By Matt Singer | Criticwire June 3, 2013 at 10:02AM
Every week, Criticwire asks film critics a question and brings you their responses in The Criticwire Survey. We also ask each member of the poll to pick the best film currently playing in theaters. The most popular choices can be found at the bottom of this post. But first, this week's question:
Q: In honor of this week's "Much Ado About Nothing," what's the best cinematic adaptation of a play by William Shakespeare?
The critics' responses:
"Call me Adam Kempenaar because I'm going with Kenneth Branagh's 'Henry V.' I greatly respect the director's mission of bringing Shakespeare to the modern masses, though he did so well his first time out that his subsequent adaptations feel minor by comparison."
"Julie Taymor's 'Titus.' I've seen more Shakespearian adaptations than I can count, yet 'Titus' still managed to make the comfortably familiar seem fresh and new. It was a crazy and wonderful mix of art and pulp, and as an added bonus, it was great to see some cinematic love given to something other than 'Romeo' and 'Hamlet.'"
"Two titans of cinema battle it out for my choice. I can't quite decide between Jean-Luc Godard's 'King Lear' and Orson Welles' 'Chimes At Midnight.' In many ways both filmmakers are kindred spirits of Shakespeare. Like the Bard, both have reinvented and reworked the language of their chosen mediums, with Godard's ability to recontextualize a work into the contemporary now of his film's production (eat your heart out, Baz) as impressive a feat as Welles awe-inspiringly ambitious amalgamation of no less than five separate Shakespeare plays. Choosing between the two is somewhat akin to pulling teeth."
"You can't go wrong with Olivier or Branagh (seriously, even 'Love's Labour's Lost' is at least an intriguing experiment), by if you're asking for my favorites, it's going to be a tie: Richard Loncraine's 'Richard III' and Al Pacino's 'Looking for Richard.' Loncraine's film, co-adapted by and starring Sir Ian McKellan, is a faithful and striking production of the historical tragedy, resetting the events in a strange fascist alternate reality. It's a little like Julie Taymor's 'Titus' except it actually seems plausible, and McKellan has never been better onscreen. And if that's too dense for you, 'Looking for Richard' is kind of like the movie version of an annotated Shakespeare publication. Al Pacino stars in and directs an adaptation of 'Richard III,' while simultaneously presenting a documentary about the original author, storyline, and importance of the play throughout the centuries. Loncraine's movie was made for Shakespeare buffs. Pacino's movie was made to make Shakespeare buffs."
"I'm gonna be That Guy and separate the comedies, tragedies, and histories, because I come from the theatre and that's how we do. Comedy: 'Kiss Me, Kate,' which still rules. Tragedy: Zefferelli's 'Romeo and Juliet' (honorable mention to Kurasawa's 'Throne of Blood,' based on the Scottish play, and Godard's 'King Lear,' which is essential). History: 'My Own Private Idaho' (which is not, contrary to popular belief, a gay 'Henry IV, Part One,' 'Henry IV, Part One' WAS the gay 'Henry IV, Part One;' in a related note, honorable mention to Ian McKellen's 'Richard III.') Ah, Shakespeare. You can't pick just one; that goes for plays as well as creative approaches."
"'She's the Man.'"
"I like Polanski's 'Macbeth' because of all the nudity."
"I think straight Shakespeare should be done on the stage, but I have a real soft spot for modernized takes on his plays, even the bad ones like 'Big Business' (Midler and Tomlin and Midler and Tomlin!) and 'She’s the Man' (sad to watch now as Bynes does display talent here). I also love what Julie Taymor did with 'Titus' visually. I think the Bard would have liked people updating his works in different ways, just as he updated others’. But for me the most interesting Shakespeare movie is Al Pacino’s 'Looking for Richard.' Part cinematic treatment of 'Richard III,' part documentary about filming and performing the play, part visual CliffsNotes on the text, it’s both entertaining and educational. I’d watch it over Olivier’s version any day."
