What you need to know about modern Shakespeare film adaptations (like Romeo and Juliet 2013)

“The Reconciliation of the Montagues and the Capulets over the Dead Bodies of Romeo and Juliet,” by Frederick Leighton, 1855 – if only film critics could get along so well!

“The Reconciliation of the Montagues and the Capulets over the Dead Bodies of Romeo and Juliet,” by Frederick Leighton, 1855 – if only film critics could get along so well!

All the world’s a stage, so it’s no surprise that the same scripts keep getting used over and over again, especially when they’re as classic as Shakespeare. Making a Shakespeare film adaptation is one of those challenges that many film directors and actors have as a career goal, and given the continued appearance of those films in the mass media, audiences are eager to see how the films are brought to a modern audience. Whether it’s Joss Whedon’s Much ado about Nothing, which was just released on Blu-ray, or the 2013 Romeo and Juliet incarnation scripted by Julian Fellowes of Downton Abbey, here’s what you need to know about the recent Shakespeare films – whether it’s to keep up with dorm room discussion or as a lead in to a good research topic for your next Shakespeare paper!

Romeo and Juliet 2013

Critics have not been wowed over by director Carlo Carlei’s new incarnation of Shakespeare’s most popular love story. Even Salon critic Andrew O’Hehir, who professed to like the film, called the new version “totally unnecessary” in his October 14, 2013 review “’Romeo and Juliet’: The bard for Twihards.” What does the film get right?

  • Juliet is played as a teenage girl. O’Hehir noted that there’s been a tendency to play the teen lover as too adult for the script, including a colonial American performance in which the actress playing Juliet was actually the mother of the actor playing Romeo. (Other critics disagreed with the casting choice of Hailee Steinfeld as Juliet, despite her age appropriate portrayal.)
  • It was filmed in Verona, Shakespeare’s scripted setting.
  • There are some secondary characters who had strong performances, including Paul Giamatti’s Friar Laurence and Damian Lewis’s Lord Capulet.

So where did it go wrong? The script fusses with the original play a bit more than critics might approve of, making the film seem like a Cliff’s Notes version of the original that adds whole new scenes. Fellowes also played fast and loose with the original Shakespearean language, and critics aren’t letting him get away with it. The result feels more like a kid-friendly adaptation aimed toward tweens than a film aiming for an Oscar. More than one critic referred to it as Shakespeare for fans of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight saga.

Much ado about Joss Whedon?

When blockbuster film Avengers required its actors to go on a break (due to contract restrictions), director Joss Whedon had the idea to film his own adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing. In his house in L.A. In 12 days. On a micro-budget. With several of Whedon’s go-to actors from his various television shows and from the set of The Avengers. This garnered a lot of talk when Whedon announced it, and it made the circuit of film festivals before having a limited release in the United States. But putting aside all the fun of how it was made, is it any good? On Rotten Tomatoes, the Tomatometer reads 84% fresh, so the critics are giving it two thumbs up.

The actors had quite a variety of experiences, especially performing the works of the Bard, which could have meant the show didn’t pull together. But according to Salon critic Dana Stevens in her June 6, 2013 review, “Much ado about nothing,” “This combination of let’s-put-on-a-show camaraderie and differing levels of classical training could easily have made this feel like a smug vanity project: not every dinner-party experiment among friends is something that needs to be filmed and distributed. But if you were approaching the Whedonization of Shakespeare with trepidation, go ahead and convert all your songs of woe into hey-nonny-nonny, because this Much Ado about Nothing—while perhaps not an adaptation for the ages in every respect—is as bracingly effervescent as picnic champagne.”

Top adaptations

Everyone has opinions on the best Shakespeare adaptations – baby boomers may be fond of the 1968 Romeo and Juliet while the MTV generation might be fond of the Leonardo DiCaprio version – so it’s hard to pin down the best. David Cote, David Fear, Adam Feldman, Joshua Rothkopf and Keith Uhlich of Time Out New York gave it their best shot, listing “The 25 best Shakespeare-to-screen adaptations” back in October 20, 2011. Would they have ranked Whedon’s Much Ado among them? Here are their top five:

  • Throne of Blood, a samurai-epic version of Macbeth filmed by Akira Kurosawa in 1957
  • Orson Welles’s 1952 version of Othello, starring Irish actor Michel MacLiammir as Iago
  • Another Akira Kurosawa adaptation, Ran, which merges King Lear with the story of a 16th century warlord
  • Roman Polanski’s unsettling 1971 version of Macbeth, starring Jon Finch and Francesca Annis
  • Another Orson Welles’s adaptation, Chimes at Midnight, a condensed version of both parts of Henry IV.

What is your favorite film adaptation of a Shakespeare play? Tell us in the comments. And if you’re looking for more information about Shakespeare, check out the library at Questia!

2 replies
  1. K Stoddard Hayes says:

    Right now, I have to give the prize to The Hollow Crown for best Shakespeare on screen ever. A fine adaptation, fabulous cast and a production that looks realistic but still feels intimate. And on top of all that, I’ve never seen anything to match the sweep of the four plays in a series.
    that said, I have a lot of other favorites, especially Branagh’s adaptations.


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