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October 27, 2011


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Zeffirelli edged out Polanski?

Glenn Kenny

That was the toughest call, but, yeah.

Michael Adams

I like the Aussie Macbeth better than the Welles or Polanski renditions. It has a sense of fun, though not everything works.

Glenn Kenny

A LOT of people really like the Australian "Macbeth;" for myself, it really grated. I see the Loncraine/MacKellan "Richard III" has its defenders, and that I just don't get at all...

That Fuzzy Bastard

Great as that final death in THRONE OF BLOOD is, the best moment is the night of the poisoning. It helps that Shakespeare provided such solid dramaturgy for it---Macbeth and Lady M in the single bedroom, each exit and entrance signifying another terrible deed. But the visual balance and stillness Kurosawa uses in shooting it, and that incredibly shot of Lady M gliding out of the darkness with the poison, makes it as horrifying as the eternally-spinning ghost in the woods.

And geez, I don't know what that "lot of film buffs" are talking about with regard to Peter Brook's incredible 1971 film of King Lear. It does indeed apply the moderns to Lear, but that's only because they came up with some of the best cinematic solutions to the problems of filming Lear (problems Kurosawa simply avoided by changing the text---a valid option, but not nearly as impressive). Specifically, the "suicide" of Gloucester, which Brook has written about quite insightfully: It's a moment that has to be simultaneously on a mountaintop, on a beach, and on a stage, the kind of multivalent staging that theater does effortlessly but film can't quite pull of, at least, couldn't until Brook did. The whole movie grabs what excited the modernists about Lear---the way it feels less like a drama and more like some kind of horrible ritual slaughter---in a way no other Shakespeare film did (with the exception of Almareyda's interesting experiment). And it's not *that* hard to see---there's a perfectly good Region 2 DVD of it.


I personally would have included one of Grigori Kozintsev's adaptations - preferably his version of "King Lear" - but I otherwise think the "best adaptations" list is pretty much spot-on (I haven't seen enough of the "worst" to really have an opinion about it, other than to say that the few that I have seen do deserve to be there.)

David Ehrenstein

Polanski's rendition of "The Scottish Play" is wildly underrated. Franco Zefferelli is a tedious hack with a taste for codpieces and a very occasional attack of competence (eg. "Tea With Mussolini" where he was obviously inspired by the presence of Cher.) History will mark him as Visconti's least-interesting boyfriend -- and little more.

Welles' Shakespeare films are all excellent, especially "Chimes at Midnight." Gus' semi-remake "My Own Private Idaho" ain't bad either.

And speakign of queer Shakespeare Derek Jarman's "The Angelic Conversation" (with Judi Dench reading the sonnets) and "The Tempest" are first rate


Yeah, was hoping Polanski's "Macbeth" would be on there

Glenn Kenny

What was kind of gratifying to me in the course of researching this was concluding that there's actually a lot more good Shakespeare on film than bad, and that to come up with a ten-worst list I had to kind of stretch the definition to include something that wasn't necessarily bad per se but could be argued to be near-fatally dated. No overall Zefferelli fan myself (although I really do dig his staging of "Don Giovanni," gotta say), I still insist that his "R&J" was something of a significant breakthrough in the genre, and while I agree with the panelists here that the Polanski "Macbeth" is both very good and underrated, I kinda felt I had to award the Zefferelli on account of zeitgeist pertinence and stuff.


1st time commenter here -
am I a complete internet dope? How am I missing the Polanski and Zeffirelli entries? Which BTW I both rather like, altho' Zeff's R&J is kinda po' faced in its faithfulness. I 2nd the like for Jarman's TEMPEST - the rock n roll adolescent in me was reminded of Jimmy Page by Prospero's overall look (I know, Byron's stylistic DNA is in there too).
Can't help but proclaim my fondness for the Luhrmann and the Loncraine. I remember seeing the trailer for RICHARD III and my wife and I just losing our shit - "What the hell was that?! That looks so cool!" It seemed to come out of nowhere and on finally watching it we were both thoroughly satisfied. The military history geek in me was also amused to think that Richard was finally defeated by a lack of air power - the kindly uncle who goes against him at the last minute is wearing an RAF uniform.
And for sheer bloody-minded weirdness there's Peter Greenaway's PROSPERO'S BOOKS...


