There’s a reason William Shakespeare still has more name recognition than any It Girl, even at the ripe old age of 450. His tales have everything: forbidden romance, kings and queens mad with power, young men exploding with jealousy, sibling rivalry, women fighting for equal rights, and even a profound statement on suicide — or several.
Even if your only knowledge of
Hamlet on film is thanks to Cher Horowitz’s affection for Mel Gibson’s '90s-era hotness in Clueless, it’s worth exploring all the best examples of Shakespeare on the big screen. With rankings, of course. Mel may have been hot back in the day, but we vastly prefer Leonardo DiCaprio moving heaven and earth to get to Claire Danes in Romeo + Juliet.
It’s also nice to know that centuries-old literature doesn’t have to be boring (put down those Cliff's Notes). Take Joss Whedon’s 2012 fresh take on
Much Ado About Nothing, or the modern-day depiction of Hamlet in 2000, set in New York, with Ethan Hawke reciting the “To be, or not to be” speech in a Blockbuster Video (RIP).
Find out where your favorite ranks on our list!
18. (2001) Get Over It
The good news? Kirsten Dunst! Sutton Foster! The bad news? Just about everything else, including Sisqo's acting debut as, well, a guy named Dennis who can sing.
This admirable attempt to modernize
A Midsummer Night's Dream fell flat, and felt cheesy. Especially after the climactic duet between Sisqo and Vitamin C. Moviestore Collection/Rex/REX USA More
17. (2006) She's The Man
Just discussing this movie makes us sad, because we're reminded of Amanda Bynes' career before it took a nosedive. Despite our love for mid-aughts Amanda, nothing can save this take on
Twelfth Night, set at a boys' boarding school.
Not even Channing Tatum's abs.
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16. (2006) Macbeth
This mid-aughts flick starred a pre-fame, pre-
Avatar Sam Worthington as an MTV-era, nightclub-dwelling Macbeth. But, too many guns, car crashes, and flashy fights made the production more music video than masterpiece. Arclight/Everett/REX USA More
15. (1995) Othello
Kenneth Branagh, as always, is brilliant in his role as Iago. Whenever he plays a part in a Shakespeare adaptation, he's thrilling to watch. But, we couldn't get past Laurence Fishburne's aggressive portrayal as Othello, or Swedish actress Irene Jacob's take on Desdemona. She was so difficult to understand!
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14: (1989) Henry V
Worth watching for young Christian Bale alone, this war-torn, literal adaption was Kenneth Branagh's directorial debut. And, he has clearly always been fluent in Shakespeare.
Sadly, we found it hard to connect to the movie emotionally. We remember reading the play in high school, and secretly wishing we could be graded on our passionate
Romeo and Juliet fan fiction instead. S. Goldwyn/Everett/REX USA More
13. (1990) Hamlet
Ah, the passion of the Mel. That's exactly what
Hamlet is all about: passion, agony, anger, doubt. But, the performances in this version were a bit on the campy side. Moviestore Collection/Rex/REX USA More
12. Scotland, PA(2001)
This imaginative flick transposes the Scottish drama
Macbeth into a small town in 1970s Pennsylvania. An unambitious Joe McBeth would be perfectly content with his job at a fast food joint, were it not for his wife's schemes for taking over the business. They start a plan to usurp Norm from the business.
If you've read
Macbeth, though, you'll know that most people don't have the stomach for such drastic ambition. More
11. (1993) Much Ado About Nothing
This is Branagh's second stab at directing Shakespeare. This time, however, he tackled a comedy. Since this is one of Shakespeare's most popular works, it's just a joy to watch, no matter who directed it. But, this version has Keanu Reeves
and Denzel Washington! Everett Collection/REX USA More
(1985) 10. Ran
Akira Kurosawa's Japanese epic about a king and his three sons has roots in Shakespeare's
King Lear. Aging 16th century warlord declares he's to divide his kingdom between his three sons, after each lavishes him with compliments. The king falls prey to the two eldest sons' unfounded flattery, and makes the mistake of banishing the youngest — but most genuine — son. After this error of judgment, his kingdom collapses. More
9. (1996) Hamlet
What do you know? Another Shakespeare/Kenneth Branagh collaboration. Fortunately, this version has a lot more substance than Mel Gibson's prior effort.
Of course, there's just one, teeny, tiny problem with this movie: It's four hours long.
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8. (2001) O
This is the moment Josh Hartnett, with his dark eyes and permanent cool-guy demeanor, became a force in Hollywood. Plus, the adaptation was set in a private school, and Othello (Mekhi Phifer), is a star basketball player. We'd be intrigued even if this wasn't based on Shakespeare.
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7. (2000) Hamlet
Ethan Hawke, in his beanie hat and flannel shirt, represents the very best of '90s style. But, that's not why this is our favorite
In this modern day retelling, Denmark is actually a huge Fortune 500 company run by Hamlet's uncle (Kyle McLachlan). Hamlet broods, he gets paranoid, his dead father appears in the reflection of a Pepsi machine, and everyone is wearing cool sunglasses. Plus, Mel Gibson is nowhere to be seen.
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6. (2013) Warm Bodies
Yes, we know this one is a stretch, but the Shakespeare DNA is alive and well in this surprisingly fun and romantic zombie thriller. Nicholas Hoult is named "R," while his star-crossed beloved Teresa Palmer is named Julie. One's a zombie; one's alive. Her dad hates him. The world tries to tear them apart.
Fine, so it's not a literal adaptation. But, it's still great!
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5. (2012) Much Ado About Nothing
This was pretty much a game-changer in the world of Shakespeare adaptations. Widely praised, this modern day retelling took Shakespeare's words and set them in today's world.
Shot entirely in black and white, director Joss Whedon used unknown actors to create a beautiful piece of art nobody saw. But trust us, the
Avengers writer is hardly hurting for attention. REX USA More
4 (1998) Shakespeare In Love
Instead of adapting another Shakespeare play, director John Madden adapted Shakespeare's life story for this romantic period piece. Perhaps best known today as the film that gave Gwyneth Paltrow her Oscar — and pink princess moment — the movie holds up even 17 years later.
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3. (1999) 10 Things I Hate About You
This is one of those movies that every Millennial has seen hundreds of times. We feel like we've memorized every Julia Stiles line, every teenage hissy fit, and every one of Larisa Oleynik's hair styles.
But, it's Heath Ledger's version of Patrick Verona that stays with us the most. That hair, that accent, and that bright future ahead of him all add up to a bittersweet re-watch. It's worth watching 101 times anyway.
BuenaVist/Everett/REX USA More
2. (1994) The Lion King
Your favorite Disney movie is also our second-favorite Shakespeare adaptation. Like countless kids, we had no idea that Simba was an animated, animal version of
Hamlet. Unlike the original Hamlet, there are songs, boars, and meerkats, of course. But, the core narrative of a rightful heir avenging the death of his father, the king, remains. Courtesy of Disney More
1. (1996) Romeo + Juliet
This was serendipity in its most magical cinematic form. Leonardo DiCaprio was fresh off of
The Basketball Diaries; Claire Danes was every tween's heroine, thanks to My So-Called Life; and director Baz Luhrman's second film was eagerly anticipated by much of the industry.
Our parents — and quite a few critics — didn't get it. We did.
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