"Roman Polanski's 'Macbeth.' This 1971 piece is as out-there of a Shakespeare adaptation that exists. The mood is unlike any other, it is psychotic and fatalistic. The people in it speak Shakespeare's words as if they are possessed by something anti-social and sinister. They don't have any redeemable humanity to them. This is a hopeless tale of shapeless, rapacious people incapable of civility. The Lady herself doesn't have a shred of decency. It's the one that I would call a masterpiece."
"'Chimes at Midnight.'"
"'The Lion King.' Probably one of the more expected answers in this survey but the spin Disney put on 'Hamlet' made for such a charming and memorable experience it felt wholly original. It was also the product of a perfect storm of creative teams so much so that the result transcended the source material and helped make it the beloved and iconic film it is today."
"Often, the best Shakespeare adaptations are loose, like Kurosawa's, but the single best film would probably be Orson Welles' 'Othello.' All of his Shakespeare movies brilliantly translate the language of the text and the syntax of the stage onto film. Few screen actors understand the rhythm and drama of Shakespeare's words like Welles, and the lighting, deep focus and framing of 'Othello' use the attributes of cinema to convey the tensions of the language. Welles was a master of both the stage and screen, but only because he understood the unique strengths of each medium."
"OK, I know some smarty-pants is probably going to make a case for Godard's 'King Lear' (I movie I enjoy, don't get me wrong), but I'll play a little closer to the vest. Of course, there are so many loose adaptations on top of the plethora of ones that actually maintain the author's original language ('the author' being Shakespeare or Christopher Marley or Francis Bacon or whichever theory you choose to believe) that I'll pick an Iambic Pentameter best and a Non-Iambic Pentameter best. For NIP, I'll go with the glorious 'West Side Story,' and for IP, even though it's recent, I gotta vote for the Sir Ian McKellen 'Richard III,' which gave me chills and made a 20th century spin on the material feel completely right and appropriate. And since we're talking about it, let me give a little plug for Kenneth Branagh's 'Love's Labour's Lost,' which never gets its due but works as a lovely screwball romantic musical with some wartime tear-jerking thrown in for good measure (for measure)."
"I'd like to spread the word about an adaptation that probably very few of the readers of Criticwire have heard of: 'The Journey to Melonia,' which is a Swedish animated fantasy adventure film from 1989, loosely based on 'The Tempest' (with a little bit of additional inspiration from 'Oliver Twist' and 'Propeller Island' by Jules Verne). It's charming, imaginative and beautiful and a lovely introduction to the world of Shakespeare for beginners -- young and old."
"While not technically a Shakespeare property, I think that 'Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead' should probably be in this conversation. That film manages to capture the spirit of Shakespeare and why his plays are so difficult to adapt to the screen. And it'll make you giggle a bit."
"While I'd like to give a clever response in which I declare that some Alan Arkin comedy from the 1970s is actually a loose adaptation of a Bard classic (and I'm the only one who knows it!) Orson Welles' 'Othello' is really freaking fantastic."
"Michael Almereyda's 2000 version of 'Hamlet' is by no means the 'best' of all Shakespeare screen adaptations, but it's amongst the most bold of the reinventions. It transposes the intrigue of the Bard's Denmark to a pre-meltdown Wall Street, where Denmark Corp. plies dark financial waters. Ethan Hawke makes for a curious but involving Hamlet, a ski-hatted slacker delivering his 'To be or not to be' speech in a Blockbuster Video store. This 'Hamlet' also boasts a rare dramatic turn by Bill Murray, who does a Polonious of world-weary truth, and don't miss Jeffrey Wright as the gravedigger, singing Dylan's 'All Along The Watchtower.' Princes kept the view, indeed."
"Probably Olivier's adaptations. But I remember being a fan of the Ethan Hawke 'Hamlet.' Mostly because the famous soliloquy was delivered in a Blockbuster. Also Kyle MacLachlan was in it and that's a plus."
"There are three non-direct adaptations I adore: 'Throne of Blood' ('MacBeth'), 'Ran' ('King Lear') and 'My Own Private Idaho' ('Henry IV/V'). But 'Henry V' is my favorite Shakespeare, and watching Kenneth Branagh's adaptation as a senior in high school was a big reason why I became an English major, and encouraged my budding love of cinema."
