Vigorous and bloody, with a backdrop of tanks and television news reports that brings the city of Rome into Europe's complicated 21st century, Ralph Fiennes' screen version of the William Shakespeare tragedy Coriolanus is the latest adaptation that proves how durable the works of the English playwright are in the cinematic age. Shakespeare's output has been filmed since the earliest days of the cinema, and approximately 400 years on from their writing, his plays have accumulated a fascinating body of work that spans the magisterial to the bizarre, the traditional to the almost unrecognisable.
Macbeth (Orson Welles, 1948)
Shakespeare's work were a lifelong obsession for Orson Welles (he was wont to drop favoured monologues into radio productions on a whim), and his productions often became life or death struggles, with Welles undertaking a paid job to earn enough money to film a few more scenes. Macbeth, however, was shot in several weeks, and despite initially negative reviews and dubbing of the Scottish accents Welles had instructed the cast to adopt, it now has a concise dread that's accentuated by the shadowy, allusive lighting. The performances of Welles and Jeannette Nolan as the murderous usurper and his increasingly unhinged wife are exemplary.
Richard III (Laurence Olivier, 1955)
Laurence Olivier was considered the greatest Shakespearian actor of his esteemed generation of British thespians and in his prime he directed and starred in a handful of screen adaptations that made his talents clear. Olivier's wartime Henry V was a valiant raising of spirits, while his Hamlet touched on German Expressionism, but it's his performance as the malignantly ambitious noble who destroys his own family to gain the throne in Richard III that now resonates. Addressing the audience and making them co-conspirators, he delights in his seduction of Lady Anne (Claire Bloom), whose husband and father he previously killed, as the movie's dark intent contrasts with the vibrant colours.
Throne of Blood (Akira Kurosawa, 1957)
Shakespeare's work was a career-long inspiration for the Japanese master, and while the martial thunder of 1985's Ran often draws the most kudos, his best adaptation remains this black-and-white take on Macbeth. With his longtime leading man, Toshiro Mifune, as Washizu, the Japanese feudal commander who murders those above him to claim their positions, and another regular cast member from that era, Isuzu Yamada, as his ambitious wife, the sparse settings (exteriors were shot on Mount Fuji) gave Kurosawa a canvas for the couple's rise and fall – and, yes, those are real arrows being fired at Mifune in Washizu's final scene.
Othello (Ted Lange, 1989)
There are several screen versions of Othello in circulation, from the Orson Welles take in 1952 through to Oliver Parker's effort from 1995 with Laurence Fishburne in the title role and Kenneth Branagh as the duplicitous Iago. But the strangest comes from Ted Lange, the African-American actor who spent 10 years smiling broadly and handling cocktails as Isaac the bartender in the sappy American series The Love Boat. When the show ended, possibly as a showcase after a decade of doing little, Lange financed, directed and starred as the betrayed Moor in his own version of Othello. I haven't seen it (has anyone?), but just knowing it exists is a reminder that Shakespeare is available to all.
Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (Tom Stoppard, 1990)
Shakespeare's plots have been liberally used throughout the history of movies, with his romantic romps and their swapping of identities proving to be an easy foundation for many a Hollywood teen comedy, but the best Shakespearian spin-off is Tom Stoppard's adaptation of his celebrated play about two bit players from Hamlet whose journey to Elsinore castle becomes a blithe existential comedy as they ponder free will and the vagaries of fate. Stoppard was not a natural filmmaker (this is his only feature), but Tim Roth and, particularly, Gary Oldman make fine comic leads.
My Own Private Idaho (Gus Van Sant, 1992)
Inspired by several connected works by Shakespeare, including Henry IV, Part 1 and Henry V, Gus Van Sant's story of two male street hustlers in grungy Portland uses the story of the privileged but irresponsible Prince Hal and his roguish older mentor that he ultimately rejects, Falstaff, as inspiration. Episodic and tinged with hallucinatory asides, the movie has Keanu Reeves as the slumming Scott, a touchingly vulnerable River Phoenix as his best friend Mike, and William Richert as the ageing Bob.
Much Ado About Nothing (Kenneth Branagh, 1993)
This is not the finest screen adaptation of Shakespeare's work, nor does it compare to director Kenneth Branagh's epic 1996 staging of Hamlet, but it is indicative of a trend that's become increasingly common over the last two decades: movie stars basking in the reflected glory of the Bard. This sun-drenched Tuscan comedy, with Branagh and then partner Emma Thompson assuredly in the centre, also boasts performances from Denzel Washington and Keanu Reeves (as brothers no less). Both acquit themselves well, but subsequent efforts such as Branagh's Love's Labour's Lost in 2000, would prove that Alicia Silverstone and Shakespeare do not mix.
Romeo + Juliet (Baz Luhrmann, 1996)
With Latin-infused imagery and a feel for melodrama that could play to an MTV-savvy audience, Baz Luhrmann made his mark internationally with this handsome, liberty taking update of the two star-crossed young lovers from Verona. Luhrmann's take on the theatrical embraces camp, but the overt editing style of Moulin Rouge had not yet taken hold and he cast the two leads exceptionally well: Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio understood that not were their characters in love, they were in love with the idea of being in love.