is film and creative filmmakers that have consistently renewed the populist links between Shakespeare and audiences, making contemporary connections and ensuring that Shakespeare, his stories, characters and themes remain living breathing touchstones in our culture, life and societies.

Consequentially, there is an impressive legacy but also a live tradition that inspires and enthuses filmmakers and performers to make new versions of Shakespeare. Of the plays filmmakers and their audiences have consciously or not developed favourites, Romeo & Juliet has probably been adapted most for the screen followed by Hamlet but fascinatingly The Taming of the Shrew has had some of the most internationally diverse productions (from US, Italy, Hungary, India and Korea), perhaps because of its anachronistic and thus very provocative sexual politics. But whether a film's antecedents to a play are very clear or opaque, gloriously the majority of Shakespeare related films are in some kind of aesthetic dialogue, engaging, re-imagining and sometimes re-versioning the Bard.

Shakespeare on film is not quite but almost at the beginning of cinema itself and the earliest versions of Shakespeare translated into celluloid start in 1899 (King John, featuring Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree) and increase in frequency in the years up to World War 1, as film making countries used his familiar stories and characters to woo "respectable" audiences into the --hitherto dubiously regarded -- medium of moving pictures. Also, as language wasn't a barrier in the silent era, not only Britain and the US but France, Germany, Italy and Russia all made often handsome and successful Shakespeare films (many of which feature in the excellent BFI Silent Shakespeare compilation).

After the coming of sound, it was a while before filmmakers returned to Shakespeare and when they did, it was part of the trend for expensive costume drama adaptation that became popular in the 1930's, exemplified best by Max Reinhardt's lavish Midsummer Night's Dream (1935), stuffed full of stars from the Hollywood firmament.

Yet it really took World War 2, a healthy dose of patriotic fervour and the genius of one of Britain's greatest actors, Laurence Olivier, to really create, in Henry V (1944), a Shakespeare movie that would harness the medium to the subject matter, in a way never before achieved. A breathtakingly imaginative, glorious Technicolor pageantry, Henry V would act as the greatest piece of battle cry British Culture propaganda that had ever been made. From this lofty platform Olivier would go on to direct and star in the masterworks, Hamlet (1946) and Richard III (1955).

For much of this time, enfant terrible genius, Orson ‘Citizen Kane’ Welles, was vying cinematically with  Olivier for the title of Shakespeare film maestro, producing his own series of highly creative but poverty row rendered Shakespeare adaptations, starting with Macbeth (1948) and culminating in the nonetheless exquisite Chimes at Midnight (1965).

Meanwhile, in Tinseltown, USA, Shakespeare was being regularly used in acts of cinematic gene splicing, as the essential DNA of a whole host of films in popular genres. Examples abound, some more obvious than others from Westerns like Broken Lance (1954) and McLintock (1963), through musicals, such the sparky 3D Kiss Me Kate (Taming of The Shrew, 1953), to the edgy grandeur of West Side Story (Romeo and Juliet re-imagined in contemporary New York,1961) and even science fiction with Forbidden Planet (1956, a gleeful lavish colour future-world version of The Tempest) and Star Trek, the TV series and spin off movie Star Trek The Undiscovered Country (1991).

Nevertheless, perhaps the most radical re-imagining of Shakespeare, as important in its own way as anything by Olivier or Welles, was happening in Japan. The decision by Japanese epic filmmaker Akira Kurosawa to blend his samurai story sensibilities with Noh theatre aesthetics and apply them to Shakespeare transformed Macbeth into the enthralling historical action movie Throne of Blood (1957). Here, Kurosawa proved that without the English language or any of its cultural referents, Shakespeare could be transplanted and the core deep structure and its pulsing dramatic heart would not just survive but flourish. This was further reinforced with a late, wondrous entry in the Kurosawa canon, his tremendous version of King Lear, Ran (1985)

Following on from Kurosawa, filmmakers such as Claude Chabrol with Ophelia (1963), his French New Wave spin on Hamlet, Russian film director Grigiori Kozintsev, with his Soviet resourced versions of Hamlet (1964) and King Lear (1971) and Italian maestro Franco Zefferelli, producing such films as his delicate, uber romantic, British made Romeo and Juliet (1968) continued to bring fresh aesthetic perspectives to Celluloid Shakespeare. This is not forgetting the monumental film translation of Peter Brook's groundbreaking stage version of King Lear in 1970 or Roman Polanski's gripping, brutal and also British made The Tragedy of Macbeth (1971).