"I care not if Shakespeare is performed in iambic pentameter in period costume or modern dress, as I can appreciate 'Henry V' and '10 Things I Hate About You.' (Though not Mel Gibson's 'Hamlet' and Baz Lurhman's 'Romeo + Juliet'). But for me, the best Shakespeare film is Akira Kurosawa's 'Ran,' a re-imagining of 'King Lear,' though I also have a fondness for Mazursky's 'Tempest' from when I was young."
"Kurosawa's 'Throne of Blood:' instead of putting the text on screen, puts Shakespeare's language into images."
"Note for note, I think Kenneth Branagh's 'Henry V' can't be beat. It is almost remarkable that this assured, bold and exhilarating production marks Branagh's directorial debut, but never fear, the stunning understanding of the work, as well as what makes for must-see contemporary entertainment leaves us, often, astonished. Stepping into the roles, as director and the young King, that Olivier made his own, Branagh not only established himself as an artist to be reckoned with back in 1989, but brought several British co-stars along for the ride as well. It is great fun to see veterans such as Derek Jacobi, Paul Scofield, and Ian Holm slip so comfortably into the Bard's historical drama; audiences today will also get a kick out of seeing the now popular Judi Dench, Emma Thompson, a wonderful Robbie Coltrane, as well as a young Christian Bale, too."
"With deep respect to Messers Olivier and Kurasawa, I choose Orson Welles' 'Chimes at Midnight,' for its wit, its loosey-goosey feel, its patchwork history, its rarity, its oddness, its cheek, and more. I haven't seen it for decades but bits of it still rise in my mind from time to time. A treasure."
"'Leonard, Part 6.' Or, to be serious, 'Looking for Richard,' the first of two docu-dramas conceived and directed by Al Pacino. Part staging of 'Richard III,' part interview series about why actors and directors want to perform Shakespeare. It holds up in an awkward manner as Pacino seems to enjoy filming himself filming performances as he does opening the film by arguing who should say 'action.' But it delves into weird territory -- Pacino goes to where Shakespeare was born, uses the title card 'THE BIRTHPLACE OF SHAKESPEARE.' It also is one of the most self-indulgent, roundabout ways to treat the works of Shakespeare, so of course it premiered at Sundance and then Un Certain Regard in '96."
"Based purely on my enjoyment of the film, I'll go slightly lowbrow with my choice and pick '10 Things I Hate About You.' It's one of the few adaptations that have successfully been able to keep the essence of the Shakespeare play (in this case 'The Taming of the Shrew') while opening things up and modernizing the story in a way that doesn't reduce the quality of the story being told. It's honestly an easy pick for me."
"Jean-Luc Godard's 'King Lear,' which also happens to be the best movie ever made."
"Surely, the correct answer to this question is 2001's 'Get Over It,' which reimagined 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' as a teen comedy. The cast included Kirsten Dunst, Ben Foster, Mila Kunis, and Sisqo. (Sisqo, ladies and gentlemen! Sisqo!) 'Get Over It' was also able to include many things that improved vastly on Shakespeare's work, such as a musical number set to a Captain & Tennille song, Carmen Electra as a dominatrix, and a dog that comically humps everything in sight. Oh, who am I kidding? That movie sucks. But you know what movie's pretty good? 'Forbidden Planet,' which owes a debt or two to 'The Tempest.'"