Yes, this is a great list, although I also have a soft spot for "Prospero's Books" and Aki Kaurismaki's "Hamlet Goes Business"...


Oh, THERE"S the Zeffirelli. I am a moron.
Also, too - I remember seeing THRONE OF BLOOD for the first time and the print's english title said "The Legend (Story?)of Cobweb Castle". Does anyone else remember this? Or did I dream it?

David Ehrenstein

David Hockney sat next to me at the press screening of "Prospero's Boos." After about ten minutes he heaved a sigh and walked out. I dutifully sat through it all -- but he had the right idea.


Yes, I happen to love Polanski's MACBETH, as well, not least because when MacBeth gets decapitated, the final act of his body, in the milisecond before it shuts down, is to REACH OUT AND TRY TO CATCH THE HEAD! You won't see that just anywhere.


I feel obliged to speak up on behalf of THE KING IS ALIVE, which remains a big & resonant fave.


Jaime, the Japanese title of THRONE OF BLOOD is SPIDER'S WEB CASTLE, so it is possible you saw it under that title.

That Fuzzy Bastard

Another fan of the Loncraine RICHARD III---much prefer its kinetic nastiness to Olivier's respectable tedium. I loved MacKellan's concept of Richard as less a general than an actor---not only did it make his asides to the audience a delight (especially the tendency to lean into frame at weird angles), it also provides the simplest possible explanation for Richard's villainy, which is that he does it because it's really, really fun. And I think the unfussy approach to the language really works---treating it as dialogue rather than poetry gives it room to breathe. And geez, I'll take Luhrmann's authentically teenage kicks over Zefferelli's pompous gauziness any day, but that may be as generational as a preference for the Z.

@ Jamie: I recently saw THRONE at Film Forum, and I believe the "Legend of Spider Web Castle" was there.


I'll add my weight to the Polanski bandwagon.

Also, there is one television production that I thought was fantastic, and that is the 1973 "Merchant of Venice" with Olivier, Joan Plowright, and Jeremy Brett. I saw it on DVD some years back, and, while low budget, I felt the performances were spot on (as you might imagine with that cast).

I also think I would put Peter Brook's 1971 "King Lear", with Paul Scofield in the lead, above some the entries in this top ten. Dark, cold, and bracing.


I'll also speak up for the Loncraine Richard III and the Brooks Lear. I've never seen any of the Russian Shakespeares. Did they nearly make it. By the Way Robin Williams plays Osric, not a gravedigger, in the Branagh Hamlet.


No mention by anyone, positive or negative, of Godard's bizarrely-cast King Lear? Woody Allen, Molly Ringwald, Burgess Meredith, Normal Mailer, etc?


The Zeffirelli "Romeo and Juliet" was revolutionary in its time, especially the stage version. Shakespeare staging was never the same. The movie is by all accounts considerably weaker and Whiting and Hussey are hopelessly inadequate (Zeffirelli's stage R&J, John Stride and Judi Dench, were young but not so young that they couldn't cope with the verse and the higher emotions.) But as Glenn says it's historically significant.

I would substitute the Polanski Macbeth for Throne of Blood or the Welles version. I miss the poetry - and despite the moments of astonishing visual beauty the whole thing is mostly over the top.

I liked Glenn's inclusion of the Olivier "Hamlet" in the top ten - it hasn't always gotten the respect it deserves, although I don't like having the big speeches in voiceover. I wouldn't say Branagh's Henry V is really superior to Olivier's - it's different, and a better fit for modern viewers, but they both have their strengths and weaknesses.

