There are moments when I wonder why there’s no (or none that I can see) Shakespeare fandom anywhere on the internet. I guess people get traumatized by it in high school and decide they never want to return to it ever again, which is sad.
Shakespeare deserves a fandom.
And so I am here to take you calmly by the hand and encourage you that you need to organize a Shakespeare movie night with your friends. And before you say, “Nobody does that!” know that I’ve lived in two countries and I’ve totally had multiple Shakespeare movie nights with different groups of friends. So it’s totally a thing. And before you say, “But Shakespeare’s hard to understand!” know that it’s not really that hard. It’s different because a lot of the in-jokes (the Elizabethan memes, if you will) fly over our heads, but the dialogue isn’t actually that crazy. Characters over-explain everything, repeat themselves, say exactly what they’re feeling, and use strings of metaphors just in case the first metaphor wasn’t good enough.
There are also TONS of dick jokes.
And puns. SO. MANY. PUNS.
Yes, even in the serious plays.
Remember that Shakespeare’s primary audience were the illiterate rabble in the pit of the Globe theater. He threw in lofty stuff to make the occasional visiting noble (or the Queen) happy, but other than that, this was super accessible, crowd-pleasing stuff. So fear not!
I will even make things easier with a few recommendations for your movie night.
Let’s start a cultural trend, folks!
A good place to start is the comedies.
Much Ado About Nothing is marvelous. It’s completely hilarious and super easy to follow. Kenneth Branagh’s version is probably the gold standard.
It’s pretty, ridiculous (in a good way), and has a scene with a folding deck chair that is pretty giggle-inducing. ALSO! Michael Keaton as the clueless Dogberry.
If the Renaissance setting has you meh-ed out, there’s also Joss Whedon’s brilliant version that he literally slapped together at his house with his friends while filming The Avengers.
It’s clever, sexy, and filled with actors from literally everything Joss Whedon has ever done. Dogberry in this version is played by Nathan Fillion who’s just so earnest and clueless and adorable you just want to hug him and tell him he’s dumb, but it’s OK.
ALSO! This version makes Hero and Claudio genuinely interesting and able to compete with the AMAZING SASS EXPLOSION that is Beatrice and Benedick.
Another comedic must is A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Because who doesn’t love faeries, RELATIONSHIP DRAMA, and ineptly-used magic?
There’s a few versions out there, but the 1999 version with Stanley Tucci, Christian Bale, Calista Flockhart, Michelle Pfeiffer, Kevin Kline, (*stops to take a breath*) Rupert Everett, Dominic West, Sophie Marceau, and Sam Rockwell is a DELIGHT. Ignore the critics that said it was fluffy and silly. It’s SUPPOSED to be fluffy and silly. That’s kind of the point…
Literally everything is sparkly and magical and ridiculous and I swear you’ll enjoy it. It also helps if everyone is a bit tipsy and giggly, so be sure to serve booze with this movie.
Now, if fun and giggles aren’t your thing, maybe blood and guts are more to your liking?
I got you.
If you only want SOME blood and guts and also some comedy and a sprinkling of romance, might I recommend Henry V? This was Kenneth Branagh’s first Shakespeare outing and it’s a good one.
The cast is incredible, the music is amazing, and the fight choreography is pretty intense. Also, few moments in any film ever will ever be as amazing as Derek Jacobi’s first scene as the Chorus who makes the prologue (my favorite thing Shakespeare has ever written) completely gripping and, dare I say it, sexy as hell.
There’s also a pretty fabulous version in The Hollow Crown, a BBC television miniseries that adapts all of the Henry plays. Tom Hiddleston is Henry V and he does a good job of digging into the dark places in the character’s mind. It’s a bit less bombastic, but a lot more psychologically complex.
Another good one is Coriolanus, a Shakespeare tragedy that literally nobody has heard of up until Ralph Fiennes (aka Voldemort) directed and starred in this 2011 adaptation.
It earns its R rating with plenty of brutality, but the acting is also really fantastic and it’s so well done that the Shakespearean dialogue doesn’t feel out of place.
But what about Hamlet!?!?!?