"My favorite cinematic adaptation of a Shakespearean play would be the 1961 'West Side Story.' Instead of the aristocratic, wealthy Capulets and Montagues in Verona, 'West Side Story' was set in the working class neighborhood of the East 40s and West 50s of the Upper West Side in New York City with the Puerto Rican gang of the Sharks against the Polish gang of the Jets. Instead of Romeo and Juliet, the young star-crossed lovers were Tony (Richard Beymer) and Maria (Natalie Wood). The book by Arthur Laurents was elevated by the music of Leonard Bernstein and the lyrics of Stephen Sondheim. Jerome Robbins directed and choreographed the original 1957 Broadway production and was brought on to direct the musical and dance sequences as well as choreograph the movie, working with director Robert Wise. Robbins was fired by the movie production company with his assistants handling the rest of the dance numbers that Robbins' hadn't completed. Robbins and Wise shared the Oscar for Best Director. The movie won 10 Oscars in all, including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor (George Chikiris) and Best Supporting Actress (Rita Moreno). The score includes some memorable melodies from Broadway including 'America,' 'Tonight' and 'Cool.' The dance sequences brought a youthful edge and gritty darkness to the musical. While director Franco Zeffirelli brought gorgeous costumes and youthful innocence to his more traditional 1968 'Romeo and Juliet' and Baz Luhrmann had over-the-top dramatics in his modernized 1996 version that traded guns for swords in his 'Romeo + Juliet,' 'West Side Story' pushed both Shakespeare, cinema and the American musical forward into new territory while maintaining a poignant emotional core. By touching on race instead of a feudal feud, 'West Side Story' touched on a social problem that still plagues America today as we saw with the recent Cheerios commercial incident on YouTube and Facebook."
"'A Midsummer Night's Dream' is one of the hardest plays to full off convincingly, but Peter Hall did it in his 1968 version. The outstanding cast includes a pre-villainous David Warner as Lysander, Ian Holm as Puck, Diana Rigg as Helena, Helen Mirren as Hermia, Judi Dench as Titania -- just queue it up in Netflix already, and hope somebody finds a better print to transfer."
"Grigori Kosintsev was a theater director in Russia who mounted Shakespeare plays throughout his long life. But his Shakespeare movies are among the most cinematic Bard movies. (He was also a film director, who worked sporadically over five decades, starting in the silents.) His 'Hamlet,' from 1964, puts most of the soliloquies on the narration track as Hamlet et al. wander about some truly astounding seaside locations. His 1971 'King Lear' is even better. The guy playing Lear wasn't even speaking. His was chosen because of his distinctive look that oozed pomposity. (His voice was actually dubbed over by another, actual Shakespearean.) 'Ran' is great, but it has nothing on this one's nigh-post-apocalyptic wastelands photographed in grimy, cinemascope B&W, and which gradually delves into full-tilt madness as its protagonist does the same."
"I'm going to go ahead and take the high road on this one and go straight the world of Akira Kurosawa with his film 'Ran.' I adore 'Ran,' there's something about the setting as well as Kurosawa's stark colors that makes it work so well."
"'Forbidden Planet.' And possibly 'Tromeo and Juliet.'"
"While certainly not the most faithful adaptation of William Shakespeare's work, Richard Loncraine's 'Richard III' is my favorite but Kenneth Branagh's 'Hamlet' comes in a very close second."
"I suppose it's fitting, considering the inspiration of this week's survey, but I'm going with Kenneth Branagh's version of 'Much Ado About Nothing.' Branagh brings a blend of lightness and swooning romance to Shakespeare's comedy, a tone that remains far more memorable than the eyebrow-raising choice to cast Keanu Reeves (who's got talent, but does seem a bit out of his depth next to people like Emma Thompson). And Branagh's chemistry with Thompson is so delightful, it vaults this movie to the top for me."
"If we're being honest for a second, the Shakespeare adaptation I go to for repeat viewings is Baz Luhrmann's 'Romeo + Juliet.' I know it's cheesy at times, but it's also beautifully shot and originally directed. If I'm sticking with the straight-up best adaptation of a Shakespeare play into a film, I'll go with Akira Kurosawa's 'Ran,' which was 'King Lear' in a Japanese setting. It's a fantastic film, with a great mix of original elements and nods to Shakespeare's original work."
"'Chimes at Midnight.'"
"I don't think there's an obvious choice when considering straight-up adaptations although I keep coming to back to seeing Olivier's 'Hamlet' at a young age and how I credit that film for a lot of my love for Shakespeare and theater in the first place. For the literal adaptations, that's my personal pick. If we're including adaptations that take a little license, Akira Kurosawa's variation on 'King Lear' in 'Ran' is a masterpiece."