I would have included in the top ten the Kozintsev Hamlet with Innokenti Smoktunovsky. The ten worst would have included another Hamlet, the Nicol Williamson version. Good God.


Adding that one of the great might-have-beens of Shakespeare movie history is the Olivier "Macbeth" that never got made, because Korda died and Olivier couldn't find another backer. This was reportedly the best Macbeth in anyone's memory, and the failure was a severe blow to Olivier, who really, really wanted to make that film.

Glenn Kenny

I would hardly call any film that helped fuel the Johnny Rotten persona a piece of "respectable tedium," but it takes all kinds...in any event, I'll still insist that the Loncraine is one ostentatious mess, kinetic or not.

I'm not crazy about Brook as a filmmaker. I WISH I liked his stuff better. His vital organs are clearly in the right place, and he gets great casts; but there's alway something about his film work that strikes me as second hand. I KNOW Ron Rosenbaum is crazy about the Brook/Scofield "Lear," and I agree that the performance itself is remarkable, but, but...

I'm not even gonna bother rolling my eyes at the "generational preference" supposition. I can agree that Luhrmann's "R+J" conveyed "teenage kicks." My problem is that that's about ALL he conveyed. You know, in THEORY, John Leguizamo as Tybalt is a DYNAMITE idea. In practice, the film is sound and fury and over-overplaying. The Zefferelli to me struck an engaging balance between textual fidelity and eye candy. I think it's his best film in a walk.

The Godard "Lear" was CONCEIVED as an adaptation of the play, and instead wound up a science-fiction story about a descendant of William Shakespeare searching for evidence of the Bard's work after a post Chernoobyl apocalypse and finding real-life (sort of) figures who speak as Lear and his daughter did. Also Woody Allen editing film with sewing needles and reciting a "Lear" monologue. A great film, but not really something you want to recommend to people who are likely looking for something like one of the plays made into a movie.

Glenn Kenny

Also: Yeah, that Kozintsev "Hamlet" is pretty nuts. But to give you an idea of just how limiting the restriction of ten for the best list was, I didn't even get to put the Welles "Macbeth," which I adore, on there.


- the film is sound and fury and over-overplaying -

Heh - you've got a certain facet of my taste to a T. I sometimes like stuff that's over-heated. I mean, I listen to and dig Jim Steinman and Meat Loaf's BAT OUT HELL un-ironically. The WHOLE album...


'Prospero's Books' is the only Greenaway with repeat value for me (not coincidentally his final collaboration with Michael Nyman before their mutually deleterious Hitchcock-Herrmann-esque split, I believe).


Though I'm also fond of the Brooks Lear, it's admittedly a reductive rendering of the play. Aside from that, I very much agree with both lists, and thank you for keeping in Olivier--I'm still recovering from Dave Kehr's scorched earth NYT denunciation of him as a sub-Ed Wood hack. Doubly tough reading since I quite like Kehr's work. Jonathan Rosenbaum had a point when he said Olivier's Shakespeare films tended to get overrated at their time of release while Welles's were underrated, but I'd like to think there's room for both in the best-of tent.

Hollis Lime

Does "The Bad Sleep Well" count?

Tom Russell

Mark me down as one who vastly prefers Zeferrelli's R&J to Luhrmann's-- the film is gorgeous, sexy, compelling, earthy, and immediate. The costuming, set design, and cinematography are sumptuous joys. And while I'll readily admit the two leads aren't great, Hussey sure is purdy. IIRC, hers are the first breasts I had ever seen on screen, and they were gorgeous. I mean this in the least perverted way possible, without denying the film's definite erotic charge for the eleven-year-old me.

Luhrmann's is obnoxious and overbearing-- like every one of his tiresome, tone-deaf, eye-assaulting films.


The Brook-Scofield Lear is plain bad. Whatever was great in the stage production got lost in translation, a misfortune for Scofield especially since his theater performance was the stuff of legend and virtually none of it got onscreen.

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