The advent of wholescale TV adaptations and TV recordings of famous theatrical productions in the 1970s onwards, provide more workman like fare, accessing potentially large domestic audiences but rarely achieving genuine, artistic impact. This small screen glut adversely affected the production of film versions of Shakespeare in the UK  (aside from rare exceptions like the sparky, punk rock aesthetic of Derek Jarman's The Tempest in 1979).

Internationally, there were occasional bright spots like the wacky wonder of Finnish hipster, Aki Kaurismaki, with his sly, funny, idiosyncratic Hamlet Goes Business (1987), the bizarre thought-provoking version of King Lear (1987) by French maestro Jean Luc Godard or the exciting eclectic use of Shakespeare in US director Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho (1991) that draws on Henry IV.

In Britain, it took another young, stage tyro in the personage of actor/director Kenneth Branagh to reinvigorate Shakespeare on the big screen. With his series of glamorous, starry and popular films, commencing with the energetic Henry V (1989) and continuing through five other Shakespeare related titles up until 2006, Branagh carried the torch for British Shakespearean filmmaking. Also during this period, there was Peter Greenaway's arch, arty, erudite Prospero's Books (1991) (featuring a marvellous late performance from John Gielgud) and the strident, spiky Richard Loncraine's Richard III, memorably starring Ian McKellen (1995).

Perhaps the most influential mainstream, non-UK made film from Shakespeare, as we reached the tail end of the nineties, was Baz Luhrmann's star powered, gritty, good looking, contemporary US gangland set version of Romeo & Juliet (1996), still authentically using the play's original language. This film achieved great critical and commercial success and has subsequently set a benchmark or perhaps a challenge for every filmmaker since to try and capture Shakespeare, whilst achieving modern relevance and audience interest.

This challenge has very recently been taken up by enterprising producers in India, who have been mining Shakespeare left, right and centre for fascinating new film versions. Notably, producer/director, Vishai Bhardwaj, has made a trio of Shakespeare-based Bollywood musical crime movies, Maqbool (Macbeth, 2003); Omkara (Othello, 2006) and Haider (Hamlet, 2014). Once again, Shakespeare stories are inserted into radically different cultural contexts of where, despite just about everything being different (language, location, music and genre), the themes and characters (even re-named) remain clearly recognisable.

Most recently, there have been more impressive British television realisations of Shakespeare, with the ongoing, mammoth Hollow Crown history play series (2012-2016) and stirring, savage new film interpretations, such as Ralph Fiennes’ adaptation of Coriolanus (2011) and the bold and bloodthirsty Macbeth (2015).

So, summarising, this century-plus of filmmaking Shakespeare is like dark matter, the work is always there, providing a glorious heritage, an illustrious history but also a rich vibrant source, inspiring and challenging filmmakers and performers to make new films, to render vital, inclusive, contemporary art that can in turn enthuse and inspire new generations of diverse viewers around the world.

NB This piece is indebted to ‘Walking Shadows: Shakespeare’, edited by Luke Mckernan and Olwen Terris (BFI, 1994) and ‘Shakespeare and the Film’ by Roger Manvell (Barnes, 1971).

Wootton has written and co-produced David Thompson's Arena: All The World's A Screen, which will air on BBC Four and is being previewed tonight (April 14) at BFI Southbank. Tickets and more information here.

British Council Film is working with the British Film Institute, Film London and other partners to deliver a touring package of outstanding British film adaptations of Shakespeare's work. It marks British Council’s largest-ever touring film programme, with screenings and events in 100+ countries. For more information about the programme, click here.