"Considering that Shakespeare was very talky and movies are more of a visual medium, I think the looser adaptations fare better, and among those you can't beat Kurosawa's 'Throne of Blood.'"
"Paul Mazursky's 'Tempest' with John Cassavetes as Prospero, who, in this case, is a disgruntled New York architect in search of a new life on a Greek island. Raul Julia plays Kalibanos, who dances with goats and steals the show. Molly Ringwald as daughter Miranda, Susan Sarandon, and Gena Rowlands all give spirited performances in this perfect summertime Shakespeare treat. In my conversation 'Shakespeare at Play' with 'Viola' director Matías Pineiro, he agreed. 'Yes, that's a good one. The Paul Mazursky ['Tempest']. He is attached to the text but not in a way that becomes stale, that it becomes television.'"
"Kenneth Branagh's 'Hamlet' is without doubt the best cinematic adaptation of a Shakespeare play. It's pretty much the only movie (that I can think of) that used an unabridged source and it ran boldly away from the gloomy gothic aesthetics that had defined Hamlet up until that point. Instead of emphasizing the shadows as Zeffirelli did in his almost Python-esque 1990 flick, Branagh turned all the lights on and recast Elsinore as a dizzying hall of one-way mirrors. So much of 'Hamlet' is about outward appearances, inward turmoil, and spying, and this seemingly arbitrary change in the mise-en-scene allowed this thematic undercurrent to be placed front and center. Hamlet's 'to be or not to be' soliloquy transforms from a suicidal contemplation to a challenge; Hamlet knows that Claudius is eavesdropping and this most famous of speeches suddenly takes on a new element. Even with the whole of Shakespeare's original text replicated in his script, Branagh manages to find fresh interpretations through his cinematic style -- meaning that this adaptation is both rigidly faithful and daringly exegetic (for example, unlike Shakespeare, Branagh shows through flashbacks that Ophelia and Hamlet have had a consummated relationship, which -- again -- alters the dynamic of the play). Chock full of cameos -- including some unexpected faces (Robin Williams and Billy Crystal doing Shakespeare? It works, trust me.) -- 'Hamlet' boasts probably the finest screen ensemble this side of 'Glengarry Glen Ross.' Second prize goes to Oliver Parker's 'Othello' which goes in exactly the opposite direction as Branagh's 'Hamlet;' where Branagh treats Shakespeare with love and utter devotion, Parker approaches the Bard with an oversized pair of hedge-cutters and delivers a tight reproduction of the play, even if it does sacrifice some of the text's subtextual brilliance."
"I'm out of my league when it comes to Shakespeare or adaptations of Shakespeare. The last time I picked up one of his plays was about 10 years ago, and it was for a class I took my senior year of high school. Still, there is one adaptation that sticks out to me -- Kenneth Branagh's 'Henry V.' It goes without saying that the story was good (it was Shakespeare, after all), but what really grabbed me was the way it mixed history with the anachronistic trappings of filmmaking -- enormous lights, the unfinished space of a sound stage, and Derek Jacobi as our guide, dressed modernly in a black overcoat. Branagh does this more than once during the film, but the clash of old and new is the most striking at the beginning. Beyond this, I can't say whether I'd recommend it, only that I was intrigued enough by Branagh's formal choices to stick around for the rest of it."
"I'm partial to Kenneth Branagh's 'Henry V,' with an honorable mention to '10 Things I Hate About You.' Honestly, I was trying to find ways to turn this answer into a discussion of the bizarre, ludicrous Jet Li movie 'Romeo Must Die,' but it didn't work out."
"The best Shakespeare adaptation is Julie Taymor's 'Titus.' She takes one of the more problematic texts and makes it cinematic and striking."
"Roman Polanski's 'Macbeth.'"
The Best Movie Currently In Theaters on June 3rd, 2013:
The Most Popular Response: "Before Midnight"
Other Titles Receiving Multiple Votes: "Frances Ha," "Fast & Furious 6," "Stories We Tell," "The Place Beyond the Pines," "Something in the Air," "Upstream Color."