That’s The Big One, right? Well, you have LOTS of options with this one. Kenneth Branagh, of course, has the biggest version, a FULL TEXT adaptation that is bursting with grandiose production design and an incredible cast.
There’s also Franco Zeffirelli’s psychologically twisty version (which I actually like better, even though the critics all hate it). His Hamlet (played by Mel Gibson) is teetering on the edge of actually going crazy, has a REALLY creepy relationship with his mother Gertrude, and he delivers my favorite version of the TBONTB speech down in the catacombs surrounded by crypts. The medieval setting makes everything feel rougher and more claustrophobic. It trims a lot from the script (including, unfortunately a lot of Ophelia), but it doesn’t feel quite as self-important as Branagh’s version.
There’s also, of course, the Laurence Olivier classic from 1948. It looks fabulous and Olivier gives an iconic performance, but it might not be a good intro to Shakespeare Skeptics. Best to show them this movie once you’ve hooked them with more modern productions.
If your taste is more colorful, I have some other recommendations, too!
I would like to introduce Julie Taymor.
If you haven’t heard of her, I’ll just say, The Lion King on Broadway, Across the Universe, Frida, and that Spiderman musical that kept injuring people.
But in terms of Shakespeare, she’s given us two entries!
Titus is a nightmarish (but cool) adaptation of Shakespeare’s first play, Titus Andronicus, a charming story about revenge, murder, and cannibalism! It’s pretty brutal and isn’t really set in any one time period, which is fun. It blends a bunch of different aesthetics which helps to keep the audience more on edge.
There’s also The Tempest, which is less brutal but no less bizarre. Ironically, this is Shakespeare’s last play (I wonder if Taymor planned it that way?). In this version, the wizard Prospero is become Prospera, an exiled witch with plans for revenge. Helen Mirren KILLS it in this role.
Critics didn’t like this version too much, but screw them. It’s crazy pretty and I love the cast. The character of Caliban has always been super problematic anyways, but this version does a decent job of at least humanizing the character (even though the play throws Caliban in with the clowns for most of the story).
Julie Taymor is crazy, but we love her because she does make beautiful films.
Also, if you really want to freak out all your friends and make them NEVER WANT TO HAVE SEX EVER AGAIN, you should show them Prospero’s Books, an adaptation of The Tempest that has SO MUCH NUDITY it’s actually hilarious. I mean, in one scene, there is literally just HORDES of naked people wandering around. A college professor subjected our class to this movie (and she specifically chose the scene with the maximum amount of nudity) and I think it traumatized everyone. I’ve never seen so many breasts and penises in a movie that wasn’t intended to get people’s rocks off. So, be sure to get everyone drunk before you watch it.
At the risk of this post getting insanely long, I’ll conclude with (you thought I’d forgotten it, didn’t you?) Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet.
Stop groaning, it’s OK to admit you loved this movie. I know Franco Zeffirelli’s version is probably the “better” version because critics like it better…
…but I don’t even care. Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes are EVERYTHING.
The music is amazing, the sets are insane, the costumes are ridiculous, and YOU KNOW WHAT? I love everything about it. It’s funny. It’s tragic. It’s fun.
Other good ones are the 2004 version of The Merchant of Venice with Al Pacino, the 1995 version of Richard III with Ian McKellan, the super brutal version of Macbeth from 1971 (which I think Roman Polanski directed??), the 1995 Othello with Laurence Fishburne, and, of course, She’s the Man starring Amanda Bynes and Channing Tatum. There’s not one word from the original script of Twelfth Night anywhere to be found in this movie, but dammit if I don’t love it obsessively.
Also, it’s not a Shakespeare adaptation, but Stage Beauty from 2004 features the BEST version of Othello and Desdemona’s climactic scene I’ve ever seen. It’s set in the 1700s when women still couldn’t be on stage, and features some fantastic acting. Shakespeare in Love is another good one, too, though I’ve heard from so many English professors that they loathe and despise that movie because reasons. But Stage Beauty is DEFINITELY worth seeing just for that last scene.
So start up a Shakespeare movie night, you guys! It’s important! I expect to see Tumblr filled with the burgeoning Shakespeare fandom very soon. Do it.
And to quote Oberon:
Make no stay
Meet me all by break of day.
*disappears in a puff of glitter*